Brow Beat

The Debate Over Thomas Jefferson’s Slaves Rages On

The cover of Henry Wiencek’s controversial new book Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves

In a critique published last month in Slate, Thomas Jefferson biographer Annette Gordon-Reed attacked Henry Wiencek’s new book Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves for “recycling stories” and providing misleading information to satisfy “a journalistic obsession with ‘the scoop.’

Gordon-Reed particularly took exception with the biography’s assertion that Jefferson discovered that the birth of black children at his estate furnished him with a 4 percent profit, and the idea that this realization prompted him to switch positions on slavery. Gordon-Reed wrote, “The third president appears as a demonic figure warped one summer day by a sudden discovery that being a slaveholder could pay.” The four-percent refers to Virginia farms as a whole, Gordon-Reed argued, and was not a personal epiphany that altered Jefferson’s entire outlook on slavery.

Now, in a response to Gordon-Reed’s piece and other criticism of his book from the Daily Beast, Henry Wiencek has taken to the Smithsonian’s website to defend his “four-percent theorem,” arguing that there’s further evidence that Gordon-Reed did not acknowledge and respond to. Wiencek also stands by his conviction that Jefferson failed to honor Thaddeus Kosciuszko’s 1798 will requesting that Jefferson free his slaves—a document Gordon-Reed called one draft of many, whose execution would have provoked “a litigation disaster”—which failure he says reveals Jefferson’s anti-liberation sentiment.

Wiencek further writes that Gordon-Reed’s opposition may result from his challenge to her book The Hemingses of Monticello, which won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, since his book “systematically demolishes her portrayal of Jefferson as a kindly master of black slaves.” When contacted by Slate, Gordon-Reed declined to make a further reply. However, the Smithsonian article did run with another critique of Wiencek’s account, from Lucia Cinder Stanton, author of Those Who Labor for My Happiness: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

To read Wiencek’s defense and Stanton’s critique, head over to the Smithsonian website.