Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves
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Henry Wiencek's eloquent, persuasive Master of the Mountain―based on new information coming from archival research, archaeological work at Monticello, and hitherto overlooked or disregarded evidence in Thomas Jefferson's own papers―opens up a huge, poorly understood dimension of Jefferson's faraway world. We must, Wiencek suggests, follow the money.
Wiencek's Jefferson is a man of business and public affairs who makes a success of his debt-ridden plantation thanks to what he calls the "silent profit" gained from his slaves―and thanks to the skewed morals of the political and social world that he and thousands of others readily inhabited. It is not a pretty story. Slave boys are whipped to make them work in the nail factory at Monticello that pays Jefferson's grocery bills. Slaves are bought, sold, given as gifts, and used as collateral for the loan that pays for Monticello's construction―while Jefferson composes theories that obscure the dynamics of what he himself called "the execrable commerce." Many people saw a catastrophe coming and tried to stop it, but not Jefferson. The pursuit of happiness had become deeply corrupted, and an oligarchy was getting very rich. Is this the quintessential American story?
University Press of Virginia, 1991. Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: W. W. Norton, 1975. Morgan, Philip D. Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998. Morris, Thomas D. Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619–1860. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996. Morse, Jedidiah. American Geography; or, A View of the Present
Jefferson’s all-encompassing attentiveness to plantation management: “He orders, directs and pursues, in the minutest detail, every branch of business.”29 Sharing Jefferson’s passion for innovative, scientific agriculture, the duke inspected the plantation with a practiced eye, noting with approval the treatment of the workers—“His negroes are nourished, clothed, and treated as well as white servants could be”—and observing with some astonishment that the blacks had mastered a multiplicity of
had been able to fashion a humane version of slavery. But what the duke saw was a carefully constructed illusion. Rarely did plantation insiders break ranks and tell the truth about slavery, unless something deeply shocking jolted them into an awareness they had suppressed. After decades of managing Monticello for his father-in-law, managing his own farm at Edgehill, and observing slavery’s operation at its most enlightened and progressive, Colonel Randolph wrote a wrenching private letter
playing variations on geometrical themes. The facades of Monticello and many of its rooms have no real corners, which puts the eye, expecting right angles, off-balance. (His design for his country retreat, Poplar Forest, which he started in 1806, called for a pure octagon containing a cube.) Today we are accustomed to skylights, but in his time people did not expect to stand indoors in gentle sunlight coming from above, banishing the expected shadows and making others. So innovative and
independence as long as his servant returned to the mountaintop when needed. From New York, Jefferson wrote to his daughter Martha in 1790, “I must trouble you to give notice to Martin to be at Monticello by the 1st. of September that he may have things prepared.” And when he was leaving Philadelphia for Monticello in 1792, Jefferson wrote to his tobacco agent, Daniel Hylton, “If you should know any thing of my servants Martin or Bob, and could give them notice to be at Monticello by the 20th. I