Thomas Jefferson and the economics of slavery
By T. H. Breen
October 4, 2012
Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, By Henry Wiencek, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 416 pp., $30
How, historians have long asked, could Thomas Jefferson, who boldly proclaimed equality and liberty for the Revolutionary generation, also own a large number of slaves? More than a decade ago, Jefferson’s failure to resolve this tension became national news, when researchers used DNA evidence to prove that he had fathered children with Sally Hemings, his slave mistress at Monticello. Although skeptics continue to dispute the evidence, conditions at the plantation certainly permitted white men, including Jefferson, to exploit vulnerable black women. Whatever Jefferson’s relationship was with Hemings, the relationships between the races at Monticello raise disturbing questions about his character.
Jefferson scholars have rallied to his defense, acknowledging that he owned slaves but arguing that he was a product of a different culture. Behavior that we would now condemn was an accepted part of Virginia’s plantation economy. Gordon S. Wood, a distinguished historian of the American Revolution, insists that it makes no sense for modern critics to condemn figures like Jefferson for failing to free his slaves. “Such anachronistic statements,” Wood writes in The American Revolution (2002), “suggest a threshold of success that no eighteenth-century revolution could possibly have attained, and perhaps tell us more about the political attitudes of the historians who make such statements than they do about the American Revolution.” Others admit that Jefferson’s moral equivocation deserves analysis, but they soften the exercise by describing the man as flawed, contradictory, or paradoxical, all the while preserving what historian Alan Taylor calls Jefferson’s “fundamental core of naïve innocence.”
Henry Wiencek will have none of it. Author of An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves and the Creation of America (2003), he reviews Jefferson’s record like a prosecutor, hammering away at the evasions, rationalizations, and lies that have preserved Jefferson’s reputation as a profoundly decent man trapped by the conventions of his own times. In Master of the Mountain, Wiencek does not reargue the tawdry details of the Sally Hemings affair. Rather, he invites readers to reflect seriously on one famous man’s stunning refusal to provide moral leadership for a nation that desperately needed it.
Wiencek writes that Jefferson’s views on race and slavery evolved dramatically over the course of his lifetime, something his defenders have generally ignored. When Jefferson was a young lawyer and member of the colonial legislature, his rhetoric about human rights occasionally informed his actions as a rising Virginia planter. But all that changed after the Revolution. Jefferson’s love of expensive European imported goods and the responsibility to provide for his own children’s future created a huge burden of debt. Slave labor paid the bills.
About the economic benefits of owning slaves, Jefferson had not the slightest doubt. His account books reveal how the fertility of his slaves sustained Monticello. “I allow nothing for losses by death,” Jefferson calculated, “but, on the contrary, shall presently take credit four per cent. per annum, for their increase over and above keeping up their own numbers.” When a fellow Virginian complained of economic difficulties, Jefferson lectured that the key to prosperity was investing in slaves. He advised his correspondent that when he had saved a little cash, “every farthing of it [should be] laid out in land and negroes, which besides a present support bring a silent profit from 5. to 10. per cent in this country by the increase in their value.”
However accurate Jefferson’s financial analysis may have been, it failed to note that the silent profits generated at Monticello involved members of his own family whom he had fathered with Hemings, slave children fathered by white men on the plantation, and his wife’s half-sisters. As Wiencek observes, during the period that Jefferson came to appreciate fully the economic value of slave labor, he completed Notes on the State of Virginia, a book that denigrated the mental abilities of black people, even suggesting that African women copulated with apes.
Monticello drew a stream of visitors, many of them Europeans who had found the political idealism of the American Revolution appealing. Jefferson used these moments to reaffirm his hostility to slavery. When outsiders asked what he intended to do to end unfree labor in Virginia, he would tell them that society was not ready for genuine emancipation, or that blacks had the mental capacities of children and could not support themselves as free workers. In 1796, his friend the Duke de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt discovered to his surprise that Jefferson “sees so many difficulties in their emancipation [and] adds so many conditions to render it practicable, that it is thus reduced to the impossible.”
What the outsiders seldom witnessed at Monticello was the raw violence or threats of violence that sustained the plantation economy. When the productivity of the small boys who made nails for Jefferson lagged, he ordered them whipped. Edwin Morris Betts, the scholar who edited Jefferson’s Farm Book, published in 1953, did not include a letter describing the beatings. Like so many of Jefferson’s champions, he concluded that Jefferson “came close on his own plantations to the ideal rural community.” Even his contemporaries marveled at Jefferson’s ability to maintain a reputation as an especially humane master. As a Virginia abolitionist later observed, “Never did a man [Jefferson] achieve more fame for what he did not do.”
Jefferson’s failure is not a small matter that we can conveniently overlook. Wiencek reminds us that political courage requires more than the articulation of noble principles. It assumes a willingness to act on them. Most Virginians found it hard to endorse emancipation of the slaves who brought prosperity to the ruling class. A few planters, however, accepted the challenge. George Washington freed his slaves at the time of his death. Jefferson could have provided similar moral leadership but chose to remain silent. John Adams once warned Jefferson not to be blinded by his own power—a warning that remains timely—“Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all His laws.”
Letter to the Editor:
In [this] thought-provoking review of Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain, T. H. Breen has unfortunately created a false impression of life at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Breen seems to have been deceived by Wiencek’s combination of a fluent narrative style with a shocking mistreatment of the historical record. I’ll mention just two cases.
“When the productivity of the small boys who made nails for Jefferson lagged, he ordered them whipped,” Breen writes. Nothing in this sentence is true. There was no reference to lagging productivity at the time in question, and Jefferson actually ordered the manager of the nailery to refrain from use of the whip “except in extremities.” Jefferson was then experimenting with ways to mitigate the harsh punishment that was usual at the time. Breen is not the only reviewer to have been misled by Wiencek’s arguments, which employ selective quotation, false chronologies, and emotionally loaded language.
Breen includes a Jefferson quotation (“I allow nothing for losses by death, but, on the contrary, shall presently take credit four per- cent. per annum, for their increase over and above keeping up their own numbers”) as if Jefferson were cynically referring to his own slaves at Monticello—an error resulting from Wiencek’s misrepresentation of the document in which this statement appears. Wiencek repeat- edly calls it a description of Jefferson’s own plantation, when in fact it describes a typical southern plantation. Jefferson drew it up in Philadelphia in 1792 for the English agricultural author Arthur Young, in response to Young’s questions about the relative profitability of free and enslaved labor. In it, he calculated the hypothetical profits of a hypothetical Virginia plantation of 2,500 acres. When Jefferson says “I allow nothing” for deaths and takes credit for “their increase,” he is talking neither about himself as a plantation owner nor about his own slaves. He is referring to himself in his role as number cruncher, quantifying the profitability of the imaginary plantation.
There is plenty of room for a book that takes Jefferson to task for feeble moral leadership on the slavery issue and for rationalizing away the cruelties that were inherent in the slave labor system, even at Monticello. A number of recent scholars, myself included, have explored these topics. (It is mystifying that Wiencek does not even mention the work of Pulitzer Prize–winning author Annette Gordon-Reed.) But the erroneous picture drawn by Breen reveals the danger of Wiencek’s sensationalized version of events. What is one to do about influential books that so willfully distort reality?
The writer recently retired as Shannon Senior Historian at Monticello.
T. H. Breen is the William Smith Mason Professor of American History at Northwestern University. He is the author of the forthcoming book “George Washington’s Journey to a New Nation.”