How could Thomas Jefferson write our country’s most powerful defense of liberty, the Declaration of Independence, and be a lifelong slave owner? The question has long challenged Americans, especially historians. Some have argued that Jefferson was a reluctant slave owner who tried to treat his slaves as well as possible and only failed to free them because of factors outside of his control. Recent research has painted a more complex picture. Most famously, historians have all but proven that Jefferson had children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. Now, a new book argues that Jefferson grew to be a supporter of slavery because it made him money.
In his new work, The Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, Henry Wiencek describes how Jefferson saw slaves as a good source of profit. Jefferson often wrote about men, women, and children as assets with monetary value. He also encouraged other landowners to invest in slaves. Wiencek writes that Jefferson calculated the exact amount he made for every slave born on his plantation and even advised a friend’s family that if they had money, “every farthing of it [should be] laid out in land and negroes.”
These new findings raise interesting questions for students of American history. Why did it take almost 200 years for this information to come to light? Jefferson and his family tried hard to protect his legacy. After Jefferson died, his family carefully edited his papers to remove controversial material before having them published. Historians, too, tried to shape the legacy of our third president in positive ways. Wiencek shows that historians intentionally covered up descriptions of cruelty at Monticello. Have historians distorted Jefferson’s image? Does the fact that Jefferson owned slaves take away from his powerful words about equality?
Perhaps the saddest part of this story is that the people who eventually received the monetary benefit of Jefferson’s slaves were his creditors. After Jefferson died, much of his property—including 130 men, women, and children he held as slaves—was sold to pay off his huge debts.
Image credit: © Karl Kost/Alamy
- The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson
This article by Henry Wiencek summarizes his new findings about Thomas Jefferson and his slaves.
(Source: Smithsonian magazine, October 2012)
- Jefferson’s Tainted Profits: PW Talks with Henry Wiencek
Check out this interview with Henry Wiencek about his new book on Jefferson.
(Source: Publishers Weekly, July 6, 2012)
- Slavery at Monticello
This website provides information about Jefferson’s slaves and their lives at his plantation, Monticello.
(Source: Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello; accessed October 31, 2012)
- Thomas Jefferson: Legacy
Read about the historic legacy of Thomas Jefferson; includes links to primary source documents.
(Source: Library of Congress, accessed October 31, 2012)
- What Did Thomas Jefferson Really Think About Slavery?
Jefferson and slavery?—it’s complicated. This book review of Master of the Mountain criticizes Wiencek’s thesis on many counts.
(Source: The Daily Beast, October 17, 2012)