Almost 20 years have passed since the publication of Jeffersonian Legacies, a collection of essays published on the occasion of the Founding Father’s 250th birthday that ushered in a new era of Jefferson scholarship. What were modern Americans to make, the book asked, of the 18th-century slaveholding patriarch who could not envision a multiracial America but who nonetheless authored America’s creed—a vision that has inspired people the world over? At the very least, one had to be, the book suggested, conflicted about the man.
Henry Wiencek is not at all conflicted. He loathes Thomas Jefferson. In Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, his attempted takedown of the man, the third president appears as a demonic figure warped one summer day by a sudden discovery that being a slaveholder could pay. I’ll detail how Wiencek arrives at his bizarre proof of a Jefferson who suddenly becomes Simon Legree, but I should say up front that this book fails as a work of scholarship. This is surprising. I favorably reviewed Wiencek’s book about George Washington, Imperfect God, and I admire The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White. What happened with Master of the Mountain?
The book’s tone and presentation betray a journalistic obsession with “the scoop.” Getting the scoop can be the life’s blood of journalism. It does not work so well for writing history, which is not always (or almost ever, really) about discovering things previously unknown. This sensibility leads Weincek astray in a number of ways. To begin with, it compels him to write as if he had discovered, and was writing about, things that had not been discovered and written about before. In truth, all of the important stories in this book have been told by others.
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