Historian Henry Wiencek Talks About Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves
All Library locations will be closed on Monday, February 15 in observance of Presidents' Day.
Thomas Jefferson may be the most beloved of our Founding Fathers.
After all, he was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. He was our second Vice President and third President. And he was a scholar, scientist, philosopher, artist, and musician.
His is one of four faces on Mount Rushmore.
So, after devoting the last few years to researching this monumental figure, how does historian Henry Wiencek feel about his subject?
“To be honest, I really don’t know what to think,” Wiencek said in a recent phone interview from his home in Charlottesville, Virginia. “My feelings are still settling down. It’s hard to say.”
That ambivalence is the result of the narrow focus Wieneck takes in his new book Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves. As the title suggests, the volume is about Jefferson and slavery.
It’s not a pretty picture.
Wiencek discusses his findings on Thursday, October 25, at 6:30 p.m. at the Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St. His free presentation is part of the Kansas City Public Library’s Hail to the Chiefs series on the American presidency co-presented with by the Truman Library Institute and co-sponsored by KCUR’s Up to Date.
“I didn’t write this book because I loved Jefferson or hated him. It didn’t really come out of that,” Wiencek said.
“Working on a book about George Washington, I ended up intensely liking him. With Jefferson things are more unsure. He did great things, of course, like writing the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.
“But at the same time he denied freedom to his slaves because they were too valuable. It’s all about following the money. I was reading all these documents and came across a letter in which Jefferson told a neighbor to ‘invest in Negroes.’ That made me jump.
“In another letter Jefferson writes that he’s making a 4% profit on the birth of black babies on his plantations.”
The common consensus is that while he owned slaves, Jefferson was a benign master. Wiencek’s research disputes that.
“The regime at Monticello was much more brutal than we ever thought,” he reports. “The violence was pervasive. One of Jefferson’s overseers was called ‘The Terror’ by neighbors.
“And I came across the full transcription of an 1801 letter in which Jefferson’s son- in-law reports that slave children have been whipped to get them to work. That line was deleted from a report in the 1950s by a Jefferson scholar who didn’t want us to know. He published the letter but omitted that line.”
Jefferson was often approached by abolitionists, especially by foreigners like the Marquis de LaFayette (the French hero of the American Revolution), who begged him to free his slaves.
“He always refused. These visitors noted that many of Jefferson’s slaves were intelligent, talented people with sterling characters. Jefferson would say, ‘No, no. They’re children.’
“Jefferson saw these highly-skilled Negroes as a financial asset. They were too valuable to free.”
The much-honored author of books like Plantations of the Old South, World of Lego Toys, a volume in the Smithsonian Guides to Historic America series and An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, Wiencek said he realized early in his research that he was venturing into controversial waters.
“Jefferson is a father figure for the whole country. We don’t want to have negative thoughts about our father. So I knew I had to be very careful with my facts because a lot of people weren’t going to like what the book reveals.
“Lots of scholars are in the business of protecting Jefferson’s reputation. They may have known about this stuff and just didn’t want to face it. Or perhaps they didn’t know about the material I discuss, even though it’s always been sitting there in the archives.
“So I realized I’d better know my stuff. Everything in the book is documented and footnoted.”
Perhaps it’s time, Wiencek says, to stop giving the slaveholding Founding Fathers the benefit of the doubt.
“The argument is that they were people of their time and mired in a primitive racism, like a set of dark glasses that prevented them from seeing things clearly. But that’s not true. Follow the money and you can see that slavery was a bonanza. They weren’t going to let it go.”
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes the Library's From the Film Vault blog. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.