Saturday, December 8, 2012

Harry Wiencek, T.H. Breen, Lucia Stanton, and the "Master of the Mountain"

T.H. Breen is the latest scholar to review Henry Wiencek's Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves.  (We have covered the reviews of this book extensively.  Check out this post for links to our coverage).  Breen's review appears in the Autumn 2012 issue of The American Scholar.

Here is a taste:

...What the outsiders seldom witnessed at Monticello was the raw violence or threats of violence that sustained the plantation economy. When the productivity of the small boys who made nails for Jefferson lagged, he ordered them whipped. Edwin Morris Betts, the scholar who edited Jefferson’s Farm Book, published in 1953, did not include a letter describing the beatings. Like so many of Jefferson’s champions, he concluded that Jefferson “came close on his own plantations to the ideal rural community.” Even his contemporaries marveled at Jefferson’s ability to maintain a reputation as an especially humane master. As a Virginia abolitionist later observed, “Never did a man [Jefferson] achieve more fame for what he did not do.”

Lucia Stanton, the recently retired Shannon Senior Historian at Monticello, has written, in the form a letter to the editor, a critical review of Breen's review.  Here is a taste:

In [this] thought-provoking review of Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain, T. H. Breen has unfortunately created a false impression of life at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Breen seems to have been deceived by Wiencek’s combination of a fluent narrative style with a shocking mistreatment of the historical record. I’ll mention just two cases.

“When the productivity of the small boys who made nails for Jefferson lagged, he ordered them whipped,” Breen writes. Nothing in this sentence is true. There was no reference to lagging productivity at the time in question, and Jefferson actually ordered the manager of the nailery to refrain from use of the whip “except in extremities.” Jefferson was then experimenting with ways to mitigate the harsh punishment that was usual at the time. Breen is not the only reviewer to have been misled by Wiencek’s arguments, which employ selective quotation, false chronologies, and emotionally loaded language...

... There is plenty of room for a book that takes Jefferson to task for feeble moral leadership on the slavery issue and for rationalizing away the cruelties that were inherent in the slave labor system, even at Monticello. A number of recent scholars, myself included, have explored these topics. (It is mystifying that Wiencek does not even mention the work of Pulitzer Prize–winning author Annette Gordon-Reed.) But the erroneous picture drawn by Breen reveals the danger of Wiencek’s sensationalized version of events. What is one to do about influential books that so willfully distort reality?

Read the rest of Breen's review here and scroll down to read the rest of Stanton's response in which she takes Breen to task on a few other issues as well.