Historians painting Thomas Jefferson as a "kinder, gentler" slaveholder have been heaping criticism on Henry Wiencek, who asserts in a new book that the founding father was a calculating and cruel master. In a response published by Smithsonian, Wiencek fires back.
This spat began when Smithsonian printed excerpts from Wiencek's new book Master of the Mountain as its November cover story. In these passages, Wiencek cites Jefferson's bookkeeping at Monticello as evidence that he hatched a "4 percent formula," calculating that he made "a 4 percent profit every year on the birth of black children," according to Wiencek. And while other historians have argued that Jefferson sought to reduce corporal punishment against his slaves, Wiencek writes that "Monticello’s young black boys, 'the small ones,' age 10, 11 or 12, were whipped" in the plantation's nail factory under Jefferson's watch.
A flurry of backlash posts arrived shortly after Wiencek's work went live. Jefferson historian Jan Ellen Lewis complained in The Daily Beast of Wiencek's failure to view Jefferson's take on slavery with sufficient complexity. "There’s no paradox for Wiencek," she writes. "His Jefferson is fully on the side of slavery." Another historian, Annette Gordon-Reed, had perhaps the most strongly worded rebuttal to Wiencek. She argued in Slate that Wiencek trumped up evidence that historians have known about for a long time, writing, "The problems with Master of the Mountain are too numerous to allow it to be taken seriously as a book that tells us anything new about Thomas Jefferson and slavery, and what it does say is too often wrong."
In a follow-up now published on Smithsonian's website, Wiencek has been given a chance to respond, and he's coming back swinging. He has particularly sharp retorts for Annette Gordon-Reed. The underlying cause for their disagreement seems to be about whether Jefferson was a "kinder, gentler" slaveholder, as Gordon-Reed put it in her book The Hemingses of Monticello, or whether he had a crueler bent, viewing slaves only in terms of their profitability. In her Slate critique, Gordon-Reed held that, "Jefferson had no '4 percent theorem' or 'formula,'" and that any calculation he might have made along those lines dealt with Virginia farms, not slaves. To which Wiencek quotes a profit memo drafted by Jefferson:
I allow nothing for losses by death, but, on the contrary, shall presently take credit four per cent. per anum, for their increase over and above keeping up their own numbers
"His meaning is perfectly plain," Wiencek writes. Elsewhere, Jefferson suggested to an acquaintance that he "should have been invested in negroes," that "every farthing of it [should be] laid out in land and negroes, which besides a present support bring a silent profit of 5. to 10. per cent in this country by the increase in their value." Maintaining that he was the first historian to extract Jefferson's calculating intentions from these passages, Wiencek fires back:
It is hard to know why Gordon-Reed has insisted that Jefferson "had no epiphany ... that the babies of enslaved women increased his capital."
Academic disagreements occur constantly, but this one has taken on a particularly bitter tone. Gordon-Reed accused Wiencek of dishonestly "cataloging the injustices to the enslaved people as if they had finally, after all these years, found a champion." To which Wiencek has responded:
I have never had the arrogance to regard myself as a champion to the enslaved people, but if an esteemed historian goes around talking about "kinder, gentler" slavery, they surely need one.
But Wiencek doesn't get the last word. Smithsonian also published a new critique from historian Lucia Cinder Stanton, who joins the fray to denounce Wiencek's work. "I am angered by Wiencek's distortion of history as well as disappointed that, with all his talents, he didn't probe still-unexplored corners of the story of Jefferson and slavery," she writes. "He has instead used a blunt instrument to reduce complex historical issues to unrecognizable simplicities." Expect this backlash cycle to ping back and forth for some time. Let's just hope prominent Jefferson authority Glenn Beck doesn't get involved.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.