Saturday, October 20, 2012

Wiencek's New Book on Jefferson: The Hits Keep Coming

Yesterday I did a post on Annette Gordon-Reed's scathing take-down of Henry Wiencek's new book on Thomas Jefferson and slavery. 

Today I want to call your attention to Jan Lewis's review of the book at The Daily Beast.  Lewis, who teaches at Rutgers-Newark, is one of the top Jefferson scholars working in the field today.  I highly recommend her book, The Pursuits of Happiness: Family Values in Jefferson's Virginia and her edited collection (with Peter Onuf), Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civil Culture. (I should also add that I have been using her co-authored textbook Of the People for the last three or four years in my U.S. survey course).

Here is a taste of Lewis's review of Wiencek: 

It’s hard to know what to make of this train wreck of a book. Much of what Wiencek presents as “new information” has already been published in the groundbreaking work of Annette Gordon-Reed, Lucia Stanton, and others, while the most headline-grabbing charges crumble under close scrutiny.

Perhaps Wiencek is so blinded by his loathing of Thomas Jefferson that he cannot see what is right in front of his eyes. It’s not just meteorology that challenges him. He has trouble with everything from simple dictionary definitions—the difference between “literally” and “figuratively,” for example—to his own sources. 

Arithmetic is one of those challenges. Wiencek cites approvingly a reviewer who complained that the index to a new book about Jefferson had as many page citations to Sally Hemings as to Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and Jefferson’s wife Martha added together. Has Wiencek not looked at his own index or did he just add up the numbers wrong?

Oh, and biology. “In ways that no one completely understands, Monticello became populated by a number of mixed-race people who looked astonishingly like Thomas Jefferson.” Um, I think we have that one figured out. 

Some of these howlers would be merely laughable were they not of a piece with the fundamental problem of the book, the way Wiencek uses evidence. Sometimes he cites a source and sometimes he does not, but it really doesn’t make much difference because when you go back to the original, too often it doesn’t say what he claims it does. He says, for example—and this is a statement that will astonish historians—that just after the American Revolution “Virginia came close to outlawing the continuation of slavery.” He cites some pages in a recent book that say nothing of the sort.

As many readers of this blog know, I tend to straddle two worlds in my professional life.  On the one hand, I continue to define myself as an early American historian and tend to think of my historical work as part of that intellectual community

On the other hand, my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, and my own identity as a Christian historian, has led me into an engagement with writers who use the American founding to promote the agenda of the political Right.

I thus look at Wiencek's book from the perspective of a scholar and historian who knows something about both of these worlds.

If Wiencek's book is as bad as Gordon-Reed and Lewis portray it, then it could very well serve as fodder for the work of David Barton and others, writers who portray academic or "liberal" historians as those who want to tear down the reputation of the founders and, consequently, everything that is great about America. 

It will only be a matter of time before Barton's The Jefferson Lies is republished with Glenn Beck's Simon and Schuster imprint, Mercury Ink.  It would not surprise me if the promotional efforts for Barton's reprint utilize Wiencek's book as a foil for everything that is wrong with Jefferson scholarship today.

The reviews by Gordon-Reed and Lewis remind us that politicizing the past makes for bad history.  It sounds as if Wiencek is just as guilty as Barton on this front.