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?
mixture” with the happy result that “all of our Southern inhabitants should advance to the middle ground between their present color & the black.” The extraordinary word in that sentence is “advance”—a direct challenge to Jefferson’s contention that mixing degraded his race. To this also, Jefferson made no reply. As Edward Coles was making final preparations for his trek to Illinois in the early months of 1819, Jefferson actually had in hand the means to free some Monticello slaves and send
21–22. 9. Farm Book, plates 5–9. 10. TJ wrote the names of the white workers Fossett, Nelson, Rise, and Walker. 11. McLaughlin, Jefferson and Monticello, p. 101; “Monticello: stone house (slave quarters), recto, September 1770, by Thomas Jefferson,” N38; K16 (electronic edition), Thomas Jefferson Papers: An Electronic Archive. The individuals mentioned included Jenny, Suck, Scilla, Dinah, and Ursula. 12. Kelso, Archaeology at Monticello, pp. 64, 96; McLaughlin, Jefferson and Monticello, pp.
Account with Nicholas Lewis,” April 9, 1791. The purchase was made after TJ’s return from France when he was in Philadelphia; Lewis was still managing Monticello. At first I thought these might have been horse collars, but those items are identified in TJ’s records as “leather collars” or “horse collars,” and Lewis would have been similarly specific. 8. TJ to Thomas Mann Randolph, Aug. 26, 1811, in Farm Book, p. 149. 9. Randolph to TJ, March 27, 1792, in Papers, vol. 23. 10. TJ to Randolph,
hand, he knew this as one knows the details of a title search, because the Grangers had passed through the ownership and auctions of those families. But on the other hand, as an old man Isaac kept in his mind’s eye the images of the whites he had grown up with: “Mrs. Jefferson was small…. Patsy Jefferson was tall like her father. Polly low like her mother and longways the handsomest, pretty lady jist like her mother.”20 Madison Hemings, at an even later date, could summon up the story of Thomas
Fairfax County. He had in custody a man named Hubbard who had confessed to being an escaped slave. In his confession Hubbard revealed the details of his escape. He had made a deal with Wilson Lilly, son of the overseer Gabriel Lilly, paying him $5 and an overcoat in exchange for false emancipation documents and a travel pass to Washington. But illiteracy was Hubbard’s downfall: he did not realize that the documents Wilson Lilly had written were not very persuasive.* When Hubbard reached Fairfax