I like to read book reviews the way some people like to read cookbooks. But unlike some of those cookbook readers who are content only to read and not cook, my interest is often piqued enough that I find myself compelled to read some of the books reviewed.
So last month after reading several reviews of Henry Wiencek’s Master Of The Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, I decided to read it.
But since I’m always knee-deep in queued books, I’m still marinating and refrigerating old Tom like a tenderloin for later consumption.
Deifying the old guys.
Schama who said,“True history is the enemy of reverence,” laid bare not only Thomas Jefferson but Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. Concerning Jefferson, it wasn’t so much the well-known revelation that he’d owned slaves but that Jefferson had also rejected the tenet that Jesus Christ was the Son of God along with such things as “the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, and the Resurrection.”
Founding Father Fashionistas.
All that said, it’s still never-no-mind for Founding Father fashionistas among our never-say-die judicial Originalists and “Tea party” types who genuflect at the mere mention of the Founders.
The truth is that our history isn’t as clean or consistent with such veneration, especially if we concede the inherent irony of the late George Carlin’s scoff, “This country was founded by slave owners who wanted to be free.”
Ever since the 1998 DNA study revealing old Tom fathered Eston Hemmings and likely all of slave Sally Hemmings’ children, like on a worn old nickel, that image’s become a bit dulled.
“Monster of Monticello.”
But as it turns out I may now have to take the loin out of the fridge — marinated or not — and read Wiencek’s book on the strength of Duke University law professor Paul Finkelman’s scathing takedown Saturday of the “The Monster of Monticello” and “the ugly truth: the third president was a creepy, brutal hypocrite.” Finkelman’s critique brushes aside Jon Meacham’s just published Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power for generally overlooking that our third President owned slaves. Professor Finkelman takes more issue with Henry Wiencek’s book and mounts an unsparing assault on Jefferson not as the “fallen angel” drawn by Wiencek but as a willful “horrible racist.”
“Contrary to Mr. Wiencek’s depiction, Jefferson was always deeply committed to slavery, and even more deeply hostile to the welfare of blacks, slave or free. His proslavery views were shaped not only by money and status but also by his deeply racist views, which he tried to justify through pseudoscience.
“There is, it is true, a compelling paradox about Jefferson: when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, announcing the “self-evident” truth that all men are “created equal,” he owned some 175 slaves. Too often, scholars and readers use those facts as a crutch, to write off Jefferson’s inconvenient views as products of the time and the complexities of the human condition.
“But while many of his contemporaries, including George Washington, freed their slaves, during and after the revolution — inspired, perhaps, by the words of the Declaration — Jefferson did not. Over the subsequent 50 years, a period of extraordinary public service, Jefferson remained the master of Monticello, and a buyer and seller of human beings.
“Rather than encouraging his countrymen to liberate their slaves, he opposed both private manumission and public emancipation. Even at his death, Jefferson failed to fulfill the promise of his rhetoric: his will emancipated only his five slaves, all relatives of his mistress Sally Hemings, and condemned nearly 200 others to the auction block. Even Hemings remained a slave, though her children by Jefferson went free.
“Nor was Jefferson a particularly kind master. He sometimes punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time.”
Most assuredly, Finkelman’s essay will raise the ire of Jefferson defenders like Rutgers History Professor Jan Lewis already dismayed, for example, with Henry Wiencek at “What Did Thomas Jefferson Really Think About Slavery?” Wait till she gets a load of Finkelman.
Too bad that Jefferson’s apologists among the academy’s highbrows would rather hide behind self-convenient tropes like “Presentism,” which Jefferson-defender Douglas L. Wilson, for instance, relied on 20 years ago when then criticizing our “widespread inability to make appropriate allowances for prevailing historical conditions” and for daring to apply “contemporary or otherwise inappropriate standards to the past.”
Wilson indicted it as “a malaise that currently plagues American discussions of anything and everything concerning the past” and lamented the revisionism that has displaced “the uncritically positive and unabashedly patriotic approach that for so long characterized the teaching of American history in the public schools.”
With such a disturbing focus on past “problems and failures” and on what used to be “ignored or suppressed,” Wilson asked, “How should we remember the leading figures of our history? By their greatest achievements and most important contributions or by their personal failures and peccadilloes?”
“A Philosophic Cock”
And not as though Jefferson didn’t have detractors among his contemporaries.
Furthermore, hero or villain either/or arguments raised by Wilson and by others present false choices. What’s wrong with an unvarnished examination of the events, the lives, and the development of a people and of their institutions? After all, isn’t that what history is about?
Photo Credits: “Cookbook Reading Map 2,” by bibliosopher at Flickr via Creative Commons-licensed content requiring attribution;”Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale in 1800″ by White House Historical Association, at Wikipedia Commons, public domain;”Fashion Statement: by tuppus at Flickr via Creative Commons-licensed content requiring attribution; “Thomas Jefferson – Mt. Rushmore,” by Aaron, Conspiracy of Happiness, at Flickr via Creative Commons-licensed content requiring attribution; Engraving: “‘A philosophic cock’ attributed to James Akin, Newburyport, Massachusetts, ca.1804.” Depicts a caricature of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Heming,” at Wikipedia Commons, public domain.