Thomas Jefferson, Hero or Hypocrite?

  • Henry Wiencek
    Henry Wiencek
    Photo by Tom Cogill

Location: Hynson Lounge

April 04, 2013
Former Starr Center fellow Henry Wiencek’s controversial book portrays the master of Monticello as a harsh slave owner who put profits above the welfare of his workers. He returns to Chestertown April 4 to talk about it. 

CHESTERTOWN, MD— An important new history book written in Chestertown has been ginning up debate, praise, and controversy across the country. On April 4, author Henry Wiencek returns to Washington College to discuss the book, Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, which he worked on several years ago as a visiting fellow at the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.

Wiencek’s talk begins at 5:30 p.m. at Hynson Lounge, Hodson Hall, on the Washington College campus, and will be followed by a book signing.

The swirl of discussion around Wiencek’s book has received in-depth coverage in the New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and many other media outlets. The author’s unequivocal indictment of Jefferson as an unrepentant slaveholder and harsh master has drawn equally heated commendation and criticism.

Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley named Master of the Mountain one of the best books of the year and wrote: “Wiencek goes far beyond the much-told story of Jefferson and Sally Hemings to leave no doubt that, given the choice between the economic well-being of his holdings and the rights of the enslaved people who kept them humming, the slaves did not come first. It is not a pretty story, but Wiencek tells it very well.” Laura Miller, book critic for Salon, called Wiencek’s work “a persuasive and devastating indictment” and added, “Every American should read it.”

Meanwhile, some scholars – including Annette Gordon-Reed, winner of the George Washington Book Prize for her own work on Jefferson and Sally Hemings – have blasted Master of the Mountain as an unfair distortion. “In … his attempted takedown of [Jefferson], the third president appears as a demonic figure warped one summer day by a sudden discovery that being a slaveholder could pay,” Gordon-Reed wrote.

            Wiencek was the inaugural recipient of the Patrick Henry Writing Fellowship. Endowed through a major challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the fellowship supported his fulltime residency at the Starr Center throughout the academic year 2008-9, including occupancy of the newly renovated, circa 1735 Patrick Henry Fellows’ Residence. Wiencek worked on his manuscript, gave public lectures, and taught an undergraduate seminar on the enigma of American slavery.

            “The Patrick Henry Fellowship was created to foster work that would inform and inspire broad public discussion of American history,” said Adam Goodheart, Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of the Starr Center. “Master of the Mountain has fulfilled that promise, drawing widespread attention and stirring fresh debate on questions that cut to the core of our national identity and national mythology. Henry Wiencek’s talk on April 4 will bring the story full circle as he returns to Chestertown.”

            Wiencek has won many awards for his writing. The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award in Biography in 1999 and An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America won the 2003 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in History and the Best Book Award from the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. He holds a fellowship at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and has been awarded residential fellowships, not only at the Starr Center, but also at the International Center for Jefferson Studies. He lives in Charlottesville, Va., with his wife, the author Donna Lucey.


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Founded in 1782 under the patronage of George Washington, Washington College is a private, independent college of liberal arts and sciences located in colonial Chestertown on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. For more information, visit


The College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience is dedicated to fostering innovative approaches to the American past and present. Through educational programs, scholarship and public outreach, and a special focus on the art of historical writing, the Starr Center seeks to bridge the divide between the academic world and the public at large. For more information on the Center, visit

Last modified on Mar. 19th, 2013 at 10:47am by .