Some scholars reject dark portrait of Jefferson

Historians in the News

Henry Wiencek suspected he would be in for a rough ride when “Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves,” his scathing assessment of America’s third president, was published last month. But just how rough he may not have realized.

True, Mr. Wiencek, an independent scholar, has received the kind of attention most authors can only dream of: book excerpts on the covers of both Smithsonian and American History magazines, a C-Span interview at Monticello, almost universally glowing reviews from nonspecialists. (Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post called the book “brilliant,” while Laura Miller of Salon hailed it as one “every American should read.”)

But the Jefferson scholars who have weighed in have subjected “Master of the Mountain” (published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux) to a fierce barrage of criticism, blasting away at Mr. Wiencek’s evidence, interpretations and claims to originality. Reviewing the book in Slate, Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor of history and law at Harvard and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning study “The Hemingses of Monticello,” declared that it “fails as a work of scholarship,” recklessly misreading documents and dismissing other scholars in pursuit of a “journalistic obsession with ‘the scoop.’ ” Jan Ellen Lewis, a historian at Rutgers University, writing in The Daily Beast, was even blunter, denouncing the book as a “train wreck,” written by a man “so blinded by his loathing of Thomas Jefferson that he can’t see” contrary evidence “right in front of his eyes.”...

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