A review of "Negro President": Jefferson and the Slave Power, by Garry Wills

Thomas Jefferson has taken quite a pounding for a generation, now, as social commentators and historians have come to be transfixed by slavery and race. In popular imagination, Jefferson is still the quintessential spokesman for equality, democracy, and fundamental human rights, but in "enlightened" circles he is not a hero suited to our age. He owned slaves all his life, did not believe that blacks and whites could live together peacefully as equals, declined to dedicate his life to battling the peculiar institution, and is thought by many scholars to have fathered several children by a slave and treated them into adulthood much like any other children of his household servants. Not only is the man to be decried, the legacy, as it has long been thought of, is to be debunked as well. The founding generation's champions of freedom (if, indeed, we still need heroes from that unenlightened age) have recently been sought among his foes or among the foes or troublemakers of the party he created: Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Federalists in general, or even Aaron Burr.

Garry Wills, who is both commentator and historian, rejects this bashing of a figure he admires and says he plans to write again on Jefferson's more admirable features. Negro President, however, concentrates exclusively on Jefferson's "role as a protector and extender of the slave system." The author of the Declaration was indeed a "giant," the book contends, "but a giant trammeled in a net," compelled like other Southerners to do whatever he could do "to prevent challenges to the slave system," to support and even strengthen the constitutional protections on which he and his party depended for their political supremacy and even their "political existence." Thus, for all of Wills's disclaimers, Negro President contributes little more than another dose of the debunking he condemns. Since slavery was only rarely at the forefront of attention during Jefferson's political career, and since his record on the subject is by no means as deplorable as a deliberately one-sided treatment may suggest, this is a dreadfully tendentious book. It opens with a faulty premise, builds on that to offer what, at points, might be described as a revival of a partisan position the Virginian understandably condemned, and carries the search for an "anti-Jefferson" (one hopes) to its last extreme. A generous spirit might credit Wills for his desire to bring to wider attention recent scholarly insistence that slavery played a larger role in shaping even the earliest years of the new republic than older historiography suggested, but this is not a clear advantage if the effort leaves its readers with a seriously distorted understanding of the ways that Jefferson and slavery helped shape the new republic. (The works on which Wills leans most heavily include Paul Finkelman, Slavery and the Founders, 2001; William W. Freehling, The Road to Disunion, vol. 1, 1990; Leonard D. Richards,The Slave Power, 2000; and Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Slaveholding Republic, 2001.)

During his retirement, Jefferson called his party's victory in 1800 "as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form." He meant by this that, in his view, a set of men whose policies endangered the republican revolution was replaced in 1800 by a set who understood the Constitution as the nation understood it when the document was first approved and who would pursue a set of policies intended to preserve and nurture the United States' historical departure from the world of priests, aristocrats, and kings. Historians, of course, might well contest this claim on several different grounds. The ground that Wills selects, however, is the constitutional provision for including three-fifths of the slaves among the people counted when apportioning the Congress and allotting votes in the Electoral College. If slaves had not been counted, he maintains, John Adams would have won the election of 1800 by about four electoral votes. There was no revolution. Without this clause, in fact, the broader course of early republican history might have been much different. It tilted the sectional balance from the start and gave all Southerners, including Jefferson, a powerful incentive to extend the slave system. As long as it endured, asked Timothy Pickering, how could the New England states "ever rid themselves of Negro Presidents and Negro Congresses, and regain their just weight in the political balance?" As slavery spread into the old Southwest, New England was increasingly submerged in a malapportioned House of Representatives and subjected to the rule of hypocritical Virginians. From the inauguration of the Constitution, Southerners defended slavery, supported its extension to new states, and dominated national politics with the advantage given them by this provision.

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Wills calculates that, in a contest that was actually decided by eight electoral votes, 12 votes for Jefferson can be attributed to the counting of three-fifths of the slaves. If votes had been apportioned on the basis of free population (and the states had voted as they did), Adams would have won by a margin of 65-61.

But there are many ways to play this game, and this one quite objectionably accepts the whining and apologetics of New England Federalists for whom the three-fifths clause was not, in truth, the most important problem: Northern sectionalists, who had been thoroughly repudiated at the polls, were endangered in their homeland, and, as Jefferson complained, were just as likely to condemn the slave lords in a bid for partisan advantage as because of heartfelt opposition to the institution. Pickering, who gets as much attention in the book as Jefferson himself, is actually a case in point. This narrow-minded Massachusetts senator, a leader in the previous administration of the most vindictive forces in his party, was hardly the consistent anti-slavery champion who will be found in Wills's pages, any more than Jefferson was really a determined advocate of slavery's protection and expansion. Picking Pickering to serve as the Virginian's mirror image may inadvertently suggest how thoroughly misguided are a range of recent efforts to identify the Federalists as anti-slavery heroes.

Without the three-fifths clause, we might observe, there would have been no presidential contest to begin with. As Wills knows very well, the Constitution rested on a sectional accommodation. North and South were both determined to protect their interests. At the Constitutional Convention, the smaller, Northern states demanded and secured an equal representation in the senate. Some protection for the wealth and interests of the South—at least a partial counting of its slaves—became an unavoidable condition of a stronger union. These constitutional provisions were a trade, the one as little democratic as the other. If, in 1800, only free folk should have counted in apportioning electors, the bonus given by an equal senate to the smaller, Northern states should be discounted too. If this is done, the simplest calculation shows that Jefferson would have defeated Adams by a margin of some 58 to 47. (Counting free population only, I have allotted votes among the states according to the 1790 census and the 1/30,000 ratio used for apportioning seats in the House and have assumed that the states would still have cast or split their votes in the same manner as they did.)

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It is a fact that voters had about as indirect a say in 1800 as they've had in any presidential contest. Each party tried as best it could to stack the voting in its favor. In 11 of the 16 states (and all of New England except Rhode Island), the legislatures kept the choice of presidential electors for themselves. Only two (both slave states) cast divided votes as a result of choosing the electors by district. If our modern practice had been universal in 1800—the winner taking the whole of every state's electoral vote—Jefferson would have defeated Adams by an even larger margin, 84-54. (As Wills himself points out, only a stubborn stand by a lame-duck Federalist state senate caused Pennsylvania to divide its vote, and a switch of 14 Pennsylvania votes would have elected Jefferson if he had not had any of the 12 he got for slaves. Under a winner-take-all system, Pennsylvania, which cast eight votes for Jefferson and seven for Adams, and North Carolina, which cast eight for Jefferson and four for Adams, would both have cast their whole total for the former. I have not tried to take account of Maryland, which split its votes 5-5 as a result of district voting.) 

The people's sentiments were tested much more fairly in the congressional elections of that year than in the choice of the electoral college. In those congressional elections, the Federalists lost 22 seats, nearly a third of their total strength in the House of Representatives, which Republicans would now dominate by a margin of 63-43. By 1804, when Pickering denounced his Negro presidents and Negro Congresses in a letter advocating the secession of New England and New York, Jeffersonian Republicans had nearly captured even Massachusetts, and many of his correspondents knew full well that Jeffersonian ideas and not the three-fifths rule were grinding Federalists into extinction. (A letter to Pickering from George Cabot, quoted by Wills, conceded that "All the evils you describe and many more are to be apprehended; but I greatly fear that a separation would be no remedy, because the source of them is in the political theories of our country and in ourselves.")

The three-fifths rule, in any case, was simply not responsible for most of the defeats of champions of slavery's exclusion from the West, nor is it true that Pickering or Federalists in general stood foursquare on the side of freedom. In 1798, before John Adams fired him as secretary of state, Pickering actually wrote the bill providing that the Mississippi Territory would be governed according to the terms of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, except that Article VI, excluding slavery, would not apply. Maine Federalist George Thatcher tried to change this in the House. Only two representatives, both Northern Republicans, spoke in favor of his move, while Massachusetts Federalist Harrison Gray Otis roundly objected to meddling in the business of the Southern states: "He thought it was not the business of those who had nothing to do with that kind of property to interfere with that right." (This point I owe to John Craig Hammond, whose recent dissertation and published or forthcoming articles contain a wealth of materials relevant to this subject. See his doctoral dissertation, Slavery and Freedom in the Early American West: From the Northwest Ordinance to the Missouri Controversy, 1787-1821, [University of Kentucky].) 

In 1804, New Jersey Republican James Sloan moved in the House to exclude slavery from Louisiana. This passed that body 40-36. Exclusion was defeated in the Senate, where the three-fifths rule had no effect. In Senate voting on James Hillhouse's proposals to prohibit the domestic slave trade to Louisiana and to free any slaves taken to that territory, Northern Federalists voted 4-3 in favor, Northern Republicans 6-4. Contrary to Wills, Pickering as well as John Quincy Adams and Jonathan Dayton voted against both of these Hillhouse amendments. Similarly, the Tallmadge amendment of 1819, excluding slavery from Missouri, and the Wilmot Proviso of 1846, which would have barred it from the Mexican cession, were both defeated in the Senate, not the House. And, once again, the men who moved these measures were Republicans from Northern states.

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Thomas Jefferson, it is quite true, preferred to permit the domestic slave trade to Louisiana, hoping (however foolish this may appear in hindsight) that diffusion of the institution might prepare the way for its gradual extinction. Jefferson's attitude and actions toward the Negro republic of Haiti contrast unfavorably with Pickering's positions. Haiti is, in fact, almost the only case where Pickering is truly "seen at his most credible, and Jefferson at his least." In passage after passage and chapter after chapter, Wills imparts as favorable a spin to Pickering as anyone could manage and stretches just about as far as anyone but Pickering himself could reach to find a defense of slavery at the root of Jefferson's every action. Mississippi is ignored. Louisiana is mistaken. A patently secessionist letter of 1814 from Pickering to Gouverneur Morris should be read as "aiming to change the government, not withdraw from it." On the other side, anything that might conceivably, or by the longest stretch, be seen as supporting slavery or protecting the South becomes the salient feature and motivating force behind the measure. The capital was "purposely embedded in slave territory" in order to strengthen the institution. The embargo "pitted the slave power against the commercial power" in a deliberate attempt to cripple the carrying trade. The purchase of Louisiana and the occupation of West Florida were aimed at adding slave states, with their three-fifths bonus, to the union. Aaron Burr's real crime, in Jefferson's eyes, was that "[h]e tried to endanger the slave power" by separating slave states from the union.

Pickering, about whom scarcely an admiring word is uttered in the whole of modern scholarship, perhaps deserves some rehabilitation. Although his record was more mixed than Wills suggests, he can be credited for steady hostility toward slavery, the South, and the three-fifths clause, which were the flip sides of his unconquerable New England sectionalism and opposition to Jeffersonian ideas. Jefferson, however, certainly does not deserve to be interpreted as Pickering construed him. He did prefer the spread of slavery into Louisiana. Late in life, he saw exclusion of the institution from Missouri as a neo-Federalist attempt to split the Republican coalition and press an unacceptable construction of the Constitution. His private life can be condemned. But this is not the full and balanced story. He penned some hurtful and pernicious lines about the physical and intellectual capacities of blacks. He also penned some of his generation's strongest and most influential passages denouncing slavery for the abomination that it was. In 1784, he moved the resolution leading to exclusion of the institution from the old Northwest. (That Pickering supported an even stronger prohibition in 1785 hardly destroys the traditional claim for Jefferson's influence on the shaping of the Ordinance of 1787.) He threw his weight as president behind the abolition of the international slave trade at the earliest date possible under the Constitution. 

These last two measures, numerous historians have said, were probably the most effective ever passed for limiting American slavery and laying the foundations for its ultimate abolition. And this is not to mention the Declaration of Independence or any of the other deeds and writings that did so much to help enshrine equality and liberty among American ideals. Jefferson's was not the record of an advocate of slavery's protection and expansion. For all his faults, an argument can still be made that no one of his generation was a more effective, influential foe of slavery than Jefferson himself, not even Northern Jeffersonians, with Jeffersonian ideals, who led most of the other efforts to confine the institution.