U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Notes on the State of Thomas Jefferson

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.”
Much of the rest of the academic blogosphere followed with a series of posts agreeing wholeheartedly with Finkelman’s indictment of Jefferson. For example, Corey Robin wrote a long post arguing that Jefferson’s thought was a tributary of fascism (though he later emphasized that the connection between Jefferson and fascism was more related to his views on race than on slavery per se).  Scott Lemieux blogged for Finkelman and against Post on Lawyers, Guns and Money.  Yesterday, Kathleen Geier of the Washington Monthly‘s Political Animal blog noted the controversy.
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.

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* 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.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “For example, Corey Robin wrote a long post arguing that Jefferson’s thought was a tributary of fascism (though he later emphasized that the connection between Jefferson and fascism was more related to his views on race than on slavery per se).”

    Linking Jefferson to fascism does not strike me as the most compelling way to frame a discussion of the historical accuracy of portraits of Jefferson.

  2. On the other hand, Robin’s comments about Jefferson grappling with emancipation and not slavery are insightful. Should have gone with that angle instead of going all Godwin’s Law from the gun.

  3. It seems to me Wiencek made two major mistakes in terms of his reception within the academic community:

    1) He made some “new” interpretations that are fairly weak, and

    2) He misrepresented and sometimes flat insulted the work of previous scholars, clumping them in categories where they do not belong.

    Number two is what really has people boiling, as far as I can tell, and it is justified. However, it seems to me there is also an undercurrent of frustration about Wiencek claims that the solid arguments of his book — the ones Finkelman repeated — are also “new,” when they are clearly not.

    Now, I concede this is unfair to the work of previous scholars. But it seems to me there is also a tension resulting from the scholarly community’s expectation to be given credit for all it does, and its annoyance when it sees its work appropriated and repackaged for a general audience — and yet still labeled as “new.” I have specifically in mind the reception of Richard White’s book, Railroaded, last year. The non-academic educated public loved it; and despite being written by one of the most respected members in the entire historical community, in all the academic circles I ran in, I heard it panned. White’s book didn’t say anything new, went the complaint — historians have known that the railroad tycoons were incompetent asses for decades now. So the book was a useless repackaging, nothing very interesting nor worth trumping up as new.

    But I think they missed that White wasn’t writing for an academic audience constantly yearning for what we feel we can legitimacy label “new” — he was writing for a general audience that is quite unaware still that the railroad tycoons were incompetent asses. And insofar as he has helped spread that knowledge, it seems to me his book succeeded quite well.

    Which is not to say this situation is an exact parallel — Wiencek is whining about being attacked for saying things that clearly indicate he doesn’t understand the Jefferson historiography and historians have every right to call him out on it. But I do think there is an additional undercurrent of academic territoriality going on here that contributes to some of the annoyance with a book like Wiencek’s. Because as you say, at the end of the day a broader public having a corrected view of Jefferson can only be a good thing — and of those in the academic community who read the book, they will know the truth about the work that preceded it, and as for the non-academics that read it, they quite frankly won’t care and, I’m not sure why any academic need be obsessed with such readers knowing “hey, I came up with that first,” in any case. (Ie, this will not hurt their reputation from within the historical community or detract from the legacy of their work.) In the meantime, the public is however briefly talking about the not-totally-awesome aspects of Jefferson again; something most people I think can agree is much more important than distributing kudos around the bubble of academia.

  4. Authors trying to reach ‘general’ audiences have an incentive to portray their arguments as new, whether in fact they are new or not. Hence, for example, the popularity of the overused subtitle “the untold story of XYZ…” (though its popularity seems to be waning a bit now). People who know that the argument is not new or that the story has not been “untold” are going to be annoyed. But the phenomenon is commercially driven and thus probably not going away, and in the absence of something like fabrication or plagiarism etc., the upshot will be something like the Wiencek back-and-forth as the post describes it. (And Wiencek’s inaccurate remark about his opponents all being ‘in the Jefferson bubble’ is also sort of par-for-the-course in these situations, I suspect.)

    Btw, speaking of newness, my recollection is that Fawn Brodie, an academic but not (if I recall correctly, which I may not) esp. a Jefferson scholar, was one of the first to write at length about Jefferson and Sally Hemings…

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