Michael Hattem of the new early Americanist blog The Junto has posted an interesting meta-essay about the controversy surrounding Henry Wiencek’s treatment of Thomas Jefferson in Master of the Mountain.
Rather than work my way through all the complicated exchanges between Wiencek and historians like Annette Gordon-Reed, which Hattem and J.L. Bell have usefully compiled, I’d just like to focus on two issues raised by this controversy: how should historians represent the undeniably immoral practices of the past? and, just as importantly, how should historians understand the proximity of those immoral practices to the rest of those figures’ lives and accomplishments?
For my part, I am not as comfortable as Hattem is to claim that Wiencek’s intensely personal, partisan reaction disqualifies him from scholarly credibility altogether. Hattem writes:
In an interview, Wiencek describes how he came to think of Jefferson after coming across the calculation by saying, “This S.O.B. is utterly cold. That changed my whole perspective.” I imagine many other historians will bristle, as I did, at this blunt rejection of even the veneer of objectivity. This kind of prosecutorial stance and moralistic tone severely undermines one’s scholarly credibility (but not one’s book sales).
I understand that in some sense Wiencek is giving away the game by admitting how much he hated his subject by the time he was done. Yet this kind of frustration is in fact a common response among biographers, after they have spent years documenting the weaknesses, myopia, or petty self-seeking of their subjects.
I do think, though, that Hattem should reflect upon the popular appeal of this genre of “Founding Father” biographies, and recognize how their appeal is caught up within a mutually reinforcing pattern of intensely moralized identification and disidentification (e.g., Meacham and Wiencek’s morally complementary but polarized readings).
So once we get past the overly charitable readings of Jefferson as a benevolent “master” (which AGR has battled for years), we still have the question of whether we try to read Jefferson’s relations with the enslaved portions of his family as a personal failing, or as a situation that men of his class commonly created/experienced. And in this respect, I think AGR’s decision to open out the picture to include the social and legal history of Jefferson’s and the Hemingses’ region was absolutely right, and it usefully contrasts with the more psychologistic approach of Wiencek. The history of slavery is not just a matter of individuals, but also institutions, and the scarcity and fragmentation of the documentary record makes it all the more important, I think, to understand how it did its work as an institution upon all sorts of individuals, whether Thomas Jefferson or John Wayles.
What seems more serious to me, however, is the way that Wiencek appears to be misreading his primary and especially secondary sources, as when he says that his book “systematically demolishes [Gordon-Reed’s] portrayal of Jefferson as a kindly master of black slaves.” Like Hattem and Bell, I don’t think this reading of AGR’s work is sustainable, and it ultimately relates to Wiencek’s reductionist [Hattem’s term] reading of Jefferson as a monster, an unaccountable exemplar of evil.
I think it is fair and arguable for 21st century readers like Corey Robin to place Jefferson’s writings about race and slavery at the center of his legacy (though I would not ever apply a label like “fascist” to an eighteenth-century figure, no matter how retrograde).
What I do wonder about is how to present Jefferson and his actions in a way so that he is not simply a “man of his times,” or “flawed,” but an individual working in an incredibly exploitative social, legal, and political environment. Jefferson, in my view, successfully segmented (we’d say “compartmentalized”) his own thoughts and activities so that the “slave-owner” was apparent in some contexts but not in others. There is no reason for us to accept or continue that separation of the different aspects of his life. But that still leaves the problem of how we relate the author of the Declaration of Independence to the writer of the Notes on the State of Virginia.