One of the things that happen when you get older is that you realize that everyone, even the people you look up to, has flaws. But it still does not make it easier to deal with the fact that those whom we greatly admire for some things turn out to be quite awful in other respects.
Thomas Jefferson is one such person. While it is well known that he owned slaves to the end, yet his image has in general been quite positive. He has been depicted as a reluctant slaveholder, trapped in a system that he inherited and personally disliked but trying to make the best of a bad situation by being benevolent within those limits.
A new book may change that. In Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, historian Henry Wiencek paints a very dark picture of Jefferson indeed. The person who expressed in soaring words his admirable views on liberty and freedom and the role of government and the separation of church and state turns out to have been reprehensible when it came to slavery, even when measured by the times he lived in.
Wiencek has an essay titled The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson in which he poses a grave challenge to that popular image of Jefferson, and reveals him to be a terrible hypocrite. In fact, unlike George Washington and others of his time, his trajectory took him towards greater support of slavery as he grew older, not less.
Somewhere in a short span of years during the 1780s and into the early 1790s, a transformation came over Jefferson.
The very existence of slavery in the era of the American Revolution presents a paradox, and we have largely been content to leave it at that, since a paradox can offer a comforting state of moral suspended animation. Jefferson animates the paradox. And by looking closely at Monticello, we can see the process by which he rationalized an abomination to the point where an absolute moral reversal was reached and he made slavery fit into America’s national enterprise.
We can be forgiven if we interrogate Jefferson posthumously about slavery. It is not judging him by today’s standards to do so. Many people of his own time, taking Jefferson at his word and seeing him as the embodiment of the country’s highest ideals, appealed to him. When he evaded and rationalized, his admirers were frustrated and mystified; it felt like praying to a stone. The Virginia abolitionist Moncure Conway, noting Jefferson’s enduring reputation as a would-be emancipator, remarked scornfully, “Never did a man achieve more fame for what he did not do.”
What made Jefferson harden his views on slavery later in life? It turns out that in 1792 he did a calculation and discovered that the production of slave children was a good source of steady income that could be quantified.
What Jefferson set out clearly for the first time was that he was making a 4 percent profit every year on the birth of black children. The enslaved were yielding him a bonanza, a perpetual human dividend at compound interest. Jefferson wrote, “I allow nothing for losses by death, but, on the contrary, shall presently take credit four per cent per annum, for their increase over and above keeping up their own numbers.” His plantation was producing inexhaustible human assets. The percentage was predictable.
The date of Jefferson’s calculation aligns with the waning of his emancipationist fervor. Jefferson began to back away from antislavery just around the time he computed the silent profit of the “peculiar institution.”
What is perhaps most shocking is the brutality with which children were treated at Monticello, with beatings and whippings administered regularly by his overseers, especially of those working in the ‘nailery’, a nail factory that he owned.
Throughout Jefferson’s plantation records there runs a thread of indicators—some direct, some oblique, some euphemistic—that the Monticello machine operated on carefully calibrated brutality.
Randolph reported to Jefferson that the nailery was functioning very well because “the small ones” were being whipped. The youngsters did not take willingly to being forced to show up in the icy midwinter hour before dawn at the master’s nail forge. And so the overseer, Gabriel Lilly, was whipping them “for truancy.”
So how did Jefferson’s image get to be so sanitized? Wiencek says that successive authors have airbrushed away the facts, painting an image of Monticello as an oasis of decent treatment of slaves in an era of brutality.
In a 1941 biography of Jefferson for “young adults” (ages 12 to 16) the author wrote: “In this beehive of industry no discord or revilings found entrance: there were no signs of discontent on the black shining faces as they worked under the direction of their master…. The women sang at their tasks and the children old enough to work made nails leisurely, not too overworked for a prank now and then.”
It might seem unfair to mock the misconceptions and sappy prose of “a simpler era,” except that this book, The Way of an Eagle, and hundreds like it, shaped the attitudes of generations of readers about slavery and African-Americans. Time magazine chose it as one of the “important books” of 1941 in the children’s literature category, and it gained a second life in America’s libraries when it was reprinted in 1961 as Thomas Jefferson: Fighter for Freedom and Human Rights.
It was during the 1950s, when historian Edwin Betts was editing one of Colonel Randolph’s plantation reports for Jefferson’s Farm Book, that he confronted a taboo subject and made his fateful deletion. Randolph reported to Jefferson that the nailery was functioning very well because “the small ones” were being whipped. The youngsters did not take willingly to being forced to show up in the icy midwinter hour before dawn at the master’s nail forge. And so the overseer, Gabriel Lilly, was whipping them “for truancy.”
Betts decided that the image of children being beaten at Monticello had to be suppressed, omitting this document from his edition. He had an entirely different image in his head; the introduction to the book declared, “Jefferson came close to creating on his own plantations the ideal rural community.” Betts couldn’t do anything about the original letter, but no one would see it, tucked away in the archives of the Massachusetts Historical Society. The full text did not emerge in print until 2005.
Betts’ omission was important in shaping the scholarly consensus that Jefferson managed his plantations with a lenient hand. Relying on Betts’ editing, the historian Jack McLaughlin noted that Lilly “resorted to the whip during Jefferson’s absence, but Jefferson put a stop to it.”
The essay is well worth reading if depressing. There is no sense in hiding from the truth.