The man who wrote "all men are created equal"
Review by Paul D'Amato | April 9, 2004 | Page 9
Garry Wills, Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power. Houghton Mifflin, 2003, 274 pages, $25.
MUCH HAS been made of the fact that the man who wrote "all men are created equal" was himself a slave owner, and that he kept a slave mistress. But there is less light shed on the impact of Thomas Jefferson's position as a Southern plantation owner on his political career after the American Revolution.
In this slender book of loosely connected essays, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Garry Wills sets out to show "the pervasiveness of slavery's effects on our early history." Wills' premise is that Jefferson not only owed his victory in the 1800 presidential election to the infamous clause in the U.S. Constitution that allowed Southern planters to count their slaves as three-fifths of a person--hence the term "negro president" used by his opponents in the Federalist Party--but that his subsequent career was often directed at strengthening the "slave power" in the U.S. South at the expense of the North.
Wills focuses on a series of conflicts between Jefferson and Thomas Pickering, a New England Federalist who opposed the three-fifths rule and the extension of slavery into new territories, and who coined the phrase "negro president." He finishes with a couple essays on the later abolitionist career of John Quincy Adams, a future president who Wills considers to be a political heir of Pickering, though in their early careers, the two were opponents.
The book isn't always satisfying. The narrative tissue connecting different parts is weak, and some of the detail can be tedious, especially the discussion about the political maneuverings surrounding the 1800 election crisis. That year, the Electoral College vote for president split evenly between Jefferson and Aaron Burr. It took several congressional sessions and threats of violence by Jefferson's party to squeeze him into the presidency.
And the book often seems to be more about Pickering than Jefferson. Nevertheless, Wills introduces an important historical correction to what he argues is often a complete absence of the central significance of slavery to American politics before the Civil War.
By giving the South one-third more seats in Congress, the three-fifths clause gave the South "a permanent head-start for all its political activities." As a result, the slave power had the edge on many contentious issues.
In truth, the U.S. government's entire existence was based on an unstable compromise of the founding fathers that allowed slavery to continue in the South and--through devices like the Electoral College and the "three-fifths" clause--ensured that the Southern planters had disproportionate political power. The issue was so heated that Congress had to continually try to prevent slavery from coming to the surface and exploding the compromise.
Wills notes that in politics prior to the Civil War, there was a "gentleman's agreement not to push the slavery issue in ways that would embarrass the South." Wills digs up some good historical nuggets.
In his early political career as a senator, diplomat, cabinet member and president, John Quincy Adams' record in office hardly placed him in the antislavery camp. But as a member of Congress in his waning years, he became an antislavery crusader, tirelessly finding creative ways to force the discussion of slavery onto the floor. In the 1838-1839 congressional session alone, Adams presented 693 petitions against slavery in the District of Colombia--which earned him a string of death threats.
Another nugget is a chapter on Jefferson's shameful role in opposing the slave rebellion in St. Domingue (later to become Haiti) that established the first independent Black nation. As secretary of state, Jefferson "arranged for three shipments of funds to the beleaguered white minority on the island" and urged France to do more to secure the colony, calling the situation of white planters forced to flee the island a "tragedy."
As secretary of state under Jefferson's predecessor as president, John Adams, Pickering was supportive of Haitian independence and worked to open trade relations between the two countries. When Jefferson became president, the policy was reversed. Jefferson set out to supply Napoleon's army that was sent to crush the new republic and reduce the island back to slavery. Later, after Napoleon's defeat, Jefferson embargoed the island and refused to grant Haiti diplomatic recognition.
Jefferson normally receives uncritical adulation. Wills' book is a healthy antidote.