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Originally published October 28, 2012 at 5:02 AM | Page modified October 30, 2012 at 4:09 PM

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'Master of the Mountain': Thomas Jefferson's enduring support of slavery

Henry Wiencek's new book, "Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves," clearly documents that founding father Jefferson aided, abetted and profited by slavery.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves'

by Henry Wiencek

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 319 pp., $35

Thomas Jefferson towers over American history. He wrote the Declaration of Independence, served as the nation's third President, second Secretary of State and Ambassador to France. He engineered the Louisiana Purchase, and commissioned the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Lionized in American history for his soaring defense of individual liberty, Jefferson's extensive slaveholdings have been curiously downplayed, dismissed as beyond his control, or excused.

In his new book, "Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves," noted historian Henry Wiencek, author of "An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America," takes on the formidable task of setting the record straight. Jefferson was a lawyer by training and carefully curated his correspondence to portray himself as opposed to slavery and in favor of emancipation. He wrote what he described as "soft" answers to those who questioned slavery, suggesting emancipation at some point in the undefined "future" when circumstances were right.

But despite enormous power and influence, Jefferson did little to actually end slavery during his lifetime. It was, in fact, the source of his wealth and prosperity. He calculated the profits his hundreds of slaves earned him, even putting the children to work making nails or weaving cloth, under the harsh supervision of his overseers, who routinely beat the children. Slave children were sold or presented as gifts, and slaves' marriages were destroyed when one spouse was sold or transferred to distant locations.

Jefferson removed himself from direct involvement in the messy details slavery entailed. He built Monticello itself so that visitors would be dazzled by displays of exotic Lewis and Clark artifacts and reminders of his intellect, while the slave housing remained safely out of sight.

Curiously, history has conspired to overlook, downplay or excuse it all. While Jefferson powerfully dominates early American history, in our collective memory his slaveholding is different: he becomes a victim of historical circumstance, trapped by social convention, unable to right so clearly a wrong. This is, of course, nonsense. Contemporaries not only could but did emancipate their slaves, including George Washington himself.

Jefferson fathered several children by Sally Hemmings, one of his slaves. Hemmings, then only 16 years old, accompanied Jefferson to France when he served as Ambassador. She could have remained there, free under French law, but returned with Jefferson after striking a bargain that would free her children from slavery in return for her continued service. The relationship, hotly contested since Jefferson's own time, is now beyond dispute with DNA proof. But curiously, it has served to only burnish his reputation — as a tormented lover and father of a multiracial family. But such a sympathetic reading requires, as Wiencek notes, an "enormous act of forgetting" — forgetting the hundreds in bondage, hidden from view in Monticello, bought, sold and beaten like animals.

Wiencek carefully probes the historical record, parsing the enormous body of Jefferson literature. His work is a thoughtful and well-documented contribution, offering a powerful reassessment of our third president. He notes the irony that many "accept Jefferson as the moral standard of the Founders' era, not Washington." Perhaps, he suggests, Washington's emancipation of his slaves stands as too stark an example, demanding that those who claim to have principles live by them. Quite obviously, our young Republic did not — an enduring stain on our nation's founding. Jefferson offers a more complicated compromise, concealing harsh injustice with soaring rhetoric and promises of a better future. Just like, one might note, America at its founding.

Kevin J. Hamilton is a Seattle lawyer.

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