Monday, April 6, 2009

The Jefferson Enigma: Award-Winning Historian Explores 'Sex, Lies & Microfilm' at Washington College

Chestertown, MD — Award-winning historian Henry Wiencek, presently residing in Chestertown as Washington College's first-ever Patrick Henry Fellow, will unveil some of the startling discoveries he has made researching his upcoming book about Thomas Jefferson and slavery in "Sex, Lies & Microfilm: What Historians Don't Tell You About Thomas Jefferson," a lecture at Washington College's Casey Academic Center Forum on Tuesday, April 21, at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free and open to the public.

Wiencek will read from his book-in-progress and talk about what he has gleaned from Jeffersonian primary-source material. In the process, he says, he will reveal "the ways historians have suppressed or ignored some of the most important facts about Jefferson and slavery. Ultimately — despite all the attention that the Sally Hemings story has gotten - slavery was not about sex, but about money, which can be an even more sensitive topic than sex."

This is Wiencek's second public appearance at Washington College. Last fall, a standing-room-only audience was enthralled with his lecture comparing the way Jefferson actually treated his slaves, to George Washington, who was so quiet on the subject, but who, according to Wiencek, was the more genuinely compassionate and morally aware of the two slaveholders. He has been using the fellowship year in Chestertown to complete his forthcoming book about the master of Monticello and the men, women and children whose labor was the lifeblood of the estate.

"The intelligence, honesty, and great care that Henry Wiencek brings to bear on his work have made him one of our finest contemporary historians," says Adam Goodheart, Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of the C.V. Starr Center for the American Experience, which administers the Patrick Henry Fellowship. "Now we are going to have the opportunity to hear him talk about the work he has been doing as a fellow during his year here in Chestertown."

For the past three years, Wiencek has immersed himself in Jefferson's papers and plantation documents, in the oral histories of slave descendants, in Albemarle County court records, in the papers of Jefferson's extended family, and in recent archaeological discoveries at Monticello. His book is under contract with Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

A resident of Charlottesville, Va., Wiencek is perhaps best known for An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, which was published in 2003 to superlative reviews and named Best Book of that year by the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. The historian Gordon Wood, writing in the New York Times, called it "superb" and the Washington Post said, "It must be read by all who wish to understand early America."

Wiencek has written and/or edited more than a dozen books. The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White (St. Martin's, 1999) — the epic story of two extended southern families who share a surname and a legacy, though one is black and the other white — won the National Book Critics' Circle Award for nonfiction. He is the first recipient of the new Patrick Henry Fellowship, which is provided by Washington College's C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, co-sponsored by the Rose O'Neill Literary House, and funded through a challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The Patrick Henry Fellowship offers a yearlong residency to authors engaged in innovative work on America's founding era and its legacy. As part of the fellowship award, Wiencek and his wife, writer Donna Lucey, are residing in the heart of Chestertown's colonial historic district, in the newly restored c. 1735 Patrick Henry Fellows' Residence.

About the C.V. Starr Center

The C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience explores our nation's history — and particularly the legacy of its Founding era — in innovative ways. Through educational programs, scholarship, and public outreach, and especially by supporting and fostering the art of written history, the Starr Center seeks to bridge the divide between past and present, and between the academic world and the public at large. From its base in the circa-1746 Custom House along Chestertown's colonial waterfront, the Center also serves as a portal onto a world of opportunities for Washington College students. Its guiding principle is that now more than ever, a wider understanding of our shared past is fundamental to the continuing success of America's democratic experiment. For more information on the Center and on the Patrick Henry Fellowship, visit

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