The Louisiana Purchase was a perfect illustration of the challenges, yet seemingly boundless opportunities that slavery presented statesmen like Thomas Jefferson. Napoleon Bonaparte had been dealt a significant military defeat at the hands of a slave revolt in Haiti, forcing him to reconsider his interests in the Americas and the Caribbean. So, when Jefferson’s emissaries began negotiating to buy the port city of New Orleans, Napoleon instead offered them the entire Louisiana Territory: a deal that essentially doubled the size of the United States at 3 cents an acre and expanded slavery into new regions.
Decades earlier Jefferson had argued for ending the slave trade and enfranchising blacks. As a young lawyer he had taken the case of a black indentured servant pro-bono and fought for his freedom. He had included language in the Declaration of Independence denouncing the slave trade. Jefferson wrote the Ordinance of 1784 which would have banned slavery in any new territory in the US, officially ended it in 1800. Yet as he became more personally invested in slavery, Thomas Jefferson would evolve from being one of slavery’s detractors to becoming one of its great supporters and innovators. In Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves (FSG, 2012), Henry Wiencek chronicles this transformation.
Mr. Wiencek was kind enough to speak with us. I hope you enjoy.