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Who Was the Real Thomas Jefferson?

A heated op-ed war among historians is picking up where two controversial new biographies left off this fall.
 
 
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The firestorm over author Henry Wiencek’s unsparing portrait of Thomas Jefferson,  “Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves,” has taken to the pages of the  New York Times and other media outlets with a vengeance.  Amid tepid praise for Jon Meacham’s folksy best-seller,  ”Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power,” which skirts the complex world of slavery, it is Wiencek’s hubristic treatment that has returned Jefferson to center stage in historians’ long-standing war over whom to blame first and foremost for our racist underpinnings as a nation.

Wiencek seizes upon stray notes in Jefferson’s hand in which the Virginia planter performs cold calculations on the monetary value of slaves. A Scrooge-like Jefferson becomes cruel and uncivilized as he obsesses over the slave economy – which he comes to see as a “convenient engine” of American growth. You don’t remove the human face from slavery and come out ahead. But that is what Henry Wiencek has done to Thomas Jefferson.

Swayed as many of us were by Wiencek’s deft examination of George Washington and slavery, Jefferson scholars expected a hard-hitting sequel. But in its design to shock, “Master of the Mountain” rashly removes the conversation from the long-active scholarly community, by self-consciously claiming that Wiencek, as historical detective, has smoked out a criminal.

Here’s the irony: Nothing is new in the current debate. Jefferson and his fellow founders have been sensationalized in the press and in popular literature and academic monographs without cease for over 200 years. For the uninitiated reader who has not followed the long parade of books on Jefferson, every spin on the third president appears at first to have merit. Jefferson has been a political symbol since he first sought the presidency, and a piñata in America’s culture wars for nearly as long as that.

Matthew Livingston Davis, Aaron Burr’s first biographer, actually knew Jefferson. When Thomas Jefferson Randolph published four volumes of his grandfather’s papers in 1829, Davis went through the letters and was shocked to discover that the Virginian’s real talent lay in deception. His favorite term of derision for Jefferson was “Jesuitical.” But the award for the most entertaining portrait of a villainous, hypocritical Jefferson goes to the late Gore Vidal. In his fictional  “Burr,” we get a president who violated the Constitution while seducing his foes at the dinner parties he threw (those gatherings Jon Meacham offers up as his model of bipartisanship). Vidal’s Jefferson is surrounded by mixed-race offspring; his concubine Sally Hemings is pretty, but unfalteringly stupid.

Meacham’s Jefferson is “attractive and virile,” a smooth operator, serenely philosophical about the criticism he regularly receives, and a man who swings gleefully from realism to idealism, blending republican politics with haute cuisine. Oh, and also a master compromiser (which he was decidedly not). These characterizations of the sensitive politico serve to reframe the Jefferson biography as a Bob Woodward-style, inside-the-White-House intimate drama. Making Jefferson recognizable to us as a practitioner of political hardball allows the biographer to go on Chris Matthews’ “Hardball” and delight the host with comparisons to whatever is happening in Washington this week.

A studious historian strives to contextualize evidence. The 4 percent annual profit on the births of slave children that Wiencek seizes on is not pretty; no one gives Jefferson high marks, because there is no such thing as a good master. Yet the evidence Wiencek plucks from the page belongs to a conversation, foreign to our time, that took place in general terms relating to the collective self-interest of Southern elites who had inherited feelings of racial superiority. The evidence should be viewed as well in the context of those pages Jefferson produced when he doodled daily with numbers and lines, sketching out his parquet floors. In designing Monticello, he saw his world as a mathematical puzzle and calculated to fractions of an inch when builders of his day couldn’t come anywhere close. He said he lulled himself to sleep by conjuring “diagrams and crotchets” (wooden building supports).

 
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