On the heels of a vigorous discussion of how best to tell the story of emancipation prompted by the November release of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, an interesting debate on the legacy of Thomas Jefferson erupted online late last week.* While the Spielberg movie had clearly prompted the earlier discussion, the occasion for the Jefferson discussion was a bit more obscure, though all involved knew that Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain was somehow the cause of the dispute.
The foundation of this recent discussion about Jefferson seems to have been not Wiencek’s book itself (which appeared back in October), nor even the controversies about the book, but rather a November 26 New York Times piece by Jennifer Schuessler about these controversies.
The Schuessler article does a somewhat better job conveying the heat of this dispute than casting light on what exactly is at stake. Wiencek, an independent scholar, indicts Jefferson for his involvement with the institution of slavery and for his treatment of his slaves. While the book received some positive reviews, most academics have been very critical of it. Wiencek, at least as portrayed by Schuessler, suggests that these scholars “inside the Jefferson bubble” are reflexively protecting the third president from criticism. Meanwhile, Schuessler presents academic scholars as dismissive of Wiencek in part because he is not an academic. What gets a bit buried in the article is that the criticism of Wiencek is largely that little in his book is new, and what is new isn’t very convicing. Wiencek apparently argues that, in the middle of his life, Jefferson suddenly realized how profitable slavery was and promptly abandoned his previous objections to the
institution (“It was all about the money,” Schuessler quotes Wiencek as saying. “By the 1790s, he saw [slaves] as capital assets and was literally counting the babies.”). Historians seem to be particularly irked at Wiencek’s attempts to cast all of his opponents as reflexive Jefferson defenders. I don’t have a view of Master of the Mountain
, which I haven’t read. But Wiencek’s suggestion that Annette Gordon-Reed is “inside the Jefferson bubble” is ridiculous. Gordon-Reed came to Jefferson studies as a complete outsider. Her pathbreaking first book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy
, was a broadside directed against Jefferson’s actual reflexive defenders.
The nature of the controversy over Wiencek’s book and of its coverage in the New York Times is worth noting in part because this week’s online discussion of Jefferson, while centering on Wiencek’s subject–Jefferson and slavery–has said relatively little about Wiencek and his book. The opening salvo seems to have been fired by Paul Finkelman, an academic legal historian and author of Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson. Finkelman was quoted by Schuessler as a critic of Wiencek’s claims of great originality. As if to emphasize that his disagreements with Wiencek did not concern the negativity of Master of the Mountain‘s evaluation of Jefferson (nor, for that matter, the desirability of alliterative titles evoking the third president’s home), last Saturday, December 1, Finkelman published an op-ed in the New York Times entitled “The Monster of Monticello,” which argued that Jefferson was a “creepy, brutal hypocrite.” The main source of Finkelman’s disagreement with Wiencek involves the latter’s claim that Jefferson’s devotion to slavery dated from the 1790s. In fact, argues Finkelman, “Jefferson was always deeply committed to slavery, and even more deeply hostile to the welfare of blacks, slave or free.”
David Post, a blogger at the conservative academic blog The Volokh Conspiracy and a Professor of Law at Temple and adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, responded with hostility to Finkelman
, accusing him of purveying “truly outrageous and pernicious and a-historical nonsense.”
Geier pointed out that negative views of Jefferson and his relationship to slavery have become much more mainstream than they were even in the very recent past. I’d agree with this assessment and think that, in general, it reflects progress in scholars’ coming to terms with Thomas Jefferson’s life, thought, and legacy.
However, to me what stands out about this entire debate is how it violates a lot of our expectations when it comes to academic historians’ forays into the public sphere.
Compare it, for example, to what I think is a much more stereotypical example of the form: the debate earlier this year over David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies.
As most readers of this blog know Barton, an evangelical Christian minister, popular historian, GOP activist, and favorite of the far right, enjoyed his national fifteen minutes of fame last year
. The publication of his Jefferson book, however, was greeted with lots of very effective scholarly pushback, eventually leading his publisher to pull all copies from distribution
The controversy over Barton’s The Jefferson Lies thus fulfilled a lot of what one might expect from a conflict between academic and non-academic history in the public sphere: a popular, ideologically-driven author attempted to pass fabrications off as history in order to defend a peculiar, hagiographical portrait of a Founding Father. Academic historians effectively fact-checked him and manage to win the war…or at least the battle.
What’s interesting about the more recent Jefferson scuffle is that the main divisions between the non-academic historian, Henry Wiencek, and his academic opponents are considerably more subtle. Though some have tried to defend an idealized vision of Jefferson, the main conflict is between two negative portraits of him. And the main areas of disagreement involve issues of interpretation (e.g. did Jefferson’s attitudes toward slavery change in the 1790s?) and tone, rather than relatively simple issues of fact and honesty. The result is an opportunity for a more complicated, but still largely negative, portrait of Jefferson-on-race to reach a broader public. This is a good thing. But my guess is that the underlying debate over Wiencek’s book is still rather mysterious for non-historians playing along at home.
* I posted on the debates about Lincoln last Monday, which prompted a fascinating discussion in comments that I did not adequately respond to. Ray then added a fascinating post on Hollywood history later in the week. I plan to return to the questions raised in that conversation and in Ray’s post, though I may not get to it until next Monday.
Tags: .USIH Blog, Abraham Lincoln, blogging, Corey Robin, David Barton, David Post, Henry Wiencek, Paul Finkelman, popular history, Scott Lemieux, Thomas Jefferson