Who is the real Thomas Jefferson?

A heated Op-Ed war among historians is picking up where two controversial new biographies left off this fall

Published December 3, 2012 6:30PM (EST)

The firestorm over author Henry Wiencek’s unsparing portrait of Thomas Jefferson, "Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves," has taken to the pages of the New York Times and other media outlets with a vengeance. Amid tepid praise for Jon Meacham’s folksy best-seller,  "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power," which skirts the complex world of slavery, it is Wiencek’s hubristic treatment that has returned Jefferson to center stage in historians’ long-standing war over whom to blame first and foremost for our racist underpinnings as a nation.

Wiencek seizes upon stray notes in Jefferson’s hand in which the Virginia planter performs cold calculations on the monetary value of slaves. A Scrooge-like Jefferson becomes cruel and uncivilized as he obsesses over the slave economy – which he comes to see as a “convenient engine” of American growth. You don’t remove the human face from slavery and come out ahead. But that is what Henry Wiencek has done to Thomas Jefferson.

Swayed as many of us were by Wiencek’s deft examination of George Washington and slavery, Jefferson scholars expected a hard-hitting sequel. But in its design to shock, "Master of the Mountain" rashly removes the conversation from the long-active scholarly community, by self-consciously claiming that Wiencek, as historical detective, has smoked out a criminal.

Here’s the irony: Nothing is new in the current debate. Jefferson and his fellow founders have been sensationalized in the press and in popular literature and academic monographs without cease for over 200 years. For the uninitiated reader who has not followed the long parade of books on Jefferson, every spin on the third president appears at first to have merit. Jefferson has been a political symbol since he first sought the presidency, and a piñata in America’s culture wars for nearly as long as that.

Matthew Livingston Davis, Aaron Burr’s first biographer, actually knew Jefferson. When Thomas Jefferson Randolph published four volumes of his grandfather’s papers in 1829, Davis went through the letters and was shocked to discover that the Virginian’s real talent lay in deception. His favorite term of derision for Jefferson was “Jesuitical.” But the award for the most entertaining portrait of a villainous, hypocritical Jefferson goes to the late Gore Vidal. In his fictional "Burr," we get a president who violated the Constitution while seducing his foes at the dinner parties he threw (those gatherings Jon Meacham offers up as his model of bipartisanship). Vidal’s Jefferson is surrounded by mixed-race offspring; his concubine Sally Hemings is pretty, but unfalteringly stupid.

Meacham’s Jefferson is “attractive and virile,” a smooth operator, serenely philosophical about the criticism he regularly receives, and a man who swings gleefully from realism to idealism, blending republican politics with haute cuisine. Oh, and also a master compromiser (which he was decidedly not). These characterizations of the sensitive politico serve to reframe the Jefferson biography as a Bob Woodward-style, inside-the-White-House intimate drama. Making Jefferson recognizable to us as a practitioner of political hardball allows the biographer to go on Chris Matthews’ “Hardball” and delight the host with comparisons to whatever is happening in Washington this week.

A studious historian strives to contextualize evidence. The 4 percent annual profit on the births of slave children that Wiencek seizes on is not pretty; no one gives Jefferson high marks, because there is no such thing as a good master. Yet the evidence Wiencek plucks from the page belongs to a conversation, foreign to our time, that took place in general terms relating to the collective self-interest of Southern elites who had inherited feelings of racial superiority. The evidence should be viewed as well in the context of those pages Jefferson produced when he doodled daily with numbers and lines, sketching out his parquet floors. In designing Monticello, he saw his world as a mathematical puzzle and calculated to fractions of an inch when builders of his day couldn’t come anywhere close. He said he lulled himself to sleep by conjuring “diagrams and crotchets” (wooden building supports).

Jefferson marveled, with melancholic persuasion, at the sublime scenes that nature, day and night, produced on his mountaintop. And this same man, born into a world of slavery, saw human ownership in terms that he could convert into practical experiments – slaves were pawns in his experiments with fruit trees and rice cultivation, too. Yet he was not a monster. We must always try to assess the true boundaries of the moral universe that existed, as we seek greater insight into the social limitations he and they contended with. It’s hard to do this without making premature judgments, which is why historians continue to find employment.

Still, there is something seductive in Wiencek’s argument. We want to get inside the heads of people who came before, who left a paper trail, whom we can imagine still speaking to us. Salon’s book review editor, Laura Miller, does not pretend to be an archivist of early American sources, and in reviewing Wiencek’s book she positively responded to its stark provocations. It is perfectly reasonable that she would not have identified senior scholars who were missing from the endnotes. And that is what moved experts on Jefferson and slavery to go public in their denunciations of the book. Selective evidence, presented effectively, is how prosecutors stage an argument, and Wiencek is clearly prosecuting his case against Jefferson. His detractors are not “Jefferson defenders,” but scholars whose more nuanced perspectives are absent from his argument.

Over the last two weeks, Op-Eds have rolled and roiled. Legal historian Paul Finkelman, writing in the Times, said that Wiencek is wrong only in his timing, and that Jefferson was not suddenly roused to racism when he discovered his 4 percent solution–no, he was always “deeply committed” to slavery. Finkelman terms Jefferson “creepy,” fixing understandably on Jefferson’s words in calling free blacks “pests in society” and emotionally primitive. Finkelman targets Jefferson, but at the same time excuses Washington, whose slave-owning experience differed from Jefferson’s only in that Washington was not perpetually in debt as Jefferson was, and could therefore have lived quite well if he had freed his slaves while he was in his prime and set a standard for others to follow. (We should add that even the urbanite Benjamin Franklin was a slave owner, and only freed his slave in his will.)

Everyone seems to have an ax to grind. Professor Finkelman is correct to charge Wiencek with exaggeration. To reduce Jefferson’s views on slavery simply to profit misses all the other ways that he engaged with the institution. This is the problem when a writer takes a very complex man and makes him familiar; this is what scholars call reductionist, wherein one solitary trait stands in for an entire personality.

But to call Jefferson “creepy” reflects Finkelman’s long-held bias. His Jefferson is incorrigible, a morally deformed figure lurking in the bowels of historic memory. When we isolate Jefferson and see his actions apart from those of his fellow Southerners (and a clear majority of Northerners), we miss the larger picture. Of course, he wrote in "Notes on Virginia" that Africans were a “blot” on the American landscape, and it sounds horrifying to our ears; it should. But his language drew on the respected 17th-century travel writer George Best and the ethnographic science of the mid-18th century’s ingenious (if misguided) Comte de Buffon.

We cannot do without historical context. Jefferson’s obsession with blood lines and breeding reflected his reading on animal husbandry and population theories. That is how he came to argue that interbreeding between Africans and Europeans improved the black race. So Wiencek is wrong to limit Jefferson’s view on slavery to the cash nexus alone; and Finkelman, while a deep constitutional thinker, also tends to be single-minded when it comes to Jefferson. For the historical Jefferson, race and procreation were conditioned by forces of culture beyond the obvious–his evolved theory on the “fortuitous concourse of breeders” asserted that uncontrollable human passions made it impossible to breed superior offspring.  So he wrote tauntingly to John Adams in 1813.  Reading Jefferson’s "Notes," Adams offered unconditional praise, not only overlooking its reprehensible racial arguments but calling Jefferson’s remarks on race “gems” of political expression.  Is Adams creepy for not condemning Jefferson?  When we make Jefferson the measure of all things, we simplify what came before and distort the contested nature of past ideas and practices.

Annette Gordon-Reed, the Harvard professor whose books have done more than any other modern scholar to reframe the conversation about Jefferson and slavery, wrote in Slate that Wiencek’s treatment was “bizarre” and obsessive and full of misreadings. Jan Ellen Lewis of Rutgers-Newark took apart the author’s claims in the Daily Beast, charging that Wiencek was “blinded by his loathing.” Wiencek responded by calling Professor Lewis’ arguments “petty twistifications” — a word Jefferson himself used in attacking Chief Justice John Marshall for interpreting the law so that it reflected his personal biases.

The scholar who should be most offended by Wiencek is Lucia (Cinder) Stanton.  Her long career as a researcher at Monticello has been singularly devoted to comprehending the personal lives and limitations imposed on the slave families of Monticello. Stanton receives praise in Wiencek’s acknowledgments; then the author proceeds to obscure, if not undermine, all she has brought to light.  We strongly recommend to readers her book “Those Who Labor for My Happiness.” Stanton has no ax to grind; her purpose is to humanize the past and bring it to life responsibly.

It’s fascinating that people still get angry about dueling portrayals of Jefferson. He wasn’t the only one who lacked political courage. The founders were clannish lawyers and land speculators who identified with the interests of their states and never entirely surrendered their will to an idealized Union. They had to deal with state jealousies, jurisdictional controversies over land and expansion.  In the 1780s, Jefferson wanted slavery prohibited in the federal territories of the Northwest. And that’s how Congress voted. So, do we laud Jefferson for his progressive instincts?  Tentatively.  Does it rescue him from the collective judgment of scholars?  Hardly.

For he was a timid abolitionist at best. His primary constituency was the Southern planter class, landed men of social privilege.  Like him, they borrowed heavily.  They owed bankers in England and elsewhere. They were constantly perched on a fiscal cliff.  And they, like the majority of their Northern peers, bought into the convenient consensus that those millions of individuals brought in chains from Africa and the Caribbean were an inferior race of people. Political men constantly privileged their own collective self-interest. No surprise there. Even in manumitting certain individual slaves (most commonly upon the death of the master), they allowed slavery to fester. There were a few heroes who spoke out for racial justice, a relative few who turned their backs on slavery. But in the first 50 years of the republic, the vast majority of elected U.S. representatives invested their hearts in issues we’ve long since forgotten. No inheritance continues to affect the U.S. and point to its deficiencies so much as the brutal memory of ugly mistreatment of a people whose skin pigmentation offended some lily-white European-Americans.

Why Jefferson? He is a bellwether, a moral indicator. Though the superior democrat, he is still compared unfavorably to the intrepid Washington, who finally freed his slaves in his will. But Washington never attempted to legislate in the interest of the enslaved in any one of his 68 years. In fact, his will kept his human property enslaved until after his widow Martha’s death, which occurred a few years later. One of those he owned was Martha’s half-sister – we learned that fact in Henry Wiencek’s earlier, well-received book, "An Imperfect God."

Jefferson cared deeply about how he would be remembered. In the final decades of his life, he made repeated attempts to find a political historian friendly to his perspective on post-Revolutionary partisanship, with whom he could share his trunkfuls of documents.  But he did not exhibit any concern over his published views on black inferiority, because he did not anticipate the 21st century and its evaluation of him on the basis of his life as a sexually active slave owner. He though his credentials in that regard would shield him from attack where and when it mattered.  Like the posthumous Washington image. Seeing black as inferior was, and would remain for quite some time, mainstream thinking.

Like us, that generation argued without reaching an epiphany. In Madison and Jefferson, we show that Madison’s racism did not descend to the level of Jefferson’s. In "Jefferson’s Secrets: Death and Desire at Monticello," Andrew Burstein focuses on early American cultural understandings of the body and right living, to explain how the widower and man of privilege that Jefferson was could justify sex with any “healthy, fruitful female” as an acceptable, indeed prescribed, method for a man of letters to maintain his health.  There remains much to learn about the conflicted culture that birthed this nation.

Slavery as an institution was defended by the Constitution — a document Jefferson did not have any hand in drafting. Slavery was protected by state and federal laws. History is the art of engagement with that distant country we call the past; it is about more than personalities. It is not enough to be repelled by Jefferson; you have to probe the political and social environment if you wish to explore the reasons why he did those things that we find so reprehensible.

It is we today who have outsize expectations from Thomas Jefferson, because his most uplifting words attest to American ideals. We want someone from the receding past to be transcendent, to warrant the superlatives collectively conferred on a “greatest” generation. Yet no generation ever lives up to its ideals.  We are all rationalizers. We are all prioritizers. But here’s a great line, which Jefferson wrote to a fellow Virginian in 1816: “I wish to avoid all collisions of opinion with all mankind.”  Good luck with that, Mr. Jefferson.

By Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Biographers Biographies Books Critics Thomas Jefferson