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The perfect landed southern gentleman, Jefferson’s earliest memory was, he said, of being carried on a pillow by a slave; and in so many ways he was carried by slaves ever afterwards, even if he chose to call them servants or labourers or colleagues.  They cut his wood, cooked his meals, scrubbed his floors, opened and closed his doors, and waited on his every whim.  His life was built on slaves and debt: things Adams and Washington abhorred.

Jefferson, seen by many Americans as the moral standard of the revolution, is subjected to clinical dissection in Henry Wiencek’s latest book.  Jefferson’s somewhat nuanced and compartmentalized, or shall we now just be honest and say hypocritical, relations with slavery are explored in this wonderful new book “Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and his slaves” published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux and due out on the shelves later this month.

Wiencek contrasts Jefferson’s difficulties of resolving his desperate need for the money and the financial salvation slavery brought him, with the need to appear the liberal revolutionary philosopher striving to rid America of the institution.  Jefferson does not come out well from the encounter. Far from being the voice of modernising America, Jefferson is shown as an old reactionary seeking to entrench slavery at every turn, philosophically, financial and personally.

Wiencek has a section that trains his lights onto Jefferson’s business life, showing that whilst stating in his youth how dreadful the whole business of slavery is, in his maturity Jefferson turns his slaves at Monticello into a baby factory.  He ordered his manager to take special care in the treating of the “breeding” women, rearing slaves not for work on the plantation, but as a product in themselves for market like cattle.

Politically, as President, and in his dealing with the great expansion of America that came with the Louisiana purchase, rather than ensuring that slavery would be outlawed in the new lands, Jefferson once again reneges on his moral principles.  Reversing his previous policy of exclusion Jefferson recognised “that slavery alone could fertilize these colonies” and allows the plantations into the new lands, thereby entrenching slavery. .

But it is in Jefferson’s private life that Wiencek hits hardest.  Wiencek revisits one aspect of Jefferson’s life with his slaves that is truly Southern Gothic in its grotesqueness.  Jefferson’s sexual relations with his slaves give additional zest and piquancy to this story, and Sally Hemmings – the slave in question- was not just any young girl whose charms had caught Jefferson’s eye.

For Sally was his both a slave and his sister-in-law, the product of generations of slave-owner abuse.  Sally was born to a slave of John Wayles, who was the father of Jefferson’s wife Martha.

Sally’s mother was herself mixed race, and probably only half black, perhaps even three quarters white, and said to be very light skinned; so light that her children by Jefferson were able to pass as “fully white”.  She was described by Isaac Jefferson (no relation) as “mighty near white…very handsome, long straight hair” and Jefferson’s grandson Henry Randolph Jefferson remembered her as “light coloured and decidedly good looking”.  Yum yum.

It is almost beyond comprehension that apart from having family by one’s wife’s half sister, one could then keep her and the children –one’s own children- as slaves!  The whole ménage a trios lived under the same roof.  Except of course Sally lived in the slave block.  Her children only became free on Jefferson’s death.  Sally however remained a slave to the end.

And people think Fritzl was strange.

The American establishment have never been happy with this story and many past commentators stated with olympian authority–and more than a touch of the Mable Lucie Attwells-that no Southern Gentleman would sleep with his slaves, and so, as Jefferson was the epitome of the Southern Gentleman, it is vanishingly unlikely he did either.  As Gore Vidal once waspishly noted, “on such weak syllogisms is false character constructed”.  Wiencek forensically examines all the evidence and revisits old sources anew.  His conclusions are both magisterial and damning.

His book should be required reading.

Copyright David Macadam 2012