The firestorm over author Henry Wiencek’s unsparing portrait of Thomas Jefferson, “Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves,” has taken to the pages of the New York Times and other media outlets with a vengeance. Amid tepid praise for Jon Meacham’s folksy best-seller, ”Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power,” which skirts the complex world of slavery , it is Wiencek’s hubristic treatment that has returned Jefferson to center stage in historians’ long-standing war over whom to blame first and foremost for our racist underpinnings as a nation.
Wiencek seizes upon stray notes in Jefferson’s hand in which the Virginia planter performs cold calculations on the monetary value of slaves. A Scrooge-like Jefferson becomes cruel and uncivilized as he obsesses over the slave economy – which he comes to see as a “convenient engine” of American growth. You don’t remove the human face from slavery and come out ahead. But that is what Henry Wiencek has done to Thomas Jefferson.
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