But this book does not address its principal concern, power, until Jefferson has accrued some. When it comes to the force that he wielded as a slaveholder, Mr. Meacham finds ways to suggest that thoughts of abolition would have been premature; that it was not uncommon for white heads of households to be waited on by slaves who bore family resemblances to their masters; and that since Jefferson treated slavery as a blind spot, the book can too.
The very existence of slavery in the era of the American Revolution presents a paradox, and we have largely been content to leave it at that, since a paradox can offer a comforting state of moral suspended animation. Jefferson animates the paradox. And by looking closely at Monticello, we can see the process by which he rationalized an abomination to the point where an absolute moral reversal was reached and he made slavery fit into America’s national enterprise.In Salon, Meacham claims "I’m not letting Thomas Jefferson off the hook"
And if someone as monumental in our memories as Jefferson can be seen as someone trying to work out real problems in real time, making compromises, settling for half a loaf when you might want a full loaf, then I think that should give us a kind of confidence and a kind of hope that we can overcome the seemingly insuperable obstacles that lead us to think of politics as contentious and frustrating.And in Slate, Anette Gordon-Reed replies to Wiencek: Thomas Jefferson Was Not a Monster: Debunking a major new biography of our third president.
The book's tone and presentation betray a journalistic obsession with “the scoop.” Getting the scoop can be the life’s blood of journalism. It does not work so well for writing history, which is not always (or almost ever, really) about discovering things previously unknown. This sensibility leads Weincek astray in a number of ways. To begin with, it compels him to write as if he had discovered, and was writing about, things that had not been discovered and written about before. In truth, all of the important stories in this book have been told by others.Wiencek responds in Smithsonian: The author of a new book about Thomas Jefferson makes his case and defends his scholarship
I am not surprised that Gordon-Reed disliked my book so much, given that it systematically demolishes her portrayal of Jefferson as a kindly master of black slaves. In The Hemingses of Monticello, she described with approval Jefferson's "plans for his version of a kinder, gentler slavery at Monticello with his experiments with the nail factory." Gordon-Reed cannot like the now established truth that the locus of Jefferson's "kinder, gentler slavery" was the very place where children were beaten to get them to work. At first I assumed that she simply did not know about the beatings, but when I double-checked her book's references to the nailery I discovered that she must have known: A few hundred pages away from her paean to the nail factory, she cited the very letter in which "the small ones" are described as being lashed there.On 30 NOV, Paul Finkleman in a New York Times Op-Ed countered with :The Monster Of Monticello
Neither Mr. Meacham, who mostly ignores Jefferson’s slave ownership, nor Mr. Wiencek, who sees him as a sort of fallen angel who comes to slavery only after discovering how profitable it could be, seem willing to confront the ugly truth: the third president was a creepy, brutal hypocrite.David Post at Volokh Conspiracy writes: Why Don’t People Get It About Jefferson and Slavery?
This is truly outrageous and pernicious and a-historical nonsense. The truth is that few people in human history did more, over the course of a lifetime, to “place the road on the road to liberty for all” — and indeed, to eliminate human slavery from the civilized world — than Jefferson.Corey Robin at Crooked Timber asks: Thomas Jefferson: American Fasicst? and examines his letters to conclude:
Jefferson was not a liberal hypocrite, a symptom of his time. He was the avant garde of a group of American theorists who were struggling to reconcile the ideals of the Declaration with the reality of chattel slavery. His resolution of that struggle took the form of one of the most vicious doctrines of racial supremacy the world had yet seen. That is his legacy, or at least part of his legacy. He was by no means the only one to take this route, but he was one of the earliest and easily the most famous. He is the tributary of what would become an American tradition.Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic responds to Post: Slavery Is A Love Song
This is a letter that I often turn to. It was written to Laura Spicer by her husband, who was sold away, much as Jefferson sold people away. After emancipation she repeatedly tried to rekindle their love, despite the fact that the husband had now remarried and formed another family. In this letter the husband tells us what it means to be among the refuse of history:Coates reacts to a "predictable" defense of Jefferson
In TK, Jefferson's protege Edward Coles--knowing of Jefferson's brilliant anti-slavery writings--wrote to enlist him in the cause of ridding Virginia of slavery. Coles thought to begin this effort by manumitting his own slaves. Jefferson not only declined to help Coles, but told him he was wrong to try to free his ownHenry Wiencek writes about the 'rumpus' on his blog, while Jon Meacham was interviewed on The Daily Show on 14 NOV: aired segment and full interview.
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