Making Slavery Safe: Jefferson and Monticello
Henry Wiencek in conversation with The Straddler

James Wrona

On April 3, 2013, The Straddler met historian and journalist Henry Wiencek at a café in the historic 30th Street Station in Philadelphia to discuss his most recent examination of the American Founders' engagement with slavery.

In Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2012) Wiencek complicates our understanding of Jefferson's relationship with slavery. By marshaling evidence found in Jefferson’s papers and ledgers, Wiencek suggests that Jefferson was not the ambivalent slaveholder of popular understanding, but instead a former public emancipationist who self-servingly turned to supporting slavery for personal gain and Southern sectional strength.

Wiencek's other books include The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award, and An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Best Book award from the Society for Historians of the Early Republic.

Wiencek, April 3, 2013
Monticello is first of all a monument to Jefferson: it’s a monument to our memory of Jefferson and to our encounter with notions of what the founding is. It is also a monument to slavery: Jefferson’s slave Jupiter shaped the columns that hold the place up. His slave John Hemmings fashioned some of the superb woodwork.[1] 

One of Jefferson’s cultural roles has been, and continues to be, to make slavery safe.  Slavery is an explosive, toxic subject. Jefferson is one of the portals, and perhaps the chief portal, through which the mainline culture gets an understanding of how slavery worked. It’s soothing to portray Jefferson as a benign slave master, someone who treated his slaves well, who had an emotional relationship with Sally Hemings and a positive emotional relationship with his multi-racial offspring—so soothing that we cling to this vision in defiance of the evidence. A benevolent Jefferson makes us feel better about the whole problem of slavery because we can tell ourselves that most elite slaveholders were just like him and the “bad guys” were anomalies. It allows us to shift the blame for slavery’s cruelties onto anonymous overseers.

Because the image of a benevolent Jefferson is crucial to our culture, Jefferson escaped any general disapproval or condemnation when DNA and historical evidence linked him to a relationship with Sally Hemings. Before the DNA study, there was a consensus that Jefferson would be ruined if it could ever be proved that he had fathered slaves with Sally Hemings. It would reveal him as a liar, a rapist, and an exploiter of the worst kind. Then the DNA tests came out, and there was an immediate reversal. We said, well it’s a good thing: Jefferson was a secret, tormented lover; a secret, tormented father of a proto-multicultural family. The transformation was incredible. When Sally Hemings was revealed as Jefferson’s sexual partner, we didn’t want her to be categorized as a victim or as someone who was sexually collaborating with the master to get better treatment for herself. She had to be transformed into a proto-modern woman who made good choices.

The way was prepared in the 1970s when Fawn M. Brodie released her biography of Jefferson and presented the relationship as a secret romance.[2] Brodie was able to get away with that—and Annette Gordon-Reed painted a similar picture[3]—at the cost of distorting what Madison Hemings said in his memoir.[4] Hemings called his mother a concubine—a very harsh word. His whole memoir is a melancholy, even bitter recollection of his life at Monticello. He says that his father all but ignored him and his siblings, that Jefferson was not in the habit of showing them any affection. Hemings does not give any examples of time he spent with Jefferson, his father. It’s a memoir of alienation and abandonment. So in order to present a happy image of a secret multicultural family with strong emotional ties, you have to completely ignore what the son said.

Of course, one of the most difficult issues in dealing with Jefferson and slavery is the question of presentism. In writing the book, I was consistently trying to judge him by the standards of his own time, and to hold him up against people such as George Washington, who freed his slaves; Edward Coles, who freed his slaves; Marquis de Lafayette, who urged Jefferson to free his slaves; Thaddeus Kościuszko, who gave Jefferson money to free his slaves; Thomas Paine, who urged him to put into action a plan that Jefferson had outlined in France to settle free slaves on land and give them the chance to become self-sufficient.

There were many people in Jefferson’s own time, including his private secretary, William Short, who challenged Jefferson’s racial theories and his inaction on slavery. They expected him to take the lead in fighting for emancipation—as we do—because they saw him as the man who most embodied the American ideals of justice and liberty for all. Jefferson put them off with what he called his soft answers, insisting that he opposed slavery while offering a range of excuses for doing nothing. His high card was race: the blacks could not be freed because then we would have racial mixing—but he himself had mixed-race children.

In the Declaration of Independence, and in some of his other writings, Jefferson spoke words and created formulas of freedom that embodied our deepest desires, so they are adaptable to almost any cause. The civil rights movement, for example, was able to fly the Jeffersonian banner—and the great irony is that that is the last movement that he would have wanted to see his banner floating over. To his dying day, his wish was to exile all black people. He wanted a white man’s republic.  Jefferson never intended those blessings of liberty to descend on African Americans.

Jefferson used the word “happiness” in the Declaration of Independence, but he also used it in a peculiar way in reference to his slaves. He referred to his slaves as “those who labor for my happiness” and said that once his needs had been taken care of he would begin to look out for the happiness of those below him—but their “happiness” did not include freedom. They would have to find their happiness in slavery. Using rewards and incentives, he set out to persuade his slaves that it was in their interest to be good, cooperative slaves and make the whole plantation mechanism move forward profitably and harmoniously, without any conflict or unpleasantness for anyone.

Jefferson portrayed himself as a benevolent master who deserved all of the wealth that he could wring out of his slaves because it was their place in the world to provide for him.  In a way, he and the other slave holders are precursors of the Ayn Rand character, who would say, “everything you working people get comes from me, because I’m the one who has set up this wonderful system in which you can survive.”

As an institution, slavery was very deceptive. It required deception to function because it was so inherently cruel. None of the owners wanted physical cruelty to be visible. Jefferson in particular, in ways that other slave holders followed, found methods of putting the most genteel side of slavery on full view so that he, his family, and visitors would encounter slavery as a very benevolent institution—through very light-skinned enslaved servants who were well dressed, well fed, well groomed; who were very attentive; who complained about nothing; who seemed to be contented with their lot.

But visitors who had very deeply imbibed the revolutionary American notions of liberty and justice were nonetheless appalled. People who really believed in the American ideal of liberty could not understand how Jefferson could create a system that was based on the ownership of other people. The system functioned on deception, and it continues to deceive us today, because even at historic sites like Monticello, where tremendous strides have been taken to do historical research, we still mostly see the “benevolent” face of slavery—the deceptive façade that Jefferson himself erected. 

Jefferson consciously shaped his image with posterity in mind. He designed the Monticello mansion and its landscape to influence the way visitors would perceive him and write about him. That’s why he took steps to hide the worst aspects of slavery from visitors. One visitor who came to Monticello said that when she ascended Jefferson's mountain she couldn’t see any trace of human labor or industry.  It was all happening out of sight.

In crafting his image, Jefferson disparaged black people at every opportunity. He said they were incompetent, like children, because they had no notion of the future and couldn’t plan. If you look at the reality on the ground, they were bringing in wheat and tobacco crops that Jefferson said were extraordinary; they produced great wealth for him. His cabinetmaker, John Hemmings, produced woodwork that Jefferson said was the finest in the country. His two female chefs at Monticello had been trained by professionals at the White House. Those two women, along with the enslaved butler and gardener, ran a culinary operation that was matchless. I would compare it to running a small luxury hotel today. And yet, Jefferson went around saying that these people were stupid and couldn’t plan anything.  His food staff, which included scores of people all around the mountain, working unsupervised by whites, were able to plan months in advance for raising food—chickens, eggs, vegetables, fruit, all of that, which was then provided to the mansion. But he endlessly propagandized against them. He had to keep up the image that these people were inferior and deserved their position, because otherwise his whole slavery program would be called into question. None of his arguments bore any relation to reality. And yet, to this day, Jefferson's partisans take him at his word, literally, and proclaim that Jefferson was a life-long opponent of slavery.

We rightly venerate Jefferson because he embodies the ideals of liberty and democracy and religious freedom. But slavery was a huge part of that. It was not just something on the side, it was at the core. As Edmund Morgan pointed out back in the 1970s in his book American Slavery, American Freedom, it’s because they had slaves that Virginians were able to create the beginnings of a democratic society.[5] They knew that they were not empowering a white working class that would vote them out of power. Their working class in Virginia was perpetually enslaved, would never have a voice, and certainly would never have a vote. So the elite in Virginia felt very comfortable with creating a democratic system. Morgan’s thesis is one of the most troubling, unsettling analyses of American history ever written.

Jefferson dispensed heavenly benefits on this country in the Declaration of Independence—but he dispensed all of those to white people. People will say today, you have to balance the good he did with the bad. And I say, no, he never had any sense of balance in his mind. The benefits that he created were to be bestowed exclusively on white people. For black people, the fate was always exile.

When we think about the impact that Jefferson could have had on the future of slavery, we don’t have to imagine a completely different Jefferson. We just have to go back to the young Jefferson, who was a radical emancipationist, who called for the enfranchisement of Virginia slaves, who called for the end of the slave trade in the Declaration of Independence in a clause that was deleted, who spoke later of making his own slaves citizens. That Jefferson faded away. There was the Jefferson of 1784, who proposed language for the Ordinance of 1784 that would have excluded slavery from new territories of the U.S. after 1800. That language would have excluded slavery from Alabama and Mississippi. It failed by one vote. But that was Jefferson’s idea: slavery would be curtailed and put on the road to extinction. As he grew older and more politically and personally pragmatic, and as the ideals of the revolution faded, he moved away from that position, so that when he acquired Louisiana, he put slaves in there perpetually.

Jefferson certainly could have had a powerful impact on slavery in Virginia if, after his presidency, he had decided, as a number of people urged him, to take the lead in pushing Virginia towards a gradual emancipation plan. But he didn’t want to do even that. Certainly there would have been intense opposition. But if Jefferson had taken the lead in urging slaveholding Virginians to find a way to begin to end slavery, he might have accomplished something. He certainly could have put it on the front burner. He never did.

I think that Jefferson so detested the Hamiltonian vision of America as a place of cities and manufacturing and banking that his sectional antipathies were increased and he became a very strong southern sectionalist. He wanted to preserve slavery as the engine of the southern economy because it would keep it independent of the north. He established the University of Virginia specifically to be a place of education for southern planters, so that they wouldn’t have to go north and be infected by northern ideas. He wanted to expand slavery into Louisiana because it would expand the southern power base. It is a very strange contradiction that Jefferson spoke of a republic of small, self-sufficient farms and then, when he bought Louisiana, did everything he could to promote the interests of the large-scale slaveholders. One of the great tragedies of American history is that Jefferson did not seize the moment and take the lead when many in Congress wanted to restrict slavery in Louisiana. If he had drawn a line along the map—as he had proposed in 1784—and declared, “no, we are not going to put slavery there, we are not going to expand it,” our history might have been different.



[1] John Hemmings spelled his surname with two “m”s, unlike other members of his family who used “Hemings.” Wiencek, Henry. Master and the Mountain. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012. 33, 175.

[2] Brodie, Fawn M. Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. New York: W.W. Norton, 1974.

[3] Gordon-Reed, Annette. The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008.

[4] The memoir of Sally Hemings’ son Madison Hemings, published in an Ohio newspaper in 1873. An accurate transcription can be found on

[5] Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: W. W. Norton, 1975.


E-Mail this page to a friend

Your Name

Your E-mail

Friend's Name(s)

Friend's E-Mail

(Separate multiple e-mail addresses with commas)