"Negro President": Jefferson and the Slave Power

by Garry Wills

Published: August 2005
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Pages: 32
Paperback
ISBN: 9780618485376

       

Overview of "Negro President": Jefferson and the Slave Power

In "Negro President," the best-selling historian Garry Wills explores a controversial and neglected aspect of Thomas Jefferson's presidency: it was achieved by virtue of slave "representation" and conducted to preserve that advantage. Wills goes far beyond the recent revisionist debate over Jefferson's own slaves and his relationship with Sally Hemings to look at the political relationship between the president and slavery. Jefferson won the election of 1800 with Electoral College votes derived from the three-fifths representation of slaves, who could not vote but who were partially counted as citizens. That count was the basis of "the slave power" granted to southern states, and it made some Federalists call Jefferson the Negro President -- one elected because of the slave count's margin. Probing the heart of Jefferson's presidency, Wills reveals how the might of the slave states was a concern behind Jefferson's most important decisions and policies, including his strategy to expand the nation west. But the president met with resistance: Timothy Pickering, now largely forgotten, was elected to Congress to wage a fight against Jefferson and the institutions that supported him. Wills restores Pickering and his allies' dramatic struggle to our understanding of Jefferson and the creation of the new nation. In "Negro President," Wills offers a bold rethinking of one of American history's greatest icons.

Synopsis of "Negro President": Jefferson and the Slave Power

In “Negro President” the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Garry Wills explores a pivotal moment in American history through the lens of Thomas Jefferson and the now largely forgotten Timothy Pickering, and “prods readers to appreciate essential aspects of our distressed but well-intentioned representative democracy” (Chicago Tribune).

In 1800 Jefferson won the presidential election with Electoral College votes derived from the three-fifths representation of slaves — slaves who could not vote but were still partially counted as citizens. Moving beyond the recent revisionist debate over Jefferson’s own slaves and his relationship with Sally Hemings, Wills instead probes the heart of Jefferson’s presidency and political life, revealing how the might of the slave states remained a concern behind his most important policies and decisions.

In an eye-opening, ingeniously argued exposé, Wills restores Timothy Pickering and the Federalists’ dramatic struggle to our understanding of Jefferson, the creation of the new nation, and the evolution of our representative democracy.

“Garry Wills is a thinker of first rate. He combines the vigor of the social critic with the depth of the historian, and to these he adds the even rarer gifts of the philosopher.” — New Republic

“A thorough political analysis of another founding father’s involvement in slavery.” — San Francisco Chronicle

Garry Wills, a distinguished historian and critic, is the author of numerous books, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning Lincoln at Gettysburg, Saint Augustine, the best-selling Why I Am a Catholic, and Henry Adams and the Making of America.

Publishers Weekly

While Pulitzer-winner Wills (Lincoln at Gettysburg, etc.) rarely writes a book without a distinctive take on its subject, in this shaggy work he's off his game. Originally a set of lectures, this book is only loosely stitched together. Its author is typically combative, but he doesn't stay on subject long, writing instead about what suddenly strikes him. Not that the work doesn't show Wills's characteristic keen intelligence. He bears down hard, for example, on the permeating consequences of the Constitution's three-fifths clause for pre-Civil War history and raises tough questions about conventional accounts of Jefferson's election in 1800 (which depended partly on the "slave vote") and the selection of a site for the capital in slave-holding country. But he never lingers long on what the book purports to be aboutJefferson's determination to preserve slavery and the South's power in the U.S.nor does it add much to what we already know and think about Jefferson's agonizing, often hypocritical, struggle with race and slavery. Much of what Wills writes about the hold of slave power on the nation has been written before and more extensively by others. What's freshest is his effort to rehabilitate one of Jefferson's arch-opponents, Federalist Timothy Pickering, an attractive if flawed second-rank character of the early nation. Pickering hated slavery and helped lay the groundwork for later abolitionism. But Wills uses him tendentiously as a foil to Jefferson and never brings him fully to life. So what's the book about? About many fascinating issues surrounding the influence of slavery in the U.S. between 1790 and 1848. But don't look here for coherence and sustained history. Agent, Andrew Wylie. (Nov. 1) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

About the Author, Garry Wills

One of our foremost Catholic intellectuals, bestselling author Garry Wills writes thoughtful, provocative nonfiction that roams across history, politics, and religion.

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Editorials

Publishers Weekly

While Pulitzer-winner Wills (Lincoln at Gettysburg, etc.) rarely writes a book without a distinctive take on its subject, in this shaggy work he's off his game. Originally a set of lectures, this book is only loosely stitched together. Its author is typically combative, but he doesn't stay on subject long, writing instead about what suddenly strikes him. Not that the work doesn't show Wills's characteristic keen intelligence. He bears down hard, for example, on the permeating consequences of the Constitution's three-fifths clause for pre-Civil War history and raises tough questions about conventional accounts of Jefferson's election in 1800 (which depended partly on the "slave vote") and the selection of a site for the capital in slave-holding country. But he never lingers long on what the book purports to be aboutJefferson's determination to preserve slavery and the South's power in the U.S.nor does it add much to what we already know and think about Jefferson's agonizing, often hypocritical, struggle with race and slavery. Much of what Wills writes about the hold of slave power on the nation has been written before and more extensively by others. What's freshest is his effort to rehabilitate one of Jefferson's arch-opponents, Federalist Timothy Pickering, an attractive if flawed second-rank character of the early nation. Pickering hated slavery and helped lay the groundwork for later abolitionism. But Wills uses him tendentiously as a foil to Jefferson and never brings him fully to life. So what's the book about? About many fascinating issues surrounding the influence of slavery in the U.S. between 1790 and 1848. But don't look here for coherence and sustained history. Agent, Andrew Wylie. (Nov. 1) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

KLIATT

The reader who never heard of Massachusetts representative and senator Timothy Pickering will wonder why it is Pickering and not Jefferson who seems to be the central character in this history of how the politicians of the slave-holding South fought for and gained control of the Congress and the presidency in the early decades of our country. A friend of William Lloyd Garrison and an enemy of slavery at every turn, Pickering pitted himself against every move of the "slave power" from the concept of the "three-fifths" clause in the Constitution to his support of Tousssaint l'Ouverture in the Haitian revolution so feared by Jefferson and his allies. Jefferson, in this nuanced presentation by Wills, is indeed the self-contradictory character we have come to know increasingly well through recent historical works. He is the "Negro President" because his election and many of his policies were the result of the voting power of the slave-holding South, which could count three-fifths of its slave population in their House of Representative and Electoral College tallies. This is not a biography of Jefferson; it is the chronicle of a force in our history that led, eventually, to the Civil War. The Negro President is a valuable addition to the reading list of every advanced American history course. KLIATT Codes: A--Recommended for advanced students and adults. 2003, Houghton Mifflin, 274p. notes. index., Ages 17 to adult.
—Patricia Moore

Library Journal

Slaveholder Thomas Jefferson knew American political, economic, and social life pivoted on slavery. He defended the right to own human beings because slaveholders' livelihood and power rested on slavery. Historian Wills (Lincoln at Gettysburg; Papal Sin) argues that the Constitution's three-fifths clause for slave "representation" in Congress and the Electoral College gave slaveholders the edge in winning most presidential elections, controlling the federal government, and maintaining slavery by throttling personal liberties. Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, and other slaveholders became "Negro" Presidents because of the three-fifths clause, claimed their political opponents, including the Federalists. Among those tirelessly fighting to end slaveholders' power was Revolutionary War hero and politician Timothy Pickering, whom Wills prominently highlights as Jefferson's severest critic. Complementing Roger Kennedy's Mr. Jefferson's Lost Cause, an economic, environmental, and social analysis of slavery, Wills's book superbly narrates the issues for laypersons and scholars to follow effortlessly in understanding how slavery shaped America. Strongly recommended for academic and public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 7/03.]-Charles L. Lumpkins, Pennsylvania State Univ., State College Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

Kirkus Reviews

Thomas Jefferson may have agonized privately over keeping slaves, writes Pulitzer-winning historian Wills, but he didn't think twice about putting them to work defending the institution of slavery. In this newsworthy account, Wills (James Madison, 2002, etc.) turns up a little-studied wrinkle in early constitutional history: the invention of "slave power" as a political tool. As Wills lays it out, Jefferson and several other southerners refused to ratify the Constitution until that document allowed slaves to be "represented" in Congress by some formula that accounted them as less than free whites, but that recognized their numbers nonetheless. Jefferson proposed three-quarters, northerners countered—none too willingly—with half, and in the end a compromise was reached that held that a slave was worth three-fifths of a white man for voting purposes. The effect, northern opponents such as Wills's hero Timothy Pickering thundered, was that a southerner with a hundred slaves suddenly had sixty votes against a New England merchant's one, which gave the South a decided edge in subsequent national politics and assured Jefferson's election in 1800 (whence the sobriquet that gives Wills his title). That edge allowed the slave trade to endure, and it allowed Jefferson and Washington to locate the federal capital in an area surrounded by slaveholding states, further reinforcing the "peculiar institution." Furthermore, the three-fifths proviso assured that new territories would be open to slavery, one reason that Jefferson worked to acquire Florida and Cuba for the US and negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, and one reason that his successors waged war against Mexico. Jefferson's statelyimage comes in for a fair amount of reconsideration, and it's clear from Wills's pages that the sainted president wasn't shy of using whatever means necessary to get his way. (Wills writes, for instance, "Like many of Jefferson's accounts of past events, it gains in clarity by economizing on the truth.") An eye-opening, carefully argued exposé of what the author justifiably considers to be one of the big sleeper issues in American political history. Author tour. Agent: Andrew Wylie

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