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History Wars Part II

By February 1, 2013 One Comment

A couple months ago, in commenting on Lincoln the movie and some arguments it had triggered, I promised to return to a similar controversy over Thomas Jefferson some day. Pine no longer, gentle reader, the moment has arrived.

The matter involves big biographies by two journalists—the 500-page (not counting 215 more of notes) Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, and Henry Wiencek’s (once Time-Life) Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, half the size but triple the TNT. The arguments over these books might be more interesting than the volumes themselves as the coalitions  confronting each other across the battle front keep shifting: pro- vs. anti-Jeffersonians, naturally, but running athwart and not along that line, defenders of journalistic good reads vs. the guardians of academia, and devotees of complex portraits vs. champions of the driving thesis (not to mention ideology). Remembering too that “complex portrait” might itself amount to an ideology.

Meacham lauds Jefferson for being a consummate politician—an extraordinarily bright and broadly read politician, to be sure, a philosopher and scientist and architect and all that, but withal, a canny judge of people and the moment of opportunity, a guy that could get ‘er done. And get ‘er done he did. Jefferson was, Meacham avers, far and away the most successful politician of his generation, of the whole half century from Washington to Jackson, perhaps of all American presidents save for two or three others. To be sure, he had this blind spot about slavery. Tragic. A blight on his legacy. But what a genius—in the corridors of power and in the empyrean of learning and in knowing what of the one could be imported to the other.

To which Wiencek replies with a simple indictment. The young Jefferson opposed slavery; the post-Revolutionary planter endorsed it, profited from it, turned aside all objections to it, worked against measures that might undo it, limit it, ameliorate it, or put it on the road to eradication. All for the love of money. The Monster of Monticello, insists the author, was not a mild, conscience-stricken master caught in the toils of history and circumstance, as Jefferson’s apologists argue; nor was he first of all driven by racism, as other critics have charged. No, he consciously calculated how much money each live birth in the slave quarters netted him, and so turned them into a breeding pen, displacing his guilt into a rage against any notion that freed blacks and whites could ever live together in a free and harmonious society.

Wiencek’s book has elicited a cannonade, Meacham’s a meh. Too much extraneous detail that obscures whatever analysis his narrative might be venturing, it is said of the latter. A resolute hewing to the moderate middle ground. A book quite more ambitious in size than in argument. Wiencek is savaged for the opposite sins. Tendentious, manipulative of evidence and ignorant of that evidence’s context and meaning. An author in hate of his subject, a provocateur who exaggerates his originality and hides his reliance on established scholarship. Wiencek’s critics are not, as he appears to be, shocked! shocked!! to discover that Jefferson was an affluent (yet bankrupt) planter who championed democracy while living like an aristocrat off slave labor, nor do they dismiss the contradictions in the man as Wiencek accuses them of doing in his worst passages. Meacham’s critics, on the other hand, merely wonder what weight his book will finally pull in the rows of Founders Chic on bookstore shelves.

This baffled episode in an unending argument might simply testify to this: that Jefferson and every one of his contemporaries at the birth of America as an independent nation was not the god that Americans want ad fontes. That slavery was not incidental but fundamental to such freedom as early Americans could attain for themselves and their posterity. And that the bill thus overdue is still ours to pay.







James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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