Monday, October 01, 2012

The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson

It looks like Thomas Jefferson is about to take a well-deserved beating over slavery.  A new article at, The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson, previews a book by Henry Wiencek scheduled for release on October 16th entitled Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves.  I haven't read the book and don't know the reputation of Mr. Wiencek, but if his conclusions are accurate they are pretty devastating.

And if the article and book are accurate, Jefferson isn't going to be alone in the woodshed.  At least one historian allegedly omitted the ugly details when editing Jefferson's writings, and others then credulously relied on the sanitized results to paint Jefferson in rosy hues:
It was during the 1950s, when historian Edwin Betts was editing one of Colonel [Thomas Mann] Randolph’s plantation reports for Jefferson’s Farm Book, that he confronted a taboo subject and made his fateful deletion. Randolph reported to Jefferson that the nailery was functioning very well because “the small ones” were being whipped. The youngsters did not take willingly to being forced to show up in the icy midwinter hour before dawn at the master’s nail forge. And so the overseer, Gabriel Lilly, was whipping them “for truancy.”

Betts decided that the image of children being beaten at Monticello had to be suppressed, omitting this document from his edition. He had an entirely different image in his head; the introduction to the book declared, “Jefferson came close to creating on his own plantations the ideal rural community.” Betts couldn’t do anything about the original letter, but no one would see it, tucked away in the archives of the Massachusetts Historical Society. The full text did not emerge in print until 2005.

Betts’ omission was important in shaping the scholarly consensus that Jefferson managed his plantations with a lenient hand. Relying on Betts’ editing, the historian Jack McLaughlin noted that Lilly “resorted to the whip during Jefferson’s absence, but Jefferson put a stop to it.”

“Slavery was an evil he had to live with,” historian Merrill Peterson wrote, “and he managed it with what little dosings of humanity a diabolical system permitted.” Peterson echoed Jefferson’s complaints about the work force, alluding to “the slackness of slave labor,” and emphasized Jefferson’s benevolence: “In the management of his slaves Jefferson encouraged diligence but was instinctively too lenient to demand it. By all accounts he was a kind and generous master. His conviction of the injustice of the institution strengthened his sense of obligation toward its victims.”

Joseph Ellis observed that only “on rare occasions, and as a last resort, he ordered overseers to use the lash.” Dumas Malone stated, “Jefferson was kind to his servants to the point of indulgence, and within the framework of an institution he disliked he saw that they were well provided for. His ‘people’ were devoted to him.”

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