“Referring to Jefferson as one of ‘the revered fathers of all our political and social blessings’ and extolling the ‘valor, wisdom and virtue [that] have done so much in ameliorating the condition of mankind,’ Coles then sharpened his pen and thrust it straight at the Founder: ‘it is a duty, as I conceive, that devolves particularly on you, to put into complete practice those hallowed principles contained in that renowned Declaration, of which you were the renowned author, and on which we founded our right to resist oppression and establish our freedom and independence.”
The Sage of Monticello — the man who had electrified the world with the bold assertion that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” — was having none of that. As a young man Jefferson had called slavery “this execrable commerce,” a “cruel war against human nature itself,” but now, as a prosperous farmer and businessman, he retreated into equivocation (emancipation must be “gradual”) and insult: “Brought from their infancy without necessity for thought or forecast, [black people] are by their habits rendered as incapable as children of taking care of themselves, and are extinguished promptly wherever industry is necessary for raising young. In the mean time they are pests in society by their idleness, and the depredations to which this leads them.” That was that: “The revolutionary refused to take up the torch, and Coles turned his thoughts to Illinois.”
This exchange between the idealist, determined Coles and the cynical, self-interested Jefferson is at the heart of Wiencek’s brilliant examination of the dark side of the man who gave the world the most ringing declarations about human liberty, yet in his own life repeatedly violated the principles they expressed. This was rumored during Jefferson’s lifetime, as gossip about his relationship with his slave Sally Hemings circulated widely. In recent years DNA testing has proved that her children were fathered by a member of the Jefferson family — virtually all the circumstantial evidence points to Thomas himself — but the emphasis has focused narrowly on the Jefferson-Hemings menage rather than on Jefferson as slaveowner. Now the record has been corrected, to devastating effect.
Wiencek has entered this territory before, first in “The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White” (1999), then in “An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America” (2003), both important books about the tangled history of race in America. Nothing could be much more tangled than the personal history of Jefferson, who beyond dispute was brilliant, eloquent and passionate about the new nation he played so central a role in founding, yet who over the course of his long life “owned more than 600 slaves” and on the whole treated them not much better than did any other Virginia plutocrat to whom they were not human beings but capital, pure and simple. “I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man of the farm,” Jefferson told his son-in-law. “What she produces is an addition to the capital.” Wiencek writes:
“Few biographical tasks are more frustrating than trying to assemble a montage of quotations from Jefferson’s written work that make sense of his stance on slavery. Among the completely contradictory points he advances about slaves and slavery we have: the institution was evil; blacks had natural rights, and slavery abrogated those rights; emancipation was desirable; emancipation was imminent; emancipation was impossible until a way could be found to exile the freed slaves; emancipation was impossible because slaves were incompetent; emancipation was just over the horizon but could not take place until the minds of white people were ‘ripened’ for it.”