This is an outline of my comments when I reviewed this book at LifeVentures in October 2013.
Consider the following two statements: Aristotle: “From the hour of birth, some men are marked out for subjection, others for rule.”
Jefferson: “All men are created equal.”
For centuries history taught one idea – Aristotle’s view of humanity. Then along came another thinker and stated quite the opposite. Or did he? Did Jefferson mean what he wrote in the Declaration of Independence? Wiencek makes a compelling case that he intended people to mumble “white” under their breath before “men.”
Jefferson is a significant figure in American history. He held many positions with great political influence: diplomat to France, secretary of state, vice president, president twice, past-presidency period. He is credited with writing the Declaration of Independence. He was a man of great influence and intelligence.
This book deals primarily with his relationship to his slaves, not his entire life, although it refers to various periods in his life. It focuses on his paradoxical attitude toward slavery. Early in life he said that slavery was wrong and supported freeing the slaves. He is heralded as the great believer in human rights but in the 1780s a change came over him with regard to slavery. Over his lifetime he owned about 600 slaves altogether, including close relatives, some that were mistaken for him because they resembled him so closely.
Master of the Mountain focuses on Jefferson’s life at Monticello, his magnificent home, built on a small hill, or mountain. It well documented and reasoned.
Monticello was a three-story stately building, full of amazing gadgets, like a dumbwaiter, which made food appear and disappear as if by magic. An underground passageway led to the kitchen where slaves made elaborate meals for him and his many guests.
Hidden from the view of his guests was Mulberry Row with its slave cabins, housing usually about 100 slaves. In 1817 he owned about 140–a lot of people. Some were loyal to him, some related by blood; some of course, were miserable. Jefferson needed slaves to work cheaply – all they required was some shelter and bare subsistence.
Jefferson inherited slavery. He did not start the institution of slavery. It was much discussed during his lifetime with varied solutions offered: ship them to Africa, ship them into the interior to begin their own settlements. Some slave owners freed their slaves.
What was the situation with regard to slaves? “A slave was like money in your pocket,” said one slave. To invest in slaves was to invest in the easiest way to become wealthy. Only land was more valuable. Jefferson’s standard of living at Monticello was dependent upon the institution of slavery. He seemed to say “They should be freed,” and also “I can’t let them go.”
Slaves were considered property or chattel, included in the owner’s estate and bequeathed to others.
They could be bought and sold like cattle at auction, mortgaged, or used as collateral on a loan. J. discovered they were the cheapest way to grow his assets – 4% per annum.
They could be rented out or loaned to some other person
They could be given as gifts to a daughter, for example, as a dowry
They could be used to pay off debts, including those incurred in buying them
They could be set free, problematic because of slave runners
They could be used for the slave owner’s sexual pleasure
They could be bred like cattle by having a partner assigned to them– having babies was encouraged, because it was the cheapest way to produce more. “Breeding” women were given special care.
Slaves were kept illiterate because literacy might encourage them to forge their own papers of emancipation
Slave owners controlled the slave’s family life --marriages ties were broken and family members sold separately -- at his death one family was divided among eight buyers.
Children were given away or sold separately, sometimes when quite young
Slave women were used as nannies and wet nurses for slave owner’s children and as cooks
All children of a slave mother were slaves even if the father was a free man
Most slaves had only one name
They were forced to work hard, usually without pay. Some were paid a low wage by owner. They began work early in life. Boys and girls started at about age ten. Before that they were child caretakers.
Sometimes trained in trades
House slaves, laborers, artisans and field hands had different status in black community—different food and clothing
Slaves were punished at will, sometimes very cruelly. Jefferson left this to overseers.
Lived in poor conditions usually much worse than house of slave owner
Over time Jefferson developed a paradoxical attitude toward them. He shrank from being identified with emancipation of slaves because it was such a touchy political subject. He seemed to write one thing and practice another.
a. Jefferson had a strong sense of justice. Slavery is evil. Blacks have natural rights and slavery denies those rights. Yet he bought and sold slaves, especially when he needed money.
b. Blacks are inferior, he said. They don’t show signs of intelligence and are incompetent people. They need someone to take care of them. Yet he trained many as artisans (smiths, coopers, carpenters, skilled farmers) and gave them significant responsibility and trusted them with big tasks. He even paid some for good work.
c. He disliked brutal overseers who punished slaves inhumanely, yet, he said, if they were punished it was their fault for not being obedient or working hard enough.
d. All men are created equal, have natural rights, but if blacks aren’t fully human they aren’t in this category – “all men” in Declaration of Independence did not mean blacks
e. Miscegenation was a problem to him. For a white woman to bear a “yellow” baby meant staining the blood of the master. But a white man and black woman – no problem.
f. Jefferson owned his own blood relatives, yet when he needed money he sold family members. Money meant more to him than family relationships.
g. Slavery is a detriment to the nation’s development, he said, yet, on the other hand, America as a new nation can’t survive without slavery. There was a movement afoot to exile all slaves, or ship them to parts of America not yet developed. But since they were too lacking in intelligence, this was impossible for them. Also, America didn’t have the resources to do this. And was not ready to do this. A slaveless farmer couldn’t compete with one who owned many slaves.
Why didn’t he free them? “They paid the bills.” “Slavery in a normal sense is an evil; but as connected with commerce it has important uses.”
Why haven’t Americans accepted that Jefferson was a slave owner and sired children by a slave? They prefer the version that he wrote about defending the equality of all men to the one that he lived out in daily life.
Jefferson “strides across the American stage as a potent, overpowering actor: he built Monticello, he wrote the Declaration of Independence, he engineered the Louisiana Purchase. But when it comes to slavery, suddenly Jefferson is not an active force but the pawn of historical forces beyond his control; he becomes a victim .... he is trapped by convention, by society, by laws, by his family, by debt.” Particularly, by debt incurred by his lifestyle. Money was at the root of his problems.