A well-rendered yet deeply unsettling look behind the illusion of the happy slaves of Monticello.
That Jefferson was riven by contradictions as both a passionate advocate of liberty and a dedicated slave owner is not new to scholars and historians. Yet Wiencek (An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, 2003, etc.) scours the primary sources, such as Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book, for a thoughtful reexamination of what was really going on behind the harmonious facade of the great house on the mountain. So much about Monticello was artful, full of contrivances, contraptions, inventions and labyrinths. It was an innovative and eccentric place, tricking the eye and keeping the visitor somewhat off balance. Wiencek does note some of the times when the facade was broken: “In one instance, a gentleman dining with Mr. Jefferson, looked so startled as he raised his eyes from the latter to the servant behind him, that his discovery of the resemblance was perfectly obvious to all.” Indeed, all the slaves at Monticello were related to one another, descendants of matriarch “Betty” Hemings, who had been the concubine of Martha Jefferson’s father, rendering Betty’s many children by him, including Sally, her own half siblings. Rather reluctantly, Wiencek looks at the substance behind the scandal of Sally and Jefferson’s reputed liaison and admits solid evidence. The author thoroughly examines Jefferson’s writings, such as Notes on the State of Virginia, for his problematic theories on race, miscegenation and human bondage, and he marvels at the man’s ability to justify what he called an “execrable commerce.” Slave suicides, runaways, whippings by his overseers and his furtive freeing of Sally’s two oldest children—the secrets and evasions compounded one another. Yes, Jefferson inherited slavery, but he knew better.
Beautifully constructed reflections and careful sifting of Jefferson’s thoughts and deeds.