“On the first day of April in 1819,” Henry Wiencek writes, “a group of seventeen slaves left a plantation in the mountains south of Charlottesville . . . bound for a distant destination.” Leading their way was a 32-year-old white man named Edward Coles, “a wealthy, politically prominent Virginian” who no longer could resist the call of conscience and was taking his slaves to freedom in Illinois, where he gave each head of family 160 acres of land and where he himself was to settle. One of his family’s friends was Thomas Jefferson, the former president and author of the Declaration of Independence, whom Coles had attempted to persuade to join this undertaking. He “did not ask Jefferson to free his [own] slaves immediately, but to formulate a general emancipation plan for Virginia and lay it before the public, backed by his immense prestige.” Coles approached Jefferson with deference, Wiencek writes:
“Referring to Jefferson as one of ‘the revered fathers of all our political and social blessings’ and extolling the ‘valor, wisdom and virtue [that] have done so much in ameliorating the condition of mankind,’ Coles then sharpened his pen and thrust it straight at the Founder: ‘it is a duty, as I conceive, that devolves particularly on you, to put into complete practice those hallowed principles contained in that renowned Declaration, of which you were the renowned author, and on which we founded our right to resist oppression and establish our freedom and independence.”
(FSG) - ’Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves’ by Henry Wiencek
The Sage of Monticello — the man who had electrified the world with the bold assertion that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” — was having none of that. As a young man Jefferson had called slavery “this execrable commerce,” a “cruel war against human nature itself,” but now, as a prosperous farmer and businessman, he retreated into equivocation (emancipation must be “gradual”) and insult: “Brought from their infancy without necessity for thought or forecast, [black people] are by their habits rendered as incapable as children of taking care of themselves, and are extinguished promptly wherever industry is necessary for raising young. In the mean time they are pests in society by their idleness, and the depredations to which this leads them.” That was that: “The revolutionary refused to take up the torch, and Coles turned his thoughts to Illinois.”
This exchange between the idealist, determined Coles and the cynical, self-interested Jefferson is at the heart of Wiencek’s brilliant examination of the dark side of the man who gave the world the most ringing declarations about human liberty, yet in his own life repeatedly violated the principles they expressed. This was rumored during Jefferson’s lifetime, as gossip about his relationship with his slave Sally Hemings circulated widely. In recent years DNA testing has proved that her children were fathered by a member of the Jefferson family — virtually all the circumstantial evidence points to Thomas himself — but the emphasis has focused narrowly on the Jefferson-Hemings menage rather than on Jefferson as slaveowner. Now the record has been corrected, to devastating effect.