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Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves

3.95  ·  Rating details ·  581 Ratings  ·  127 Reviews
Is there anything new to say about Thomas Jefferson and slavery? The answer is a resounding yes. Master of the Mountain, Henry Wiencek's eloquent, persuasive book—based on new information coming from archaeological work at Monticello and on hitherto overlooked or disregarded evidence in Jefferson's papers—opens up a huge, poorly understood dimension of Jefferson's world. W ...more
ebook, 352 pages
Published October 16th 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Nancy Peacock
Nov 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
My husband said that he had never heard me say, "Wow," so many times while reading a book. Henry Wiencek is a master of research. He has waded through letters, memoirs, farm records, archeological discoveries, as well as Jefferson's own books and writings, and the most popular books about him. What I felt at the end of Master of the Mountain was proof that Thomas Jefferson was a master of spin. The world of Monticello mirrors the America we live in today, with some at the top, and many more at t ...more
Nov 11, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, 2012
To quote the book’s description, “Is there anything new to say about Thomas Jefferson and slavery?” The answer, apparently, is yes.

Jefferson has forever been portrayed as an anti-slavery man somehow caught/stuck in a system he hated. In other words, he had hundreds of slaves but it was the way of the world then. Poor Jefferson, ahead of his time. Alas it is clear early on there were plenty, PLENTY, of people freeing slaves, wanting to free slaves, imploring Jefferson to do exactly that. Many peo
Oct 27, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book has fired up my imagination and awakened a desire to dig deeper into American history in search of what really happened. Thomas Jefferson has been knocked off his pedestal and in the future will be known to me as the great prevaricator. It seems that the political art of "spin" is not a modern phenomena. Jefferson left numerous written documents expressing his desire to end the practice of slavery of human beings. It is a false legacy. Jefferson profited mightily from the abhorent inst ...more
Melissa Jill
This book made me mad. And it made me want to scrape Jefferson's face off Mount Rushmore. Turns out the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence didn't really think or live by the belief that "all men are created equal." Historians have long been kind to Jefferson -- focusing on some of his earlier pronouncements against slavery -- and turning a blind eye to how he lived his life.

Some quotes from the book that I want to remember:

"Jefferson constantly moved the boundaries on his moral map t
Jul 14, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Early American history buffs
Recommended to Ed by: I heard the author read from his previous book which I liked.
Mr. Jefferson did some good things, and he did some not so good things. This historical study does a lot to illuminate the latter. I liked the sections about the archaeological diggings being done at Monticello beyond the view of the tourists going there. The historical research is well-researched with lots of footnotes, but the writing isn't too scholarly or inaccessible for the lay reader like me. So, I came away with some key new insights and appreciate the candor. History buffs should like t ...more
Jul 22, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: american-history
Apparently this book caused quite some controversy upon its publication, although I must confess I fail to see why. It could surely only cause upset amongst those who still cling to the naive, mythologised version of Thomas Jefferson as the moral compass of the Revolution, the upright and honourable Sage, the enemy of the slavery and the frustrated emancipationist. Jefferson is part and parcel of America's foundation myth, and it is somehow therefore important that he and the other Founders be s ...more
Nov 01, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting to find that 241 people have marked this: "to read" or given it stars without a review. So I am writing the first review.

Author Henry Wiencek writes this book with lots of detail from many sources in order to substantiate his conclusions that differentiate the common view of Jefferson from what he thinks is a more considered view now that Jefferson's lifetime is further away from us historically.

Jefferson is an enigma who begins political life believing a liberal view of "man as bei
Marty Selnick
Nov 27, 2012 rated it really liked it
This book has forever changed the way I will think of the guy who wrote the Declaration of Independence. It's a compelling and utterly damning picture of a man we have been taught to admire on the most lofty plain. When it came to slavery, he said one thing and did quite the opposite. History books, especially those used in classrooms, need to be revised to show his true beliefs about the economy and commerce of slavery.
This is a very good book, well-researched and written in a very accessible
Dec 10, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Both this book and The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed explain how slavery worked - especially the economics. I always wondered how could it be profitable for a master to enforce his will upon a mass of people. Why didn't they revolt or run away? Why did slave owners work so hard and risk everything to maintain the "institution" of slavery at the same time that they claimed that maintainance of their slaves was "bankrupting" them? Thomas Jefferson stated often ...more
Nov 07, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
While I continue to respect Thomas Jefferson for many reasons this book shows that he was a flawed human being (as we all are) and his words and actions on the subject of slavery were completely oppositional. He was a firebrand in his early years(Declaration of Independence era). As he became important in political office it appears that self interest took the forefront while he continued to placate abolitionists and our foreign helpers like Lafayette, who truly believed in the equality of all m ...more
Andrew Wolgemuth

Weincek looks beyond Jefferson's written and spoken words about slavery to what he actually did. Specifically, he looks at the state of things at Monticello, Jefferson's remarkable home and plantation. What is revealed with regards to slavery is very different from what Jefferson wrote (especially early in his career) and the carefully cultivated reputation that he maintained for centuries after the founding of the U.S. In brief, his expressed dislike of slavery was overcome by his
Gary Hoggatt
In 2003, historian Henry Wiencek tackled the difficult subject of America's Founding Fathers and slavery with his excellent and penetrating An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America. In 2012, he revisited the topic to take on a Founder who comes out much worse for the contest in Thomas Jefferson in Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves. Wiencek delivers another fascinating look at a troubling part of the American past in examining how the auth ...more
Jan 08, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history-us

A clarifying work, this is a comprehensive study of Thomas Jefferson's changing thought about slavery and his unchanging practice of it. It is probably the definitive work on slavery as it existed at Monticello. The author, by closely following chronologically the changes in Jefferson's thought, convincingly resolves the contradiction between the young idealist who wrote that 'all men are created equal' and the mature Jefferson, the world-renowned icon of freedom, whose wealth consisted in slave
Nathan Lott
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Mar 01, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Our 2008 visit to Monticello was brought back to me by this book. I recall feeling both amazed and amused by Jefferson's inventions and innovations in his relatively small mansion. I deeply respect the pivotal role he played in the birth of our country, especially as the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, and was inclined to accept that he was a captive of his times (ironically) with regard to his ownership of slaves. Yet when we embarked on the optional side tour of the remain ...more
John Eddy
While this was a good read, I don't feel I really learned that much about Jefferson beyond what was brought to light by the Sally Hemmings discoveries and just an overall assumption that people of that era could be both slave owners and want to free the slaves and not do either very well.

What I will take away from the book, however, is a few different little bon mots..

For instance, coopers (those who made barrels) were very important to early lighter-than-air travel because hydrogen was created
A strong historical synthesis of Jefferson, and his complex relationship with the institution of slavery. The 1990s saw a lot of new research on this topic after the discovery of genetic links between the Jeffersons and the Hemmings, one of the premiere "house slave" families at Monticello. The book does cover this topic, but it is not the central theme, but instead focuses on the great dichotomy between the slaves at Monticello, Jefferson's vacillations between slave holder and emancipator (he ...more
Dec 11, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I will be truthful here, I am a big fan of Thomas Jefferson. I believe he was pivotal in setting a system of government that was fair and in line with natural law. With that said, this book exposes a side of Jefferson that is dark and disturbing. Wiencek has obviously done a lot of research on Jefferson's slave owning time. Much of the first half of the book relies on Jefferson's "Farm Book"

The book is riddled with words such as: probably, perhaps, maybe and assuming. That turns me off. As for t
Emi Bevacqua
Jul 29, 2014 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I'm not a Jefferson scholar by any means, and while I do appreciate the volume of research work Wiencek has clearly done here, I struggled to get through this non-linear compilation of historical facts. Master of the Mountain doesn't tell a straight-forward story, it dumps all connected gossip about Jefferson and his slaves jumbled up since the time they lived to the present. It seemed to me that his painstaking rehash of so much murky controversial research out there, dimmed whatever light Wien ...more
Nov 11, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Brilliant. Well-researched and utterly revealing analysis of the thought process going on in the mind of a slave-holding founding father. "Mr. Jefferson" is currently interpreted as the renaissance man who wrote the words of the Declaration of Independence, ran the country, designed and built beautiful buildings, and founded the University of Virginia, now referred to as "Mr. Jefferson's Academical Village" by those who go for that kind of Disney-esque baloney. On top of that, he is interpreted ...more
Dec 22, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I don't have any original thoughts to share on the subject of this book, I think it's all been said. Every American should read it; every American should have the understanding that our founding fathers were flawed human beings, who despite themselves created a form of government--or better yet, the ideal of a form of representative government--that may or may not stand the test of time. That they were able to do so AT ALL is a tribute to their determination. Jefferson understood that the pecul ...more
Jan 09, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Published by HighBridge Company in 2012
Read by Brian Holsopple
Duration: 11 hours, 5 minutes.

I am a history teacher. My favorite area of study is the American Civil War but the American Revolution comes in at a close second. I cannot even count the number of books that I have read about the Revolutionary Era and I thought that I had a pretty solid handle on Jefferson - until I read this book.

I had always pictured Jefferson as a...

Read more at:
Evan Thomas
Nov 03, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Truly an excellent an devastating dissection of Jefferson's hypocrisy on the question of slavery. It also offers an excellent perspective on plantation life in 18th century that goes equally far towards refuting the myth that slavery was a dying institution until the invention of the cotton gin.
Oct 29, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Thomas Jefferson could be persecuted forever, on this subject but given the times and feelings back then, What has changed, now? Nothing!
He did some great things, and he did some not to wise and stupid things. He was not perfect. Good story, loved the book.
This book is really annoying. Read "The Hemingses of Monticello' instead.
Nov 19, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The man who wrote the words "All Men Are Created Equal" doesn't come off too well in this close study of his role as "master" to 600 souls in the course of his lifetime.
Jason S
Not very well organized, but does a good job proving that Jefferson was not kind to his slaves.
Tai Tai
quoting Dinesh D'Souza turned me off to this read; still informative though highly repetitive
Jul 24, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: american-history
An interesting and provocative look at Jefferson
David Afton
All I can say is, take heart, worshipers of the Founding Fathers, for we still have Samuel Adams, George Mason, Patrick Henry and all the anti-Federalists to admire!
This book is an iconoclastic, paradigm-changer (and bear with me here):
The unique "American Experiment" gave the world "American Exceptionalism," which was always about the nature of American government and its relationship to the citizenry, and how American government is distinct from other governments, i.e. American government was
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Henry Wiencek is a prominent American historian and editor whose work has encompassed historically significant architecture, the Founding Fathers, various topics relating to slavery, and the Lego company. In 1999, The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, a biographical history which chronicles the racially intertwined Hairston clan of the noted Cooleemee Plantation House, won the Nati ...more
More about Henry Wiencek...
“He had to backtrack immediately to account for the most famous and most acclaimed poet in America, Phillis Wheatley, who was, very unfortunately for Jefferson’s argument, unquestionably black. She had been brought to Boston as an enslaved African at the age of about six, learned English and Latin as a child, and began writing poetry as a teenager. Her published works earned accolades on both sides of the Atlantic. Among her admirers were Voltaire, who praised Wheatley’s “very good English verse,” George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and even the naval hero John Paul Jones, who addressed her as “the celebrated Phillis the African favorite of the Nine [Muses] and Apollo” when he sent her some of his own verses. Dr. Rush cited her as a proof of black ability, listing her accomplishments when he wrote in 1775, “We have many well attested anecdotes of as sublime and disinterested virtue among them as ever adorned a Roman or a Christian character.”14 Franklin went to see Wheatley when she was in London, a literary celebrity on book tour. The acclaim irked Jefferson: “The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.”15” 0 likes
“Among the completely contradictory points he advanced about slaves and slavery, we have: the institution was evil; blacks” 0 likes
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