- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 25, 2003


By Garry Wills

Houghton Mifflin, $25, 283 pages


Admirers of Thomas Jefferson generally steer clear of his presidency, for the merest glance at it indicates that he was by no means a Jeffersonian president. Those of us who study and write about him from a Hamiltonian perspective see much to admire, and little to disparage, in his first seven years in office, until the drastic degeneration that came with his efforts to enforce a misguided embargo on all American shipping during his last year in the White House.

As far as I am aware, no serious historian has, until now, attempted to depict Jefferson as the unremitting head of the “slave power” that supposedly dominated American government before the Civil War. That is precisely the task that Garry Wills has set for himself in this slim volume. In “Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power,” he tells us up front that Jefferson ranks high in his “private pantheon” and that his next book will be addressed to “Jefferson’s many other claims on our admiration and gratitude.” At this time, however, he concentrates “solely on his roles as a protector and extender of the slave system.”

Mr. Wills has some parts of the record going for him. The Federalists, for example, had opened trade relations with the black republic set up under Toussaint Louverture in Saint Domingue (Haiti), and Jefferson deliberately undid that arrangement, condemning the black rebels to starvation. Again, the Founders had, willy-nilly, stacked the rules of presidential and congressional politics in favor of the slave states. In the Philadelphia Convention, Southern delegates had sought to have slaves counted as people for purposes of representation but not for purposes of apportioning direct taxes; Northerners wanted slaves counted only as property.

The result was a compromise, slaves being counted as three-fifths of a person for both representation and direct taxes. As things worked out, however, direct taxes at the Federal level proved to be impractical, and thus Southerners had the privilege of being over-represented without having to bear taxes on their slaves.

Mr. Wills makes much of the assertion that the triumph of the Jefferson-Burr ticket in the presidential election of 1800 — which Jefferson described as the Second American Revolution — was made possible only by the three-fifths rule. This is a point that, as Mr. Wills shows, everybody who has written about that famous election knows, but upon which almost none has commented in print.

Not all the record supports Mr. Wills’ interpretation. It strains credulity, for example, to be told that Jefferson, aided by Madison and Washington, worked out the compromise to locate the federal capital on the Potomac primarily so that slaveowners could comfortably take along slaves when they went to serve in government.

To avoid such strains, Mr. Wills relies upon the words, deeds, and accusations of a prominent contemporary who firmly believed in the existence and wickedness of the slave power, namely the sometime Secretary of State and long-time senator and representative from Massachusetts, Timothy Pickering. This is, indeed, a book about Pickering, not about Jefferson.

Pickering was a strange man, to say the least. John Adams found it necessary to fire him from the State Department for the extremity of his views and policies. After the Louisiana Purchase he led a secession movement, then abandoned that approach only to take it up again during the War of 1812.

One measure of his eccentricity is that, though the Massachusetts Historical Society houses an enormous collection of his papers, just one historian has found him sufficiently attractive to write his biography, and that historian eventually became so sick of Pickering that the biography turned into a diatribe against him.

The main shortcoming in Mr. Wills’ book is not, however, its heavy reliance upon so outre a source. Rather, it is this: When one sets out to offer an historical interpretation that is at variance with the received wisdom — as Mr. Wills is particularly wont to do — one’s craftsmanship must be impeccable, and Mr. Wills’ is not.

For instance, he leaves out important data when they contradict or detract from his argument. Take the 1800 presidential election. Mr. Wills tells us, what is well known, that Burr managed to gain a majority in the New York legislature, which would choose the presidential electors, by inducing a number of retired big-name candidates to run for the seats representing the city and environs.

Mr. Wills does not tell us what Burr used as a sweetener: The legislature would charter a corporation to build a water works, and that corporation, the Manhattan Company, would be permitted to invest its profits in any way it saw fit. It saw fit to go into banking, and for many decades the Bank of the Manhattan Company had the most liberal bank charter ever granted in America.

Mr. Wills tells us what is also well known, that Alexander Hamilton asked Gov. John Jay to call a special session of the lame-duck legislature to undo Burr’s work, and Jay refused. What he does not tell us is that Hamilton wanted the legislature to have the electors chosen by popular vote.

These machinations in New York had quite as much to do with the Jefferson-Burr victory as the three-fifths rule.

Again, consider the Louisiana Purchase. Despite Jefferson’s glee that the purchase would make it “possible to remain a nation of farmers for a thousand years,” Mr. Wills insists that Jefferson really had in mind increasing the number of slave states. Yet he tells us that Jefferson originally planned to restrict white settlement to the land south of the 31st parallel, the rest to be reserved for Indians. The 31st parallel is approximately at Shreveport, La., meaning that only one small slave state would be added.

Or take the impeachment trial of Justice Samuel Chase.Mr. Wills is confused about the way Burr, as the outgoing vice president, chose to conduct the trial. Whether Chase would be convicted depended upon whether a political or a judicial trial would take place. Burr had the Senate chamber decorated in the fashion of the House of Lords, which indicated to everyone that the proceedings would be strictly judicial.

Yet again, consider the Embargo. Mr. Wills tells us that Jefferson pushed it through Congress in 1807. Actually, the Embargo was Madison’s idea, and for several months Jefferson was indifferent to it. Mr. Wills also tells us that it was enacted in retaliation for the British ship Leopard’s attack upon the United States ship Chesapeake. Not so: It was aimed at forcing Britain to repeal its Orders in Council prohibiting trade with France and at forcing Napoleon to repeal his Berlin and Milan Decrees forbidding trade with Britain.

The list of shortcomings — including extreme dullness — could go on and on. Mr. Wills is right in telling us that Jefferson was a proslavery president, but he fails to convince this Hamiltonian Federalist that Jefferson was merely the tool of, or the head of, a mysterious slave power.

Forrest McDonald is Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus at the Universtiy of Alabama.

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