Saturday, August 21, 2004


“Negro President”: Jefferson and the Slave Power, by Gary Wills, Read by The Author, Recorded Books, LLC, 2003

Of all the Founding Fathers, I’d always admired Jefferson the most. I say this having had only the vaguest understanding of his Presidency and its effects on the nation, having only a passing familiarity with his biography, and having read some of his more enlightened quotes out of context. History burnishes many a person’s record, glossing over the flaws, simplifying people down to a few random positions and incidences, and tacking a shiny halo up over their heads.

Historian Gary Wills latest book on Jefferson’s Presidency and its legacy has done what the best historical books do: it has made me want to track down more information, more original source documents, about and by the men involved. There are ultimately three men involved intimately in the story. Thomas Jefferson, his antagonist and gadfly Timothy Pickering, and John Quincy Adams.

At least two of those names are familiar to almost everyone. Pickering has been lost to the general public, overlooked by historians, and shrouded in obscurity. That’s a shame. For as enlightened a thinker as Jefferson was, his tacit political and social support for slavery (despite theoretical personal reservations never vigorously acted on) is a stain on the man’s biography. He was opposed in almost every regard by Pickering.

And who exactly was Thomas Pickering? A surprisingly accomplished and involved statesman who was Quartermaster General of the Revolutionary Army in 1780; Postmaster General in the administration of President George Washington (where he set up the system of relay riders and controversially employed freed blacks as mail carriers. When someone questioned him on this, he replied "If you admitted a Negro to be a man, the difficulty would cease."); Secretary of War in 1795, and Secretary of State 1795-1800; special government agent on missions to the Indians and tireless advocate for Indian rights; United States Senator for the Federalist Party; and the first Western man to go on the public record calling for the abolition of slavery. During Haiti’s slave revolution, he organized a dinner between a mulatto ambassador from Haiti and President John Adams, the first ever sit down between an American President and someone of color. His diplomacy during this period was so successful that, astonishingly, America's navy helped the black revolutionaries of Toussaint in their fight against the French navy, going so far as to catch anti-revolutionaries and help pack them off to prison.

Upon his election in 1800, Jefferson undid all the progress in the American and Haiti relationship. Jefferson, a lifelong Francophile, promised aid to Napoleon to "reduce Toussaint to starvation." Toussaint was captured, but the new leader, Dessalines, eventually declared the colony's independence under its original name of Haiti. Jefferson proposed an embargo against Haiti, responding to American slaveholders in the south who feared the effects of a good example.

Pickering became a Senator at this time and opposed Jefferson's embargo and called him on his hypocrisy. Jefferson had proclaimed during the fight for American independence that any country had the right to overthrow a government they found oppressive. Successive presidents, almost wholly southern and almost all slaveholders or prior slaveholders, followed Jefferson’s lead in resisting any diplomacy with Haiti. Haiti's independent government was not recognized by America until 1862 — when Lincoln no longer had to cater to Southern whims.

After Jefferson’s disputed election to President, Wills backs up and furnishes us the history of the phrase that gives the book its title. During the debate over the Articles of Confederation, the country’s first guiding document, representatives argued long and hard for how to pay the American war debt. The attempt in this document involved calculating land value, but these figures were in fluctuation and were easily falsified. When the debate was renewed at the Constitutional Congress, advocates of a proportional population debt structure are opposed by the slave states that were more populous than their northern counterparts.

Into this argument came the federal ratio, perhaps the most pernicious clause in the entire Constitution, a clause with such power (and that guaranteed power) that southern Senators refused and blocked every subsequent attempt to remove it. As a testament to their strength of argument, the sentence containing this clause is still in the Constitution and reads:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

What this clause enshrined was disproportionate representation based upon the evils of slavery. Slaveholding states would receive a supplemental number of Representatives in Congress based upon the population of black slaves who were unable to vote, as well as a supplemental number of votes in the Electoral College. For every 100 slaves a man owned, his district received sixty additional votes. Jefferson was the first President to be elected upon this “slave power” and the term “Negro President” referred not to his slaveholding or his affairs with Sally Hemmings but to this unjust boost in his political fortunes.

Pickering, his Federalist Party, and abolitionists in general railed and labored against this unfair advantage given to southern states, but to little avail. Upon his election to the Senate, Pickering worked tirelessly against Jefferson, seeing his election as a usurpation and, quite clearly, recognizing what a danger Jefferson’s Democrat-Republican party was to the Federalists. Jefferson began a quite possibly illegal and definitely unethical purge of Federalist judges and politicians

To fully grasp the book, you would be well served to have some familiarity with the names and parties and events of the early days of the United States. Burr, Hamilton, Federalists, Clinton, Davis, Sullivan, John Jay, Horatio Gates, and so many other names pop up in the second part of the book that the various backroom deals and calculations of one person and one party against another began to swirl and blur for this reader.

The ins and outs, once you grasp them, have a quite exciting quality about them. An anachronism no longer practiced, that of choosing the Vice President by picking the man who received the second highest number of votes for President, provides a high stakes game of chicken between Jefferson and his “running mate” Aaron Burr. Electorally, it was a tie.

Burr's refusal to back down in his tie with Jefferson, stringing out the election in such a way to make the disputed 2000 election look like a light frolic, is fascinating reading. The book surprises me by partially rehabilitating Aaron Burr, despite all our history books calling him a treasonous snake. Within this story, we also find the surprising notion that the first area of the country to consider the possibility of secession was, in fact, New England, a notion that arises from time to time throughout the book.

Although “Negro President” claims to be about Jefferson, the election of Madison should end the book — the story of Jefferson's Presidency based upon the "Negro vote," ending — yet the book continues on following Pickering as a fly in the ointment of Madison's Presidency as well. While a case could be made that Madison (and Polk, Taylor, Van Buren, and Monroe) had benefited from the three-fifths clause just as Jefferson had (and subsequently was as equally a "Negro President"), it is a bit curious that the book is presented as being about Jefferson.

After Jefferson, Pickering continued to wage the abolitionist battle. The story of the letters between Massachusetts' governor Sullivan and Pickering and their publication in pamphlets and newspapers demonstrates the man's rhetorical and tactical brilliance. Pickering is later stripped of his Senate seat by Democrat-Republicans in his own state (Senators in those days were picked by state legislators), but is sent back to Washington by his constituency as a Representative (with its weakened position).

And after Pickering drops out of public life, the book then follows the petition battles of John Quincy Adams, once Pickering's rival, and his battles for the cause of abolition. This part of the book is at times amusing as Wills documents Adams' miscellaneous shenanigans to get around various House gag rules preventing him from discussing slave holding. His dodges and feints are crafty and graceful, provoking admiration for his cleverness. The repeated censure votes against him provides Adams with plenty material to work with. It makes one wish that ex-Presidents disdained lower office these days, simply to see a politician as agile as Clinton in a legislative role.

A quite fascinating sidenote, answering an historical question, is Wills’ account of the selection of the Potomac banks as the site of the nation's capital. Quite obviously, the site was picked on slave holding grounds despite New York being the biggest city and a port town, Boston having an enormous claim to being the birth of liberty, and Philadelphia being more centrally located as a city. All three of these were in non-slave states and as such were objectionable to the three major persons involved in the site selection, Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, all slaveholders. It would appease southerners by associating the business of the federal government with slavery and would weaken abolitionist argumentation. It is indeed curious that the US is perhaps the only major nation to have its political capital so disconnected from its educational, banking, business, and cultural centers. London, Paris, Berlin, the list goes on and on.

Watching Jefferson's maneuverings, his embargo against northern trading with England, his attempts to enflame the public against Great Britain to possibly re-ignite a war with them, his obsessive secrecy in backroom dealings and politicking, and his assumption of imperial powers not delegated to the Presidency, one is struck by how things have barely changed. As the book progressed, I wished to hear mostly of Pickering, as he is an interesting obscure character, and as Jefferson's actions were so repulsive that it opened my eyes to someone I'd always considered remarkable and impressive, if conflicted and with a flaw in his leniency of slavery.

Like a good scientific text, the specific ins and outs of this are sometimes hard to follow in audio format, and it is often hard to back up for clarity's sake. This long exhumation of the various parties in the elections of 1800 and subsequent years disengages the text from the original focus on race politics and is a welter of names and personalities. Wills does the reading himself and at times his voice reflects less an interest in the subject and more the origin of the book, a series of lectures on the subject. He is a practiced speaker, though his reading would benefit more from his obvious enthusiasm for the topic.

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