TattooSydney suggested that it’s been a while since the last BJ Virtual Book Club…
The older I get, the slower I read — don’t know how much of this is natural attrition, and how much is the increasing influence of the intertoobz on my attention span. But I’m having a great time gradually working my way through Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello, which deserves all the accolades it’s collected. Professor Gordon-Reed is even making me slightly more sympathetic towards Thomas Jefferson, which is no easy feat, since I’ve been pro-Adams ever since I read my first Abigail biography when I was 6 or 7. Looking at “America’s Greatest Genius” from the underside — focusing on the lives of the people who made Jefferson’s brilliant lifestyle possible, at the cost of their own — is fascinating, in that shake-the-kaleidescope way that is history at its best. For instance, there’s the description of how Thom’s need to literally put himself above the abomination of the slave-driven plantations that fueled his comfortable life while violating his stated political philosophy further burdened his subordinates:
Situating a house at Monticello presented not only unique problems but also familiar ones on a far greater order of magnitude than was typical.
First, building the house required shaving the top off the mountain, a huge earth-moving enterprise in an era that had neither earth movers nor bulldozers, at least not mechanical ones. Human beings, slaves Jefferson hired from a nearby planter, engaged in this massive effort, digging with shovels in Virginia’s hard red clay to level the ground and then digging a foundation and cellars for the house. This was backbreaking work carried out over twelve-hour days. On one occasion Jefferson observed as “a team of four men, a boy, and two sixteen-year-old girls” worked. It was winter. There was snow on the ground, it was extremely cold, and the laborers periodically stopped their digging to warm their hands over a fire before they returned to their arduous task.
There was no ready water supply on top of the mountain. A well had to be dug, an especially difficult undertaking, because the workers were required to dig deeper to find water than they would have had to if they had been digging on level ground. It took them forty-six days to excavate sixty-five feet of mountain rock before they hit water, almost twice the depth of a normal well in Virginia. Even with that, at times when not enough rain fell to provide a constant and ready supply, water had to hauled up the mountain. Jefferson did not consider these issues a serious problem. From his perspective, as from that of any man of his class, his tasks were to imagine the design for his life on the mountain, engineer ways to execute the design, and then find people — slaves and hired workmen — to complete his projects. As long as labor was available, the job would be done.
Who else has got a good book to recommend?