The usual take on the man best known for writing that “All men are created equal” has been that he owned slaves, but… after which you choose your excuse:
- He was really conflicted about it.
- He just didn’t think freeing them would be practical.
- He was a particularly benevolent master.
- It’s not fair to judge someone who was born into that system, and knew no other, by modern ethical standards.
The excuses may bear revisiting in light of a new book, Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, byHenry Wiencek. Here’s an excerpt from a review of the book this morning in The Wall Street Journal:
The strongest sections of the book track Mr. Wiencek’s close reading of Jefferson’s estate records, where he found a coldblooded taskmaster who ruthlessly exploited child labor and overworked his slaves as a matter of course. Jefferson sometimes countenanced brutal punishment, including the whipping of boys as young as 10 or 11 in his highly profitable nail factory, “whose profits paid the mansion’s grocery bills,” Mr. Wiencek writes. Despite Jefferson’s occasional assertions that slavery would one day wither away, he never lifted a finger to weaken it as an institution, even when implored to do so by friends and allies who regarded slavery as an affront to the values for which patriots had fought the Revolutionary War.
In his youth, Jefferson did hold antislavery convictions. And in his earliest draft of the Declaration of Independence, he may well have had slaves in mind when he declared that all men were created equal.(Southerners were sufficiently worried that they tried unsuccessfully to have the word “men” changed to “freemen.”) By 1784, however, in “Notes on the State of Virginia,” he expressed in graceful but cringe-inducing prose a deep personal distaste for blacks, who, he asserted, smelled wrong, copulated with apes in Africa, and were incapable of intellectual achievement.
Whatever moral ambivalence he may have felt toward the institution of slavery he overcame when he sat down and did the numbers for Monticello. In 1792, he calculated precisely what his slaves were worth. Mr. Wiencek writes: “What Jefferson set out clearly for the first time was that he was making a 4 percent profit every year on the birth of black children. The enslaved children were yielding him a bonanza, a perpetual human dividend at compound interest.” To intimates, Jefferson described slavery matter-of-factly as a good investment strategy, advising one friend that if his family had cash to spare, “every farthing of it [should be] laid out in land and negroes.”…
Actually, I was a bit surprised that Jefferson even handled the books for his estate. I supposed he followed the practice of the landed gentry of having a “man of business” deal with all that. I had supposed he was detached from the enterprises that gave him his wealth, devoting all his time to politics, science and music. I had read that he was a terrible money manager, embodying the Southern planter’s typical indifference to debt, spending above his means on books, scientific instruments and other things that scratched his intellectual itch.
I supposed that, to paraphrase John Travolta (on being a loan shark) in “Get Shorty,” he was never that into it. But supposing he remained above the details of running his estate was just my way of offering him another excuse, I guess.
Mr. Wiencek’s premise seems to be that he was not only his own man of business, but a particularly hard-eyed one, especially on the subject of slavery.
Not that I was ever prepared to give him a pass on that. There are a number of reasons why, among the Founders, I have always preferred John Adams to Jefferson, and have resented that Jefferson was in their day, and still is, more celebrated and revered. One of those reasons was that Adams was adamantly opposed to slavery, while Jefferson, high-minded words aside, was a major practitioner of that evil.
This book should give us all, including those of you who admire Mr. Jefferson more than I do, something new to consider.