About two months ago, I wrote about a new book Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves by Henry Wiencek that shed an unflattering light on Thomas Jefferson’s views on slavery.
Not surprisingly, the book has aroused considerable controversy and a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (behind a paywall, unfortunately) discusses the back-and-forth between critics who think that the book was “written by a man who so loathes Jefferson that he was willing to play fast and loose with historical evidence in order to paint the author of the Declaration of Independence as an avid proponent of slavery” and fans who describe it as “a brilliant examination of a founding father who repeatedly violated the principles he expressed, a book that deftly hammers away at the “evasions, rationalizations, and lies” required to lionize him.”
Now Paul Finkelman, author of the book Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson has weighed in and written a op-ed in the New York Times that takes the criticisms of Jefferson even further, calling him a ” a creepy, brutal hypocrite” and that he was even worse than what Wiencek describes, saying that his claim that Jefferson’s views on slavery hardened only later in life actually let him off easy.
Contrary to Mr. Wiencek’s depiction, Jefferson was always deeply committed to slavery, and even more deeply hostile to the welfare of blacks, slave or free. His proslavery views were shaped not only by money and status but also by his deeply racist views, which he tried to justify through pseudoscience.
But while many of his contemporaries, including George Washington, freed their slaves during and after the revolution — inspired, perhaps, by the words of the Declaration — Jefferson did not.
Rather than encouraging his countrymen to liberate their slaves, he opposed both private manumission and public emancipation.
Nor was Jefferson a particularly kind master. He sometimes punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time. A proponent of humane criminal codes for whites, he advocated harsh, almost barbaric, punishments for slaves and free blacks.
I am well aware of people’s needs for heroes and how we create origins myths that are false. I am not a romantic in thinking that the founders of American were uncommonly superior in their general outlook, although they did do specific things that were highly commendable and had a tremendously positive effect over time. But this controversy still caught me by surprise, revealing an extremely dark side of one of the most revered people in American history.