No founding father wrote more eloquently on behalf of liberty and human rights than Thomas Jefferson, and none has a more troubling record when it comes to the “peculiar institution” of slavery. At present, the popular understanding of Jefferson’s shilly-shallying on this issue doesn’t extend much deeper than knowing smirks about Sally Hemings and the (unacknowledged) children Jefferson fathered with her. We tend to assume that the dirtiest secrets of the past have to do with sex. But, as Henry Wiencek explains in his new book, “Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves,” the real filth is in the ledger books.
Like Wiencek’s admirable 2003 book, “An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves and the Creation of America,”“Master of the Mountain” is founded on a close examination of its subject’s domestic life and finances. The results are anything but mundane or dry, however. I rarely find myself recommending a book that has, at points, made me physically nauseated, but that’s how palpably Wiencek conveys the obscenity of slavery. His account of Jefferson’s evolving and convoluted position on the subject is all the more damning for his restraint. Ours is an age of inflated rhetoric, when everyone takes the opportunity to fulminate from the highest available horse whenever possible. Wiencek’s method — to present the facts, often in the form of the life stories of enslaved men and women, in a humane, straightforward manner, allowing the reader to form her own interpretation before he presents his — makes for a far more persuasive and devastating indictment. Every American should read it.