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“Negro President”: Jefferson and the Slave Power by Garry Wills (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company; 274 pages; $25) Followers of contemporary writings about Thomas Jefferson will recognize Garry Wills as one who writes often and perceptively about the third president of the United States. Wills returns to this subject in his latest work. Two phrases in this very provocative title require explanation. First, “slave power” refers to the bonus that Southern states received when the Constitution mandated that slaves be counted as three-fifths of a person when determining population for apportioning representatives in Congress. This despite the fact that slaves had been variously defined as chattel or real estate in the South and were, by definition, outside civil society. Here was the perverse spectacle of making people who were otherwise treated as nonpersons “persons” just to boost the political influence of their oppressors. Of course this provision also affected presidential politics because a state’s votes in the Electoral College are determined by adding the number of its representatives in the House to the two senators allotted to every state. The election of 1800, pitting Jefferson against John Adams, was an early result of the “federal ratio.” As Wills puts it: “Though Jefferson, admittedly, received eight more votes than Adams in the Electoral College, at least twelve of his votes were not based on the citizenry that could express its will but on the blacks owned by southern masters.” This led one of Jefferson’s most strident Federalist opponents, Timothy Pickering, to label Jefferson the “Negro President.” One could say that, rather than “the Negro President,” the real subjects of this book include the power that slave-holding interests wielded in the early American republic; Timothy Pickering, an outspoken congressional opponent of slavery; and what Wills sees as the failure of historians to make clear to Americans at every turn that slavery and racism were not anomalous features of the American landscape. They were integral parts of the political system from the start of the new nation. Americans may know this in a general way, but it does not, Wills suggests, inform the way we think of ourselves as Americans. If it is true that the past is prologue, how should we view historian Richard D. Brown’s statement that “from the inauguration of Washington until the Civil War, the South was in the saddle of national politics”? In Wills’ view, historians’ failure to drive home to the public the operative effects of the three-fifths clause, and to give adequate credit to men like Pickering who actively opposed it, leaves a serious void in our understanding of our heritage. As to Pickering, Wills knows he will never be as important to Americans as Jefferson. But he seeks to make a place in history for this man, controversial in his time, who sought to undermine Southerners’ efforts to protect and extend slavery. When we look at the founding generation, we tend to focus on a relative handful of men — Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Franklin and Hamilton. That is understandable. As Wills shows us, however, it is also interesting and important to know what others who contributed to the discussions during the founding period were thinking. The roads not taken should at least be pointed out — especially on matters involving slavery and race. After all, one issue led to the Civil War, and the other has bedeviled American law, politics and social life since Jamestown. Wills’ work will serve as a timely and important contribution to the growing discourse about slavery and race taking place among ordinary citizens outside the academy. He is talking of things that are not a part of the everyday understanding of most Americans. And they should be. There is, however, a question that goes to the heart of Wills’ desire to contribute to a full and frank discussion of America’s troubled racial history. Authors must be allowed to write the books they want to write, and reviewers must restrain from criticizing them for not writing the book the reviewer thinks the author should have written. With that rule stated (and now promptly ignored), one concern arises about Wills’ presentation. Why should Jefferson be singled out as the villain in this discussion of how the interests of Southern slaveholders were protected in the early American republic? Why not “Washington/Madison/Monroe/Jackson and the Slave Power”? As Wills himself notes, from Philadelphia until Fort Sumter Southern politicians did all they could to protect what some white Southerners in later years would refer to as “their way of life,” which, by the way, in every era seems to mean the same thing — subjugating the black people in their midst. Jefferson was certainly not alone in doing this. Nor was he the only Southern politician to benefit from the federal ratio. It was there in every congressional election and every presidential election until the end of slavery. It wasn’t even Jefferson’s idea. By Wills’ own account, James Madison was far more directly involved in setting the federal ratio and promoting the interests of Southern slaveholders during the bargaining over the Constitution than Jefferson, who was away in Paris serving as Ambassador to France. So why make Jefferson the focus in the critique of a bargain he didn’t help strike, one that Northerners, despite what they knew of slavery and black suffering, explicitly agreed to? Jefferson benefited from it in 1800, but that was the deal. Imagine that Team A and Team B want to get together to engage in a series of contests, the winner of each being determined by who gets the most points. While setting the rules, Team A says it won’t agree to participate unless it is given an extra 15 points on top of whatever score it receives during the competition. Team B refuses, risking the loss of A’s participation. But B is not totally without power, and is able to bargain A down to a ten-point bonus. Both parties in this position must know that in some of the coming competitions A’s 10 points won’t be important — its basic score will be so high the extra points would not matter, or its basic score will be so low that even an extra 10 points wouldn’t be enough to put A over. But sometimes the competition will be so close that the 10-point bonus will help make a margin of victory for A. The latter (risk on B’s part, hope on A’s part) is built into the process. How could Team B feel defrauded when it loses under these circumstances? This was the political configuration that brought Jefferson into office. Federalists, Pickering and others (hypothetical Team B members), were right to decry it, as are we, because of its connection to the underlying moral issue of slavery. We can’t do that, however, without due attention to the fact that Northerners agreed to it. That is precisely why William Lloyd Garrison called the Constitution “a covenant with death.” Garrison’s challenge to America’s sacred text went to the heart of the matter. What were Northerners, who professed to be anti-slavery, doing going along with this deal? Wills explains: “They had little choice. The Deep South had made it clear that without this edge it would not ratify [the Constitution] (it was a close call even with it). It was part of a determination of the South to buttress slavery against all assaults on it.” In other words, at that point in history, white Northerners were unwilling to sacrifice their way of life (or what they wanted to be their way of life) for the principle that black people should not be treated as chattel. So, what is the more salient historical fact for a present-day conversation on race and slavery that is supposed to teach us about ourselves: Thomas Jefferson’s flaws as an individual, or the fact that thousands of white Americans living in one region were willing to directly participate in the degradation of black peoples’ humanity to further their interests, while thousands of whites in another region joined in union with them, stood by and let that happen to further their own interests? It is hard to imagine that whites in the North would have so easily thought they had “little choice” but to give in to Southern demands that they be allowed to put thousands upon thousands of white men, women and children up on auction blocks and sell them like cattle. They would not have been so eager to cast their lot with such people, and probably would have made more of a fuss about what was going on below the Mason-Dixon Line. The history of this country shows that it is only when a critical mass of whites is willing to make common cause with blacks in saying “No!” to other whites’ depredations against blacks that progress is made on the racial front. It happened during the Civil War era, and it happened again in the 20th century during the civil rights movement when whites from the North and South said, “We’re not going along with the program anymore.” If we really think history has anything to teach us about race, we need to focus on when those moments happened, and be forthright and hard-minded about the times when they did not. There has been a tendency of late, for reasons that need not detain us here, to act as if Thomas Jefferson caused racism and slavery in the United States. Singling him out as if he alone were holding back the dawn of racial enlightenment in the 18th and 19th centuries trivializes the depth of black people’s oppression. He had help. If large numbers of white people (founding fathers included) have not felt as Jefferson felt — that white interests trump black interests — what have the last 350 years in the United States been about for black people? Demonizing Jefferson lets too many people off the hook about the choices they made and did not make, and implies that racism has thrived on just the determined energy of a few powerful white men. It has gone far deeper than that, outliving slavery itself. Although other scholars have covered this ground, “Negro President” highlights the destructive results of white supremacy’s firm grip on the early American imagination. It would be a shame if the valuable larger message contained within Wills’ book gets lost in a round of recrimination against one individual, who was extremely important to his time, but was far from alone in making it. Annette Gordon Reed is a professor at New York Law School. She is the author of “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy” and the editor of “Race on Trial: Law and Justice in American History.”

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