Thursday, October 25, 2012

Wiencek Responds to Jan Lewis

If you were reading this weekend you are aware of my posts (here and here) on the Annette Gordon-Reed and Jan Lewis reviews of Henry Wiencek's Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves.

Wiencek has responded to Lewis in the comments section of her Daily Beast review. Here is the response:

I will ignore the petty twistifications in Jan Ellen Lewis's comments on my book -- the blather about indexes and the unpleasant remark about my eyesight -- and get to the meat.

The problems with her review begin in the first sentence, where she mocks me for writing that Monticello is "literally above the clouds." Perhaps she does not know that it was Jefferson himself who made that observation, in one of his most famous letters: "And our own dear Monticello . . . How sublime to look down into the workhouse of nature, to see her clouds, hail, snow, rain, thunder, all fabricated at our feet!"

Lewis taunts me for writing, "In ways that no one completely understands, Monticello became populated by a number of mixed-race people who looked astonishingly like Thomas Jefferson, and adds, smirking, "Um, I think we have that one figured out." Actually, we don't have it figured out. Jefferson's grandson wrote that not just Sally Hemings but another Hemings woman also had children who clearly resembled Jefferson. Who was that other woman? Who were her children? Who was the father? I've never seen an explanation; if Lewis has seen one I will happily stand corrected. 

Among the "howlers" Lewis claims to have found is my statement that just after the American Revolution "Virginia came close to outlawing the continuation of slavery," and she claims I quoted "some pages in a recent book that say nothing of the sort." In fact I first quote from George Mason's draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights the statement that "all men are equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights, of which they can not by any Compact, deprive or divest their Posterity"; I go on to quote Eva Sheppard Wolf's analysis: "Several Revolutionary-era Virginia laws seemed to signal a shift toward anti-slavery policies that could have led to universal emancipation." (In a passage I didn't quote in my book, Wolf further writes that some historians "see several indications that it was possible to end = American slavery in the late eighteenth century.") I make it clear that this surge of liberal sentiment was short-lived--but it should be noted that Virginia passed a very liberal manumission law in 1782, by which Jefferson could have freed slaves. So there is no "howler."

And now we come to Lewis's incoherent effort to refute the irrefutable -- my verbatim quotation of Jefferson's 1792 calculation that his enslaved population grew at the rate of 4% a year, which yielded a profit for Monticello. She tries to discredit this by quoting a letter he wrote a year later that does not support her argument at all. Lewis is trying to lead us into the weeds. Jefferson said what he said. Lewis does not mention Jefferson's unnerving advice to a neighbor, which I quote in the book, to invest in Negroes because they "bring a silent profit of from 5 to 10 per cent in this country by the increase in their value." Did Jefferson not write that? Or did he write it but
not mean it?

I am pleased that she quotes Jefferson proclaiming, "there is nothing I would not sacrifice to a practicable plan of abolishing every vestige of this moral and political depravity." He said that at least four times, but my point has been to show that nonetheless, he sacrificed nothing to end slavery, even when Kosciuszko left him a bequest of some $20,000 to enable Jefferson to free his slaves. Lewis does not mention that uncomfortable story.

Lewis's loudest condemnation of my book is that there is nothing new in it, that she and others have long known all this. But if they knew all this, why didn't they tell us that Jefferson recommended investing in black people as a financial strategy, or that "the small ones" were whipped to get them to work in his nail factory? Perhaps they feel as a visitor to Monticello did: "An awe and veneration was felt for Mr. Jefferson among his neighbors which . . . rendered it shameful to even talk about his name in such a connexion." Better that the people not know these things, I guess.

Henry Wiencek

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