Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Was Jefferson a Benevolent Slaveholder?

Henry Wiencek, in his new book, Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, argues that Thomas Jefferson, contrary to scholarly opinion, was not a very benevolent slave master.  Instead, Wieneck points to the cruelty and violence of Jefferson's Monticello slave regime.

Read a synopsis (is in an excerpt from the book?) of Wieneck's argument in the October 2012 issue of Smithsonian.

Here is a taste:

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.”