The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson

  • The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson seems a provocative enough title, but in the October 2012 issue of Smithsonian magazine, Henry Wiencek devastatingly details how Jefferson actually treated his (100 +) slaves at Monticello. Rather than the lenient master often described by historians, Mr. Wiencek (acknowledging that Jefferson liked to avoid conflict) demonstrates that Jefferson employed brutal overseers to maximize his profit. And Jefferson personally involved himself to embark on a comprehensive program to modernize slavery, diversify it and industrialize it.

     

    Mr. Wiencek also takes to task eminent Jefferson scholars — Merrill Peterson, Dumas Malone, Joseph Ellis — for perpetuating the story that Thomas Jefferson was a benign owner of slaves. Too bad for his reputation, but this new view of Jefferson by Mr. Wiencek, as well as by a new generation of historians, is a necessary correction to the record.

JDN | 22-Oct-2012

Yet there is no doubt that his natural abilities were what most distinguished [John] Marshal from other lawyers and jurists. His head, said Senator Rufus King, is the best organized of anyone I have known. Marshal could grasp a subject in its whole and yet simultaneously analyze it parts and relate them to the whole. He could move progressively and efficiently from premise to conclusion in a logical and rigorous manner and extract the essence of the law from the mass of particulars. In the words of Justice Story, he had the remarkable ability to seize, as it were by intuition, the very spirit of juridical doctrines. Even Jefferson acknowledged Marshall’s talent, but he scarcely respected it. Jefferson told Story that when conversing with Marshall, I never admit anything. So sure as you admit any position to be good, no matter how remote from the conclusion he seeks to establish, you are gone. So great is his sophistry you must never give him an affirmative answer, or you will be forced to grant his conclusion. Why, if he were to ask me whether it were daylight or not, I’d reply, Sir, I don’t know, I can’t tell.

Gordon S. Wood
Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815 (2009)