About those Jefferson bottles…

thomas jeffersonThomas Jefferson is often known in wine circles as the best friend that wine enthusiasts ever had in the White House. He might even have been the sommelier-in-chief since he frequently poured wine at official functions (he abhorred whiskey, the main drink of the day) and had wine vaults built below the east colonnade for his collection. At that time, entertaining expenses came out of the president’s own pocket; a story in the now-defunct Wine News once put the valuation at $11,000, or about $200,000 in today’s money.

However, Jefferson was also complicated and deeply hypocritical argues an op-ed in yesterday’s Times. While Jefferson maintained that men were “created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, he continued to own slaves at Monticello for fifty years after the Declaration even while some (but not all) of his contemporaries freed theirs. And to make the connection to wine, there was this passage in the op-ed:

[Jefferson] sold at least 85 humans in a 10-year period to raise cash to buy wine, art and other luxury goods.

The article doesn’t state whether this was after his presidency. But it does reveal the economic basis for at least some of his wine purchases, which casts the real Jefferson bottles in a different light.

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12 Responses to “About those Jefferson bottles…”

  1. It is not really news that Jefferson was a racist, but good all the same to see the matter raised again. He was also an early provider of rhetoric for the Secessionists, and in his advocacy of the “yeoman farmer” an early advocate for the anti-urban “red state” mentality. For mind-numbing detail, check out this 1996 piece from The Atlantic

  2. Dave,

    Yes, it’s not news that Jefferson was a slave owner. But the op-ed says that a major new biography downplays that important aspect of his life. And the piece happened to make explicit the connection between his slave owning and wine buying.

  3. Yes, that’s not just racist, it’s gruesome.

  4. At least the Jefferson bottles that Hardy Rodenstock “unearthed” were not bought with human flesh, although I’ll bet that some of the buyers felt that they had been flayed.

  5. I love it when 21st century people apply their values to people who lived three centuries years ago. Hilarious.

  6. […] About those Jefferson bottles […]

  7. Wino,

    Considering that the international slave trade was abolished during Jefferson’s presidency and that other signers of the Declaration were strong abolitionists, it’s hardly “applying 21st century values” to criticize his hypocrisy on the subject.

  8. CR – History doesn’t agree with you. And not all signers of the Declaration of Independence were abolitionists. The ones who were sure didn’t flex it when the document was drawn up, which would make them hypocrites as well, no? In fact, there is no mention of slavery made in the document whatsoever. Revisionist history is dangerous stuff.

  9. Wino: This is from the Monticello website-
    “Thomas Jefferson was a consistent opponent of slavery his whole life. Calling it a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot””
    If he in fact sold slaves to pay for wine purchases, then he is by any reasonable definition a hypocrite. He may have been just like a lot of other hypocrites of his day, but a hypocrite nonetheless. That said, Jefferson was never really an advocate for emancipation and integration- he was in favor of colonization for the black population beyond the boundaries of the US. He was basically a racist, who thought slavery was an evil institution, yet was willing to exploit it for his own financial benefit. Sounds complicated, but certainly self-serving.

  10. Dlynch: Isn’t the definition of “racisom” and pretty much all “isms” is a fluid and constantly changing and mostly defined by the times, economics and geography, not to mention experience and education? Plenty of what was normal then is appalling now so is it fair to apply our values to people who were almost as close, time-wise, to the late Middle Ages as they are to us? It’s easy to sit back, 250 years later and criticize the behavior and philosophy of 18th and early 19th century people, but you’re doing it through a lens of enlightenment and experience that they didn’t enjoy. One can imagine how people 250 years from now will look at and judge us. Will it be fair if our morality doesn’t match up to whatever is theirs at that time? How do you feel about deconstruction in literature?

  11. Sorry for all the typos. Yikes.

  12. We have to acknowledge historical figures triumphs and failings. We celebrate Jefferson’s many achievements and we should just as well recognize his wrongs. Not so we can condone or chastise them, but so we can learn from their actions and correct our paths if they need correcting. He isn’t an idol, he was a man.


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