Who was the real Thomas Jefferson?

Historians have mainly sidestepped Jefferson’s personal beliefs and lifelong ownership of slaves, having revered him for his immortal words “All men are created equal.” Based upon two recent books, Jefferson’s honeymoon may be over. In Henry Wiencek’s book “Master of the Mountain,” he states that a reading of Jefferson’s records reveal “a coldblooded taskmaster who ruthlessly exploited child labor and overworked his slaves. He sometimes countenanced brutal punishment, including the whipping of boys as young as 10 or 11, to enhance his profit. Jefferson, who owned over 600 slaves during his lifetime and who bought and sold slaves during the last 50 years of his life, advised friends, “that slavery was a good investment strategy.” Wiencek compared Jefferson with George Washington, who freed his slaves both during and after the Revolution, while Jefferson freed none of his slaves, even upon his death, except only five who were related to his concubine slave Sally Hemings. The rest, some 200 slaves, were condemned to the auction block.

Jefferson is castigated in “The Monster of Monticello,” by Paul Finkelman, a visiting professor of legal history at Duke Law School. Finkelman describes Jefferson as a “creepy, brutal hypocrite, who was deeply hostile to the welfare of blacks, slave or free. His proslavery views were shaped not only by money but also by his deeply racist views, which he tried to justify through pseudoscience.” In his book “Notes on The State of Virginia,” Jefferson wrote that “blacks had a disagreeable odor, copulated with apes in Africa and were incapable of intellectual achievement.” According to Finkelman, “Jefferson opposed both manumission and emancipation; he sometimes punished slaves by selling them away from their families,” justifying it that “Their grief’s are transient.” A proponent of humane criminal codes for whites, “he advocated harsh, even barbaric, punishment for slaves and free blacks.” As a state legislator, “he blocked a law that might have eventually ended slavery in the state.” Finkelman concludes that “None of the founding generation bore a greater responsibility for failure to place our nation on the road to liberty for all than the master of Monticello.”

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