'Negro President': Wills on Jefferson

October 26, 2003|By Ray Jenkins | Ray Jenkins,Special to the Sun

Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power, by Garry Wills. Houghton Mifflin. 256 pages. $25.

Ordinarily the design of a book's dust jacket carries little significance, but this is an exception. The titillating title, Negro President, cries out over a portrait of Thomas Jefferson looking a bit like a fugitive from justice. The reader's first reaction might understandably be to ask, Could there be an African lurking in the third president's ancestry? Or does the title imply that we are getting a new expose of Jefferson's furtive coupling with his slave Sally Hemings?

In fact, the subject of the book is neither. Rather, as the subtitle hints, it focuses on a murky but hugely important sentence in the Constitution known as "the Three Fifths Clause." This was the essential compromise that tacitly recognized the reality of slavery without mentioning the detested word. But, as Garry Wills skillfully demonstrates, the enigmatic clause was far more than just a compromise: By apportioning political power on the basis of "the whole Number of free persons" plus "three fifths of all other Persons," the clause had the pernicious effect of ceding political control of the fledgling nation to the Southern states. It was no accident that there were a dozen slave-holding presidents, no less, in the first 60 years of the nation's existence.

Wills establishes that Jefferson never would have reached the presidency had it not been for the slave factor, and it was out of this frustration that the Federalists, whom Jefferson defeated in the crucial election of 1800, would charge that he came to power "on the backs of Negro slaves."

And Wills goes on to show that almost every action Jefferson took as president, including the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition, was designed to extend the South's advantage under the Three Fifths Clause. And he was not above compromising his most cherished principles in order to maintain that morally corrupt political dominance.

The book is less about Jefferson than his principal political adversary of the time, an obscure but important figure named Timothy Pickering. Pickering, who was President John Adams' secretary of state and later a senator, generally has been regarded by historians as a fanatic.

An early abolitionist, Pickering once proposed secession of the North in order to purge the new nation of the evil of slavery. Wills, who is a good deal more generous toward Pickering than most scholars, concedes that Pickering "made wild charges at times, and had strange ideas, but he was always shrewd in identifying the self-interest of the slave power." Pickering died in 1829, but his spiritual heirs, notably William Lloyd Garrison, in time would prevail in the crusade to which he devoted his life.

Like most historians, Wills wrestles with the paradox of Thomas Jefferson, the brilliant theoretician who could write the Declaration of Independence with one hand while holding slaves with the other. The book paints such an unsparingly critical portrait of Jefferson as a liar and "a moral coward" that Wills feels compelled to state, at the outset, that he really bore no ill-will toward the third president and to promise, at the end, that he will soon be delivering another book which will give Jefferson the credit and praise which he is due.

Given Wills' demonstrated ability for packing great insight into short books, it will be well worth waiting for.

Ray Jenkins, as a reporter for the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger, won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for his coverage, with another reporter, of the 1954 Phenix City, Ala., upheaval. He has worked for the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser-Journal, The New York Times and the Clearwater (Fla.) Sun, and was editorial-page editor of The Evening Sun. His book, Blind Vengeance, was published in 1997 by the University of Georgia Press.

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