“Nietzschean nuggets and verbal furbelows” in Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain
Henry Wiencek in his introduction to Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves begins metaphorically, “Thomas Jefferson’s mansion stands atop his mountain like the Platonic ideal of a house: a perfect creation existing in an ethereal realm, literally above the clouds.” And the metaphors just keep coming, and coming, and coming. “Notes on the State of Virginia is the Dismal Swamp that every Jefferson biographer must sooner or later attempt to cross,” he writes at the start of chapter 3. “In the salons of France, Jefferson conducted the equivalent of a graduate seminar on slavery as the engine of the American enterprise,” begins chapter 6. “Throughout Jefferson’s plantation records,” Wiencek begins chapter 8, “there runs a thread of indicators—some direct, some oblique, some euphemistic—that the Monticello machine operated on carefully calibrated violence.” In chapter 17, Wiencek writes, “At its extreme edge the pursuit of happiness bends morality as gravity bends light,” “The business of slavery was conducted in such a ‘sooty atmosphere’ that morality vanished in the smoke,” and “Jefferson wore racism like a suit of armor.” I could go on—and on—and on.
There is much to ponder in such Nietzsche-like nuggets which begin each chapter and fill the book, but to give each due consideration—to think beyond the imagery to the sentiment giving rise to it—is a weighty, perhaps impossible, task. It is best to let oneself feel one’s way through them—to let oneself be transported by them. Yet that seems just to be Wiencek’s intendment.
Wiencek accuses Jefferson of “carefully calibrated violence,” but it is Wiencek who ought to be accused of the crime, as his book is fraught with an indescribable number of analogies, metaphors, similes, and other literary devices, used to transport readers on an emotional journey. Perhaps it is my decades of exposure to Plato’s Socrates—viz., his somewhat mundane insistence both that one ought in investigative inquiry to speak plainly and truthfully and that embellishment and ornament are grandiloquent symptoms of dissimulation and disingenuousness—that sours me on such Wiencekian verbal furbelows. Master of the Mountain after all is supposed to be history, not creative writing.
The oft-repeated sentiment that Jefferson would have freed his slaves had he not fallen hopelessly into debt can no longer be maintained, says Wiencek. Having spoken out abundantly on the evils of slavery in works like Summary View and his draft of the Declaration of Independence, “somewhere in a short span of years during the 1780s and into the early 1790s, a transformation came over Jefferson.” He became immensely silent on the issue of slavery and thereafter did nothing—a sentiment Wiencek tirelessly repeats—to eradicate the institution of slavery. Sums eerily he on Jefferson’s silence, “Some very powerful motive was at work.”
What was that very powerful motive?
Wiencek turns to some interpolative comments of Jefferson in a letter to George Washington (18 June 1792) in which Jefferson writes of Blacks as property. “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 people were yielding him a bonanza, a perpetual human dividend at compound interest.” He cites also the statement in a letter to John Wayles Eppes (30 June 1820), “I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man of the farm. What she produces is an addition to the capital.” Wiencek turns to Jefferson’s comments concerning “an acquaintance who suffered financial reverses.” The letter is to Madame Plumard de Bellanger (25 Apr. 1794), who told Jefferson about money she gave to friends that was subsequently lost. Jefferson writes, “[They] should have been invested in negroes,” for “land and negroes … bring a silent profit of from 5. to 10. per cent in this country by the increase in their value.”
The gist of Wiencek’s argument is that Jefferson, who had championed the emancipation of Blacks, had at some point in the 1780s or 1790s a kairotic moment in which he recognized the profitability of owning Blacks. Thereafter, slavery was no longer such an evil institution, so long as Jefferson had an opportunity to make money off the labor of Blacks. And so, Jefferson began to think of and treat his slaves not as humans, but as cattle or land.
We thus arrive at what can be called Wiencek’s profit-trumps-ideals thesis. We can no longer say that Jefferson was handcuffed by slavery. “Jefferson’s 4 percent theorem threatens the comforting notion that he had no real awareness of what he was doing, that he was ‘stuck’ with or ‘trapped’ in slavery, an obsolete, unprofitable, burdensome legacy. The date of Jefferson’s calculation lines up with the waning of his emancipationist fever.” In short, Jefferson, because of his kairotic moment, became “silent” on the issue of slavery, and used his slaves for his own profit.
Arguments from silence are dangerous since they are speculative, and speculation takes us only so far. There was silence between Jefferson and Sally Hemings—i.e., no letters found between them or no letters found where Jefferson expresses his love for Hemings. Brodie and Gordon-Reed ask us to believe that that silence suggests someone had systematically removed incriminating letters, when the simplest explanation for the absence of such letters is that they never existed. Again, late in life, Jefferson too was silent concerning systematic educational reform and focused instead on the University of Virginia. His silence was not because of newfound recognition that systemic educational reform was bootless, but because of staunch opposition to his plan for ward schools. The whole pie could not be delivered, so he thought it better to deliver some part of it than nothing at all. As I have often argued, Jefferson’s silence apropos of slavery is simply, and best, explicated by his conviction that the time was not right—i.e., action for the eradication of slavery threatened the union of states and put at risk his “great experiment” concerning Jeffersonian republicanism.
Wiencek continues: “Jefferson pioneered the monetizing of slaves, just as he pioneered the industrialization and diversification of slavery with his nailery, textile factory, coopering shop, short-lived tinsmithing business, and grist-mill. Far from regarding slaves as childlike and incompetent, he realized they were highly amenable to training in specialized skills, and he put into effect a long-term program to staff his plantation with skilled people for decades.” In a prior paper, he makes the point more plainly, “The big surprise that emerges from Jefferson’s papers is not only that he embraced slavery as essential to maintaining his personal standard of living but that he was at the forefront of efforts by Virginia plantation owners to modernize and prolong the ‘peculiar institution.’” Here we get a second thesis, the vanguard thesis. Records show that Jefferson not only became pococurante concerning pronouncements on the evils of slavery because of its potential for profit, he eventually came to be at the vanguard of a movement for its improvement and exploitation.
Wiencek draws much from Jefferson’s Farm Book—some 500 pages of records of his agricultural activities—to illustrate his two theses. Slaves operated spinning and weaving machines at his textile factory. Slaves, on a daily basis, oversaw the complex culinary operations. Slaves, such as the highly skilled craftsman and joiner John Hemings, participated in the ceaseless building and rebuilding at Monticello or Poplar Forest. All such labor was for the sake of bringing Jefferson “a new level of luxury.” He sums Jefferson at a metaphorical crossroads. “[Jefferson] is a man holding a crystal ball in which he simultaneously sees a golden future and a moral abyss, and is thus confronted with a choice.” Wiencek makes it clear that Jefferson chose the moral abyss.
Jefferson’s instrumental treatment of slaves, thinks Wiencek, is illustrated neatly by a passage from the Farm Book (3 July 1795), in which Jefferson details a plan involving 66 laborers for harvest. The passage resembles a “military operation.” Sixty-six workers are planned for an upcoming harvest. First, Great George, in a mule cart, will be employed in mending cradles and grinding scythes. Second, there will be 18 cradlers. Third, there will be 18 binders, mostly women and able boys. Fourth, there will be six gatherers—five of the smallest boys and one large boy to be a foreman. Fifth, there will be three loaders. Sixth, there will be six stackers. Seventh, two cooks. Eighth, four carters. Ninth, eight to keep going the plows. Jefferson sums, “In this way the whole machine would move in exact equilibrio, no part of the force could be lessened without retarding the whole, nor increased without a waste of force.”
There are also telling letters.
Of Jefferson’s nailery, Wiencek quotes Jefferson in a letter to Comte Démeunier (29 Apr. 1795), “My new trade of nail-making is to me in this country what an additional title of nobility or the ensigns of a new order are in Europe.” Wiencek’s aims to make it seem as if Jefferson is gloating over ownership and profitability of his slaves. Jefferson instead writes that he wishes to profit from slavery only until such that he “can put my farms into a course of yielding profit.”
There is also an 1801 letter from his daughter Martha, with an addendum by Randolph, which talks of Jefferson’s overseer, Gabriel Lilly, whipping some of the young nailers for truancy on a cold morning. Jeffersonian editor Edwin Betts of the Farm Book in the 1950s had the line deleted. Wiencek adds, “Betts’s omission was important in shaping the scholarly consensus that Jefferson managed his plantation with a lenient hand.”
The letter to which Wiencek refers is from Martha Jefferson Randolph to her father (31 Jan 1801). At the bottom of the letter, there is an addendum by Thomas Mann Randolph: “Every thing goes on well at Mont’o.—the Nailers all returned to work & executing well some heavy orders, as one from D. Higinb.m for 30.000. Xd. Moses, Jam Hubbard Davy & Shephard still out & to remain till you order otherwise—Joe cuting nails—I had given a charge of lenity respecting all: (Burwell absolutely excepted from the whip alltogether) before you wrote [my italics]: none have incurred it but the small ones for truancy & yet the work proceeds better than since George. such is the sound sense cleverness & energy of Lillie.”
The addendum gives no indication that the whipping of “the small ones for truancy” was instructed by Jefferson, who was at Washington. The whipping was at the behest of overseer Lilly, who had a penchant for cruelty. The phrase “before you wrote” certainly refers to Jefferson’s letter to son-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph (23 Jan. 1801). The relevant passage in Jefferson’s letter is this: “I forgot to ask the favor of you to speak to Lilly as to the treatment of the nailers. it would destroy their value in my estimation to degrade them in their own eyes by the whip. this therefore must not be resorted to but in extremities. as they will be again under my government, I would chuse they should retain the stimulus of character.”
Jefferson’s letter shows that he has recently become aware of Lilly’s abuse of the laborers of the nailery and that that is a pressing concern. The worry of value being destroyed cannot be taken to be the material value of each laborer—though Jefferson often wrote thus of his slaves—it is instead concern of the boys’ own view of their degradation of character on account of being whipped. It might be that Jefferson’s botheration is that whipped boys, feeling degraded, will be unproductive, but he does not say that, so we cannot merely infer that as does Wiencek, given his profit-trumps-ideals thesis. It might be simply that Jefferson wishes each boy to have a sense of value and that whipping them conveys the opposite message—viz., that the overseer and owner see them as mere chattel. It might also be that both concerns, productivity and a sense of worth, weigh much with Jefferson. Wiencek here again takes great liberty with Jefferson’s silence.
Overall, careful examination of Jefferson’s writings and records does show that he often wrote of his laborers as cats’ paws. That is unremarkable—as theses go, rather white-bread—for Jefferson often thought of people of all sorts when he was keeping records, and he kept records on nearly everything, as figures to be calculated more than persons. He was, like Benjamin Franklin, preoccupied throughout his life with efficiency of labor vis-à-vis all persons.
Jefferson had an incurable penchant for calculation and order as they relate to human efficiency—a lifelong obsession. His Garden Book, Farm Book, and letters offer numerous instances of saving labor in which slaves are uninvolved. On April 11, 1774, he writes, “in making a stone wall in my garden I find by an accurate calculation that 7½ cubical feet may be done in a day one hand who brings his own stone into place and does everything.” On May 12, 1795, Jefferson writes of attempts to gauge distances travelled by using the steps of his horse. “when pushed into a brisk walk he stepped the 220. yds at 112 steps descending & 116. steps ascending. 110 steps would have been 2. yds at a step. 114 (the medium) is 5 f 9½ I. the step His effort is to find an accurate means of measuring distances for surfaces of varying inclinations. In 1772, he asks, “a man will cut & nail 300. chestnut rails a day thro’ the year?” His concern is efficiency in building fences. Elsewhere in his Farm Book, he states: “The number of cattle to be kept on a farm must be proportioned to the food furnished by the farm. As his increases by the progress of improvement, the number of cattle may be increase, & with that the quantity of manure.”
Such illustrations—and there are many hundreds I could list—show Jefferson’s scientific bent as it relates to economy of living; there is no racism. He often thought of laborers as cats’ paws, because he often thought abstractly, arithmetically about labor. For illustration, he writes of a threshing machine thus:
2. men got out nearly 1½ bush. of clean wheat in half an hour, it would have been full 1½ but for waste.
it would take 4. men & a girl to work, and they would get out about 40. bushels in 12 hours, when the machine comes to work glib and smooth.
one may say on the whole that it gets out the double of what the same men could thresh. but infinitely cleaner. there did not appear to be 1. grain in 100. or 150. left in the straw.
Thus, returning to Wiencek’s use of the 66 laborers working “in exact equilibrio”—a fine example of my point—note that Jefferson mentions menders, grinders, cradlers, binders, gatherers, loaders, stackers, cooks, carters, and eight other females “to keep half the ploughs going.” He says nothing about color of skin. The emphasis here is on the productivity and efficiency of laborers, not on the productivity and efficiency of black slave laborers.
Jefferson was obsessed with keeping records and calculating apropos of improved efficiency in human living. His calculations were not as Wiencek states for the sake of exploiting Blacks, but for the sake of efficiency of living—his own and others’. Gauging distances through the steps of his horse is a labor that would benefit anyone on horseback, not merely Whites. It is the same with proportioning cattle to food and with Jefferson’s meteorological observations. Wiencek himself admits that when he writes: “Jefferson was a compulsive record keeper who monitored everything from the number and types of seeds planted in his garden to the weight of materials used to make nails and textile products at Monticello.” Thus, Wiencek is guilty not only of conceit, but of slanting—generating a conclusion by overpassing evidence to the contrary. Hence, the profit-trumps-ideals thesis does not follow.
Wiencek’s vanguard thesis too is formed parologisitically. It is clear that Jefferson was at the forefront of a movement for patronizing or inventing labor-saving notions and machines and more efficient agricultural techniques. It is a non sequitur to conclude that he was wedded to the modernization or prolongation of slavery to further that movement. Nowhere does Jefferson say that. It cannot be assumed from Jefferson’s silence.
It is important to examine carefully all of Jefferson’s writings as well as minutiae in them before assessment of his character. In that regard, Wiencek’s book has done us an aidful service. Yet aside from that cautionary remark, implicit in Wiencek’s work, it is precipitous and jeopardous to assert the profit-trumps-ideals and vanguard theses, as does Wiencek, by culling certain “overlooked” writings or passages in writings, often out of full context, and ignoring all that Jefferson has done in his life to eradicate the institution of slavery, in an effort for Wiencek to advance his theses and advance himself. (Because of his book, he made the cover of Smithsonian Magazine.) As historians, we run the risk of bending morality “as gravity bends light,” when we concern ourselves more with the hoped-for shock waves of a thesis than its veridicality, more with metaphors to generate feelings than with facts to stimulate historical understanding. It is unfortunate, however, that revisionist history vis-à-vis Thomas Jefferson often seems more about creating shock waves than generating truths.
“It is always dangerous to read too much into small details,” Wiencek cautions. Yet Wiencek has constructed his book, fraught with Nietzschean nuggets and verbal furbelows, in just such a manner.