‘Master’ Jefferson: Defender Of Liberty, Then Slavery

Posted in Articles, Audio, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, Slavery, United States, Virginia on 2012-10-20 16:49Z by Steven

‘Master’ Jefferson: Defender Of Liberty, Then Slavery

Fresh Air from WHYY
National Public Radio

Maureen Corrigan, Book Critic

His public words have inspired millions, but for scholars, his private words and deeds generate confusion, discomfort, apologetic excuses. When the young Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” there’s compelling evidence to indicate that he indeed meant all men, not just white guys.

But by the 1780s, Jefferson’s views on slavery in America had mysteriously shifted. He formulated racial theories asserting, for instance, that African women had mated with apes; Jefferson financed the construction of Monticello by using the slaves he owned — some 600 during his lifetime — as collateral for a loan he took out from a Dutch banking house; and when he engineered the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Jefferson pushed for slavery in that territory. By 1810, Jefferson had his eye fixed firmly on the bottom line, disparaging a relative’s plan to sell his slaves by saying, “It [would] never do to destroy the goose.”

Faced with these conflicting visions of Jefferson, scholars usually fall back on words like “paradox” and “irony”; but historian Henry Wiencek says words like that allow “a comforting state of moral suspended animation.” His tough new book, Master of the Mountain, judges Jefferson’s racial views by the standards of his own time and finds him wanting. Unlike, say, George Washington, who freed his slaves in his will, Jefferson, Wiencek says, increasingly “rationalized an abomination.”…

…Wiencek also evocatively describes Jefferson’s morning routine — how he would walk back and forth on his terrace every day at first light and look down on a small empire of slaves — among them, brewers, French-trained cooks, carpenters, textile workers and field hands. Many of those slaves were related to each other; some were related — by marriage and blood — to Jefferson himself. Jefferson’s wife had six half-siblings who were enslaved at Monticello. To add to the Gothic weirdness, Jefferson’s own grandson, Jeff Randolph, recalled a number of mixed-race slaves at Monticello who looked astonishingly like his grandfather, one man “so close, that at some distance or in the dusk the slave, dressed in the same way, might be mistaken for Mr. Jefferson.” According to this grandson, Sally Hemings was only one of the women who gave birth to these Jeffersonian doubles.

Wiencek’s scholarship infers that the potent combination of the profits and sexual access generated by slavery made the institution more palatable to Jefferson. As the years went by, Jefferson was called to account by his aging revolutionary comrades — among them the Marquis de Lafayette, Thomas Paine and Thaddeus Kościuszko. All of them pressed Jefferson on the question of why this eloquent defender of liberty would himself be a slave owner. Kościuszko even drew up a will in which he left Jefferson money to buy his slaves’ freedom and educate them, so that, as he wrote, “each should know … the duty of a cytysen in the free Government.”…

Read the entire review here. Listen to it here (00:06:44). Download it here.

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Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves

Posted in Biography, Books, History, Media Archive, Monographs, Slavery, United States, Virginia on 2012-10-19 21:34Z by Steven

Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves

Farrar, Straus and Giroux an imprint of Macmillan
352 pages
Hardback ISBN-10: 0374299560; ISBN-13: 978-0374299569

Henry Wiencek

Is there anything new to say about Thomas Jefferson and slavery? The answer is a resounding yes. Master of the Mountain, Henry Wiencek’s eloquent, persuasive book—based on new information coming from archaeological work at Monticello and on hitherto overlooked or disregarded evidence in Jefferson’s papers—opens up a huge, poorly understood dimension of Jefferson’s world. We must, Wiencek suggests, follow the money.

So far, historians have offered only easy irony or paradox to explain this extraordinary Founding Father who was an emancipationist in his youth and then recoiled from his own inspiring rhetoric and equivocated about slavery; who enjoyed his renown as a revolutionary leader yet kept some of his own children as slaves. But Wiencek’s Jefferson is a man of business and public affairs who makes a success of his debt-ridden plantation thanks to what he calls the “silent profits” gained from his slaves—and thanks to a skewed moral universe that he and thousands of others readily inhabited. We see Jefferson taking out a slave-equity line of credit with a Dutch bank to finance the building of Monticello and deftly creating smoke screens when visitors are dismayed by his apparent endorsement of a system they thought he’d vowed to overturn. It is not a pretty story. Slave boys are whipped to make them work in the nail factory at Monticello that pays Jefferson’s grocery bills. Parents are divided from children—in his ledgers they are recast as money—while he composes theories that obscure the dynamics of what some of his friends call “a vile commerce.”

Many people of Jefferson’s time saw a catastrophe coming and tried to stop it, but not Jefferson. The pursuit of happiness had been badly distorted, and an oligarchy was getting very rich. Is this the quintessential American story?

The thunderstorm that shook the mountain during the telling of Peter Fossett’s story passed. We tourists were deposited back into the present, with shafts of sunlight illuminating a peaceful scene–a broad pathway stretching into the distance, disappearing over the curve of the hillside. Jefferson named it Mulberry Row for the fast-growing shade trees he planted here in the 1790s. One thousand yards long, it was the main street of the African-American hamlet atop Monticello Mountain. The plantation was a small town in everything but name, not just because of its size, but in its complexity. Skilled artisans and house slaves occupied cabins on Mulberry Row alongside hired white workers; a few slaves lived in rooms in the mansion’s south dependency wing; some slept where they worked. Most of Monticello’s slaves lived in clusters of cabins scattered down the mountain and on outlying farms. In his lifetime Jefferson owned more than 600 slaves. At any one time about 100 slaves lived on the mountain; the highest slave population, in 1817, was 140…

…Jefferson made his emancipation proposal around the same time he took on an intriguing legal case, Howell v. Netherland, that illuminates the shifting, increasingly ambiguous racial borderland in colonial Virginia, where strict enforcement of racial laws could have the effect of making white people black.

In the winter of 1769, Samuel Howell, a mixed-race indentured servant who had escaped from his master, sought a lawyer in Williamsburg to represent him in suing for freedom. His grandmother was a free white woman, but his grandfather was black, so Howell had become entrapped in a law that prescribed indentured servitude to age thirty-one for certain mixed-race people “to prevent that abominable mixture of white men or women with negroes or mulattoes.” Howell, aged twenty-seven, was not indentured forever, since he would be freed in about four years, but nonetheless Jefferson felt angry enough over this denial of rights that he took Howell’s case pro bono.

Jefferson later became famous for his diatribes against racial mixing, but his arguments on behalf of Howell, made more than a decade before he wrote down his infamous racial theories, suggest that the younger Jefferson harbored doubts about the supposed “evil” of miscegenation. The word “seems” in the following sentence suggests that he did not quite accept the prevailing racial ideology: “The purpose of the act was to punish and deter women from that confusion of species, which the legislature seems to have considered as an evil.”

Having just one black grandparent, Howell probably appeared very nearly white. But with the full knowledge that Howell had African blood, Jefferson argued to the justices that he should be immediately freed. He made his case partly on a strict reading of the original law, which imposed servitude only on the first generation of mixed-race children and could not have been intended, Jefferson argued, “to oppress their innocent offspring.” He continued: “it remains for some future legislature, if any shall be found wicked enough, to extend [the punishment of servitude] to the grandchildren and other issue more remote.” Jefferson went further, declaring to the court: “Under the law of nature, all men are born free,” a concept he derived from his reading of John Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers, the concept that would later form the foundation of the Declaration of Independence. In the Howell case, Jefferson deployed it in defense of a man of African descent…

Read the entire excerpt here.

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An interview with Henry Wiencek: Slaves and Slavery in George Washington’s World

Posted in Articles, History, Interviews, Media Archive, Slavery, Social Science, United States on 2010-01-06 18:54Z by Steven

An interview with Henry Wiencek: Slaves and Slavery in George Washington’s World

Common-Place: Common Reading
Volume 6, Number 4
July 2006

William Costin (c. 1780-1842), the Washingtons’ mixed-race grandson/nephew. He was the son of Ann Dandridge, enslaved half sister of Martha Washington, and Jacky Custis, Martha’s son. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Henry Wiencek is the author of the acclaimed “An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America” (2003), winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in history and the Best Book of 2003 award from the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. He has also written The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White (1999), which received the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award. In the spirit of rereading, this issue’s Common Reading asks Wiencek to talk about his work on Washington and slavery and to reflect on some of the ways it revises received wisdom about the American past.
Common-place: It seems clear from “Imperfect God” that you learned a great deal from genealogists. For historians working inside the academy, this might seem striking. How was it that you came to be interested in genealogy as a way of addressing larger historical questions about race and slavery?

Henry Wiencek: When I researched my previous book, The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, I could not avoid genealogy and genealogists. That book focused on one extended family with a black side, a white side, and family genealogists on every side trying to reconstruct a lost/hidden past. In several instances I came across documents indicating hidden or forgotten blood ties between the whites and blacks. You can’t avoid finding that kind of information if you’re studying plantation families. It happened everywhere and the evidence is thick on the ground—wills, gifts of land, odd emancipations, payments for education, favored treatment for particular people. I had so many of these stories from Hairston documents and oral history that I couldn’t put them all into the book. And after the book came out more people called or wrote to me about other instances. The other part of this is you have to be careful in evaluating this information—not everything is at it seems.

When you encounter evidence of kinship between owners and slaves you have, first of all, learned something new about the complexity of their world, and next you are confronted with the question: did knowledge of his or her kinship to slaves influence the actions of an owner? Martha Washington‘s first father-in-law, John Custis, all but acknowledged his mixed-race son, freed him, and gave him a very generous bequest. In contrast, Martha held her own half sister in slavery. The existence of this half sister, Ann Dandridge, was one of the great shocks of my research, and I discovered her only because genealogists had written to Mount Vernon about Dandridge and their letters were in the files. I pursued the leads in that correspondence and came up with additional evidence. So through the work of genealogists I came up with information that completely changed our view of what slavery was like at Mount Vernon…

…As to “genealogy as a way of addressing larger historical questions about race and slavery”—genealogy teaches us that many white colonial families had mixed-race kin. It would be fascinating to consult Virginia‘s African American genealogists and see how many of them can trace their families back to leading white families such as the Carters, Lees, Byrds, Randolphs, et al. (Right now I can say “yes” to three of those names—I don’t know about the Byrds, but they’re related to the Custises, so I guess they’d be a “yes” too.) That would give us a sense of how closely entwined these leading families were with slaves. Reading the accounts of the very peculiar, very intense relationship between Landon Carter and his slave Nassau, I have wondered if they were half brothers. My point is that, in public statements, the white male leadership of colonial Virginia reviled miscegenation, and we have come to believe that they were genuinely revolted by race mixing. Then how could these same men so avidly practice it? If they were disgusted by mixed-race people, how could the masters and mistresses of the era staff their houses with mulattoes? Wouldn’t you expect mulattoes to be shunned, exiled? Jefferson is a prime example. He spoke forcefully against racial mixing, but his entire household staff consisted of mulatto and all-but-white slaves, many of whom were his relatives. My thinking is that, to some degree, this eighteenth-century racial-purity talk was smokescreen and rationalization for outsiders. It’s an extremely complex issue….

Read the entire interview here.

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An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America

Posted in Biography, Books, History, Media Archive, Monographs, Slavery, Social Science, United States on 2010-01-06 16:29Z by Steven

An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America

Farrar, Straus and Giroux an imprint of Macmillan
416 pages
5 1/2 x 8 1/4 inches
16 Pages of Black-and-White Illustrations/Map/Notes/Index
Paperback ISBN: 978-0-374-52951-2, ISBN10: 0-374-52951-5

Henry Wiencek

L.A. Times Book Prize – Winner, History

A major new biography of Washington, and the first to explore his engagement with American slavery

When George Washington wrote his will, he made the startling decision to set his slaves free; earlier he had said that holding slaves was his “only unavoidable subject of regret.” In this groundbreaking work, Henry Wiencek explores the founding father’s engagement with slavery at every stage of his life–as a Virginia planter, soldier, politician, president and statesman.

Washington was born and raised among blacks and mixed-race people; he and his wife had blood ties to the slave community. Yet as a young man he bought and sold slaves without scruple, even raffled off children to collect debts (an incident ignored by earlier biographers). Then, on the Revolutionary battlefields where he commanded both black and white troops, Washington’s attitudes began to change. He and the other framers enshrined slavery in the Constitution, but, Wiencek shows, even before he became president Washington had begun to see the system’s evil.

Wiencek’s revelatory narrative, based on a meticulous examination of private papers, court records, and the voluminous Washington archives, documents for the first time the moral transformation culminating in Washington’s determination to emancipate his slaves. He acted too late to keep the new republic from perpetuating slavery, but his repentance was genuine. And it was perhaps related to the possibility–as the oral history of Mount Vernon‘s slave descendants has long asserted–that a slave named West Ford was the son of George and a woman named Venus; Wiencek has new evidence that this could indeed have been true.

George Washington’s heroic stature as Father of Our Country is not diminished in this superb, nuanced portrait: now we see Washington in full as a man of his time and ahead of his time.

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The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Slavery on 2009-11-05 21:25Z by Steven

The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White (review)

Henry Wiencek. The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Xx + 361pp. $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-312-19277-8.

H-Net Reviews: in the Humanities & Social Sciences
April 1999

Catherine Clinton


It was with joy and fear that I finished Henry Wiencek’s breathtaking saga, The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White. Joy, in that I was introduced to such a compelling cast of characters, set within riveting contexts, drawn with insight and erudition, illuminated by vivid, narrative that pulls the reader toward the important reckoning slavery continues to create for us all. Fear, in that the resonance of this story, the compelling quality of the author’s prose, the superior level of his research, both with oral histories and archival digging, may set too high a standard for future work.

But we must all swallow our fears, and let Wiencek’s remarkable confrontation with slavery wash over us. The author allows us to make a journey along with him, by letting us know how he innocuously began his investigation of a North Carolina plantation, and then spent seven years tracking down the remarkable Hairston family from its colonial roots to the present. On the brink of the Civil War the white Hairstons owned forty-five plantations in four states, with combined slave holdings of over ten thousand slaves: Samuel Hairston of Oak Hill, Virginia had land and slaves worth nearly five million dollars–reputedly the largest slaveowner in the South. But Wiencek also began his quest by attending an African American family reunion of Hairstons, with nearly a thousand in attendance from all over the country. His curiosities, his hesitancy, his reverence all interlace his analysis. He joined up on the amazing trek toward their African-American past, guided by the voices of blacks forced to keep counter-accounts, unabashedly determined to restore some balance to whitewashed tales of a plantation past dripping in nostalgia…

Over the past twenty years, numerous scholars have been able to demonstrate the way in which shadow families and white male sexual coercion could and did shape conficts within southern culture, in particular I am thinking of Carol Bleser and Drew Faust on James Henry Hammond, Kent Leslie, Jean Yellin, Adele Logan Alexander, Deborah White, Jacqueline Jones, Mary Frances Berry and Darlene Clark Hine, among others, on African American women’s responses, and Nell Painter, Peter Bardaglio, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, and this reviewer, among others, on white women’s responses.  Although much of this scholarship has become conventional wisdom within southern women’s history, it has been resisted mightily by many scholars working on slavery and on the nineteenth century more generally. The fact that rape, coercion and concubinage were institutionalized within ante-bellum southern slavery remains a contested issue.

The passionate opinions exchanged in late 1998 over DNA testing of descendants of Thomas Jefferson’s female slave, Sally Hemings, has created more than a tempest in a teapo–more like a hurricane, gale winds creating havoc and bluster among historians of early America.

So much of the evidence” concerning interracial heritage, short of DNA testing, remains dificult to dig up. Much of this evidence remains within the realm of oral histories passed down in families–most often black families. It is stumbled upon by modern historians, in the majority white scholars, who have limited access to African American family lore. I am reminded of the white southern scholar who confided to me that when he went to interview a black family in the 1980s he was surprised to see a large portrait of Nathan Bedford Forrest, founder of the Ku Klux Klan, hanging in their home–but was informed Forrest was an ancestor!

The issues surrounding mixed race legacies are topics that I believe academically trained scholars continue to stumble over and continue to stumble around. So it should be no surprise that the most compelling books dealing with this constellation of concerns have been produced by those outside the academy: Shirlee Taylor Haizlip’s The Sweeter the Juice: A Family Memoir in Black and White and Edward Ball’s National Book Award-winning Slaves in the Family

The way in which black and white Hairstons are able to confront or deny their mixed heritage becomes a running theme of the book as well. Does Peter W. Hairston, the white patriarch with whom the author began his quest, really want to know the truths about his family, especially his grandfather? How are Ever Lee Hairston, an outspoken black woman, and Lucy D. Hairston, a white southern lady of the old school, able to make their peace?…

Read the entire review here.

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The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White

Posted in Books, History, Media Archive, Monographs, Slavery, United States on 2009-11-05 20:56Z by Steven

The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White

St. Martin’s Press an imprint of Macmillan
February 1999
ISBN: 978-0-312-25393-6
ISBN10: 0-312-25393-1
6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
400 pages, Plus 16-page b&w photo insert

Henry Wiencek

Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award

The Hairstons is the extraordinary story of the largest family in America, the Hairston clan. With several thousand black and white members, the Hairstons share a complex and compelling history: divided in the time of slavery, they have come to embrace their past as one family.

The black family’s story is most exceptional. It is the account of the rise of a remarkable people—the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of slaves—who took their rightful place in mainstream America.

In contrast, it has been the fate of the white family—once one of the wealthiest in America—to endure the decline and fall of the Old South, and to become an apparent metaphor for that demise. But the family’s fall from grace is only part of the tale. Beneath the surface lay a hidden history—the history of slavery’s curse and how that curse plagued slaveholders for generations.

For the past seven years, journalist Wiencek has listened raptly to the tales of hundreds of Hairston relatives, including the aging scions of both the white and black clans. He has crisscrossed the old plantation country in Virginia, North Carolina, and Mississippi to seek out the descendants of slaves. Visiting family reunions, interviewing family members, and exploring old plantations, Wiencek combs the far-reaching branches of the Hairston family tree to gather anecdotes from members about their ancestors and piece together a family history that involves the experiences of both plantation owners and their slaves. He expertly weaves the Hairstons’ stories from all sides of historical events like slave emancipation, Reconstruction, school segregation, and lynching.

Paradoxically, Wiencek demonstrates that these families found that the way to come to terms with the past was to embrace it, and this lyrical work, a parable of redemption, may in the end serve as a vital contribution to our nation’s attempt to undo the twisted historical legacy of the past.

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