History is like a microscope. One doesn’t see widely and the depth of field is limited. Evident of this, a web search reveals for example that some 15,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln. A perfect understanding might be approachable but it is never fully achievable. History is incrementally refreshed by study and discussion and, even after hundreds of years, by material newly-discovered from archives, archaeology and other sources. And so it was for the cover article on Thomas Jefferson for this month’s Smithsonian Magazine.
As precis for a new book coming out next week historian Henry Wiencek combines archeological evidence recently unearthed at Montecello with fresh material from archives, some that had been hidden and repressed, to give us a fresh look at Jefferson and his world. I tell you in all candor that it changed my understanding not only of Jefferson but of the culture in which he lived. The Amazon.com book summary describes the message better than I could:
Is there anything new to say about Thomas Jefferson and slavery? The answer is a resounding yes. Master of the Mountain, Henry Wiencek’s eloquent, persuasive book—based on new information coming from archaeological work at Monticello and on hitherto overlooked or disregarded evidence in Jefferson’s papers—opens up a huge, poorly understood dimension of Jefferson’s world. We must, Wiencek suggests, follow the money.
So far, historians have offered only easy irony or paradox to explain this extraordinary Founding Father who was an emancipationist in his youth and then recoiled from his own inspiring rhetoric and equivocated about slavery; who enjoyed his renown as a revolutionary leader yet kept some of his own children as slaves. But 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 profits” gained from his slaves—and thanks to a skewed moral universe that he and thousands of others readily inhabited. We see Jefferson taking out a slave-equity line of credit with a Dutch bank to finance the building of Monticello and deftly creating smoke screens when visitors are dismayed by his apparent endorsement of a system they thought he’d vowed to overturn. 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. Parents are divided from children—in his ledgers they are recast as money—while he composes theories that obscure the dynamics of what some of his friends call “a vile commerce.”
Many people of Jefferson’s time saw a catastrophe coming and tried to stop it, but not Jefferson. The pursuit of happiness had been badly distorted, and an oligarchy was getting very rich. Is this the quintessential American story?
An analysis of Jefferson’s letters reveals that he had a financial epiphany about slavery. He had a nail factory on the premises of Monticello wherein slave boys aged 10 to 14 toiled 12 hours a day making nails. Going over his accounts he realized that the profits from a mere two months of this were so great as to pay for his plantation’s food for a full year! And not only was this “peculiar institution” self-supporting, albeit with some management problems, but it contained the element of profitable growth through birthing more slaves. Slaves as a financial asset were second only to land itself in the economy of the Deep South.
Sadly, the truth is that cupidity derived from slavery was central in
corrupting a man who had been an historical paragon of individual freedom. To fully understand how this could happen to Jefferson you need to appreciate the ardor of this intellectual man for his lifestyle. He had a grand plantation house, one that incorporated his own inventions in its design. He had a great library, excellent gardens, art furnishings. He held marvelous dinner parties for guests that included the literati and power elite of his time. And it was all built and serviced by slavery.
This story is especially timely because it bears on three elements pertinent to the politics of the current election season: economics, as in the leverage by which the wealthy become more wealthy, political theory, as in how high principles can be compromised by the love of money, and racism, as in the gritty and cruel means by which that peculiar institution was necessarily enforced.
To the latter point, you may think, as I once did, that you understand the nature of slavery. You may think, as some Southerners I’ve known have thought, that slavery was not all bad, that for example some plantation owners like Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jefferson were kindly and beneficent masters who made a better life for their slaves than they probably would have had in Africa. Wiencek’s article challenges such notions by revealing that black people, contrary to stereotypes like Uncle Remus and the house servants at the Tara plantation in the movie, Gone with the Wind, yearned for freedom no less than did whites, and could be just as courageous and passionate in its pursuit. But it is the very methods of control that were used, such as the separation of families, which reveal by their nature the terrible truth that the masters knew the slaves were no less human than they themselves.
Another blogger sent me an email the other day, purporting to be a listing of articulate complaints expressed by the comedian Michael Richards when was hauled into court for a racial public outburst, complaints with which the sender generally agreed. The message was that blacks want special status and laws to offset the effects of things that happened many years ago, considerations that whites are not afforded. The writer rationalizes that black people, now that they have all the rights and privileges of citizenship, ought to shut up and stop whining about pushing a racial agenda. But slavery has trans-generational effects, both cultural and financial. White people were not the slaves of black people six generations ago, it was the other way around, and that is the difference. A check on Snopes.com showed, by the way, that the words were not Richards’ at all. His actual words were much more crude and terse, but the circulation of the falsehood shows that racism is alive. I think we all know that it’s an important undercurrent in politics as the first black President seeks reelection.
The Smithsonian article, “The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson” is accessible online and eminently readable.