"Negro President": Jefferson and the Slave Power

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

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.
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
From the Publisher
"An eye-opening, carefully argued expose of . . . one of the big sleeper issues in American political history." Kirkus Reviews
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618485376
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing
  • Publication date: 8/28/2005
  • Edition description: None
  • Pages: 294
  • Sales rank: 1,496,744
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.66 (d)

Meet the Author

Garry Wills

GARRY WILLS, a distinguished historian and critic, is the author of numerous books, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning Lincoln at Gettysburg, Saint Augustine, and the best-selling Why I Am a Catholic. A regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, he has won many awards, among them two National Book Critics Circle Awards and the 1998 National Medal for the Humanities. He is a history professor emeritus at Northwestern University.
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    1. Date of Birth:
      May 22, 1934
    2. Place of Birth:
      Atlanta, GA
    1. Education:
      St. Louis University, B.A., 1957; Xavier University, M.A., 1958; Yale University, Ph.D., 1961

Read an Excerpt

Introduction: The Three-Fifths Clause

The election of Mr. Jefferson to the presidency was, upon sectional feelings,
the triumph of the South over the North — of the slave representation over the
purely free.
— John Quincy Adams

What did Thomas Jefferson's Federalist critics mean, after 1800, when they
called him the 'Negro President'? A person first encountering the term might,
in the not too distant past, have thought it referred to Jefferson's private life at
Monticello. In those hagiographical days, calling him a 'Negro president'
might have been interpreted to mean that he was a pro-Negro president, an
ami des noirs who sympathized with the plight of slaves, though he could not
do much about it. That was the line I heard when I first visited Monticello
more than forty years ago. More recently still, the term might be taken to
mean that he loved his own slave Sally Hemings, or exploited her, or both.
But those first calling him the 'Negro President' were not prying into his
private life. They were challenging his public boast that the election of 1800
was a 'Second Revolution' based on the expressed will of a popular majority.
It was no such thing, they argued. In terms of the number of actual votes
cast, John Adams was re-elected. The Second Revolution never occurred.

Jefferson's Election

If real votes alone had been counted, Adams would have been returned to
office. But, of course, the 'vote' did not depend solely on voters. Though
Jefferson, admittedly, received eight more votes than Adams in the Electoral
College, at least twelve of his votes were not based on thecitizenry that
could express its will but on the blacks owned by southern masters. A
bargain had been struck at the Constitutional Convention — one of the
famous compromises on which the document was formed, this one intended
to secure ratification in the South. The negotiated agreement decreed that
each slave held in the United States would count as three-fifths of a person —
the so-called federal ratio — for establishing the representation of a state in
the House of Representatives (and consequently in the Electoral College,
which was based on the House and Senate numbers for each state in
It galled the Federalists that Jefferson hailed his 1800 victory as a
triumph of democracy and majority rule when, as the Mercury and New-
England Palladium of Boston said (January 20, 1801), he had made his 'ride
into the temple of Liberty on the shoulders of slaves.' He was president only
because of 'somber' or 'sable' non-votes, and the Columbian Centinel noted
(December 24, 1800) that the half-million slaves affecting the outcome had no
more will in the matter than 'New England horses, cows, and oxen.' Timothy
Pickering, the former secretary of state under Washington and Adams,
coined the term 'Negro President' and made it current among his Federalist
allies — along with references to Negro electors, Negro voters, and Negro
congressmen. Senator William Plumer of New Hampshire wrote that 'the
Negro votes made Mr. Jefferson president.' He felt that 'Negro electors
exceed those of four states, and their representatives are equal to those of
six states' (PM 67).
Even four years before the 1800 election, New Englanders had
feared that Jefferson might win on his first try for the presidency, but only
because of the 'Negro electors.' Connecticut governor Oliver Wolcott said
then that the country would not submit to election 'by a Negro representation
only,' and papers in his state predicted that such an event might prompt the
North to secede from the Union. When their fears were confirmed by the
outcome in 1800, Pickering faced the 1804 contest with a dread premonition:

Without a separation, can those [New England] states ever rid themselves of
Negro Presidents and Negro Congresses, and regain their just weight in the
political balance? At this moment, the slaves of the middle and southern
states have fifteen representatives in Congress, and they will appoint that
number of electors of the next president and vice president; and the number
of slaves is continuously increasing. (P 14.101)

The Federalists predicted that this Negro 'representation' would
increase year by year so long as the federal ratio were retained. This
prospect is what they meant by 'the slave power.' They did not mean the
power that plantation owners exerted over their black slaves, or the power
slaves might someday use in retaliation. They meant the power that slave
states wielded over non-slave states. The Federalists said that the plantation
men were their masters. As William Plumer wrote in a public appeal to his
New Hampshire constituents:

Every five of the Negro slaves are accounted equal to three of you . . . Those
slaves have no voice in the elections; they are mere property; yet a planter
possessing a hundred of them may be considered as having sixty votes,
while one of you who has equal or greater property is confined to a single

Though the election of 1800 is one of the most thoroughly studied
events in our history, few treatments of it even mention the fact that Jefferson
won it by the slave count. It is called the first modern election, because
political parties contested it. People debate whether it earns Jefferson's own
title for it, the 'Second Revolution.' But Jefferson's ascendancy is most
frequently hailed as a triumph for the stability of the young constitutional
system, since the incumbent was ousted without violence: 'Above all, the
election demonstrated that control of the vast political power of the national
government could pass peacefully from one political party to another.'
The election is studied, as well, because it was deflected to the
House of Representatives for decision, since the two Republican candidates,
Jefferson and Burr, received a tie vote in the Electoral College. That tie led to
one of the earliest constitutional readjustments after the adoption of the Bill of
Rights — the Twelfth Amendment, which established a separate vote for the
vice presidency. The election can also be treated as a clash between the
personalities of Jefferson and Burr, or between Jefferson and Adams. These
are all interesting aspects of the event. But they are not enough, in
themselves, to explain the odd neglect of the fact that this was an election
where the federal ratio made the margin of difference.
Two authors have written books on the election of 1800 w
single reference to the votes given Jefferson by the slave bonus. A fine
symposium on the election, rated in its own pages as 'the best new
scholarship on the politics of 1800,' has in its sixteen major essays only
three glancing mentions of the federal ratio. Respected biographers of the
principals in the affair — Adams, Jefferson, and Burr — also fail to mention
the boost given Jefferson by the three- fifths clause, or they refer to it only
peripherally, as if it were unimportant. To judge by the mass of things written
on the election, Jefferson's debt to the federal ratio must be one of the great
nonevents of our past.
Yet for Federalists the slave count was not a subsidiary concern;
it was at the very core of sectional division in the country. Josiah Quincy,
who became the president of Harvard, always maintained that 'the slave
representation is the cause of all the difficulties we labor under.' Fisher Ames
called it a flaw in the Constitution that, 'instead of apportioning,
disproportions representatives to numbers [of citizens].' For such men, the
ratio was even more pernicious in its consequences than the clauses in the
Constitution that recognized the legitimacy of the slave trade for the next
twenty years (Article I, Section 9) or that imposed a fugitive slave law on the
states (Article IV, Section 2). The federal ratio undermined the very possibility
of debating or changing the status of slaves — as the gag rules of the 1830s
and 1840s would demonstrate. It gave a key electoral tool for maintaining
slavery against a majority of white voters. The federal ratio was such an
irri to the Federalists that one man's gibe at Jefferson's children by Sally
Hemings was seen as swelling the ratio. Five children by her would give him
three extra votes.

Great men can never lack supporters
Who manufacture their own voters.

Reach of the Three-Fifths Clause

Why is the impact of the federal ratio so little known? The first reaction of
many people when told about its role in Jefferson's election is to ask why
they never heard of it before. There are several explanations for this, all
contained within the fact that through much of our history Americans have
shied away from slavery as too divisive or hot an issue, leading to a great
national amnesia about its impact and reach. More particularly, the force of
the three-fifths clause is neglected because it 'only' affected one presidential
election, Jefferson's — though Paul Finkelman suggests that it may have
deprived John Quincy Adams of a majority in the contested election of 1824.
The federal ratio is neglected, as well, because dire predictions of southern
majorities in the Congress never came true, even with the benefit of the slave
count, since immigration was heavier in the North during the early nineteenth
But the power of the South was not measured solely in terms of
an overall majority. On crucial matters, when several factions were
contending, the federal ratio gave the South a voting majority. Without the
federal ratio as the deciding factor in House votes, slavery would have been
excluded from Missouri (see Chapter 14 below), Jackson's Indian removal
policy would have failed (see Chapter 16), the 1840 gag rule would not have
been imposed (Chapter 16), the Wilmot Proviso would have banned slavery in
territories won from Mexico (Chapter 16), the Kansas-Nebraska Bill would
have failed (Chapter 16).Other votes were close enough to afford opposition to
the South a better chance, if the federal ratio had not been counted into the
calculations from the outset. Elections to key congressional posts were
affected continually by the federal ratio, with the result that southerners
held 'the Speaker's office for 79 percent of the time [before 1824],Ways and
Means for 92 percent.'
Leonard Richards shows another pervasive influence of the three-
fifths clause. Even when it did not affect the outcome of congressional votes,
it dominated Democratic caucus and convention votes, since the South had a
larger majority there than in the total body. The federal ratio guaranteed that
Democratic presidential nominations would be friendly to the slave interest.
When control of the caucus seemed to be slipping from southern hands, a
two-thirds requirement for nominating candidates was installed, to give them
power to veto unacceptable men. The federal ratio was, therefore, just the
starting point for seizing and solidifying positions of influence in the
government. It was a force supplemented by other maneuvers. It gave the
South a permanent head start for all its political activities.

The slave states always had one-third more seats in Congress than their free
population warranted — forty-seven seats instead of thirty-three in 1793,
seventy-six instead of fifty-nine in 1812, and ninety-eight instead of seventy-
three in . . The Deep South also imported more slaves from Africa in
the twenty years from 1788 to 1808 (the year the international slave trade
was legally banned) than in any other twenty-year period . . . the three-fifths
rule would also play a decisive role in every political caucus and every
political convention.

The federal ratio, and its ripple of side effects, had a great deal to do with the
fact that for over half a century, right up to the Civil War, the management of
government was disproportionately controlled by the South.

In the sixty-two years between Washington's election and the Compromise of
1850, for example, slaveholders controlled the presidency for fifty years, the
Speaker's chair for forty-one years, and the chairmanship of House Ways
and Means [the most important committee] for forty-two years. The only men
to be reelected president — Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and
Jackson — were all slaveholders. The men who sat in the Speaker's chair
the longest — Henry Clay, Andrew Stevenson, and Nathaniel Macon — were
slaveholders. Eighteen out of thirty-one Supreme Court justices were

Seven justices delivered the majority opinion in the Dred Scott decision, and
a majority of them were slaveholders. The lower courts, too, were stocked
with pro-slavery men. Jefferson came into office complaining about a federal
judiciary unbalanced in favor of Federalists; but that balance shifted to the
other extreme over the next decades.
Richard H. Brown states flatly: 'From the inauguration of
Washington until the Civil War, the South was in the saddle of national
politics. This is the central fact in American political history to 1860.' Ten of
the pre–Civil War presidents were slave owners themselves, and two of the
postwar presidents had owned slaves earlier — Johnson and Grant. That
means that over a quarter of the presidents in our history were slaveholders.
Even those who were not southerners had to temporize with the South.
Northerners or westerners like Van Buren, Tyler, Polk, Clay, and Buchanan
helped craft the gag laws protecting slavery in the District of Columbia (see
Chapter 16 below). Tyler added a slave Texas, and Polk waged the war for
slave territory taken from Mexico. It was a northerner who constructed the
North-South alliance that protected slavery for decades: 'Many scholars have
long suspected that Van Buren and his colleagues purposely fashioned the
Jackson coalition so that it protected slavery and southern interests.'
Buchanan worked behind the scenes to keep Dred Scott a slave. Even John
Quincy Adams had to settle for a southern cabinet, led by the slaveholding
Clay, to deal with a Jacksonian Congress. (For Adams's compromises with
slavery before he entered Congress in 1831, see Chapter 15 below.)
Control of the presidency rested on the slave power's deep roots
in the patronage and court systems of the Jeffersonian party. A survey of the
highest federal office holders in this time showed that half of them were
southerners, though the North had almost twice the free population of the
South. Southerners held 57 percent of the high civil-service posts under
Adams, 56 percent under Jefferson, 57 percent under Jackson. And this
imbalance was not merely a matter of quantity. It had to do with quality as
well, since the South promoted strong, even extreme, proponents of slavery
to office while keeping critics of slavery, even of the mildest sort, from among
the northerners winning confirmation. In many ways, direct and indirect, this
reflected the advantage given by the federal ratio. In 1843, Adams told the
House of Representatives, 'Your country is no longer a democracy, it is not
even a republic — it is a government of two or three thousand holders of
slaves, to the utter exclusion of the remaining part.' An abolitionist would
point out, in the 1850s, that six slave states, taken together, had a free
population with 199 fewer people than Pennsylvania alone — which meant
that the people in those states had twelve senators to the Pennsylvanians'
The importance of protecting the South's extra congressional
votes became clear as early as 1792, in one of the first major battles under
the Constitution, provoking the first presidential veto in our history. Initially,
representation in the House had to be assigned by estimate, since there was
no census to work from. But when the first census was taken in 1790,
Congress tried to come up with truer figures. To set the total number of
House seats, it divided the aggregate population of the nation by 30,000, the
constitutional number for each representative. Then it assigned seats for
each state proportionally, rounding figures for single seats up or down to the
nearest 30,000, and sent the bill to Washington for his signature. Jefferson
saw that Congress's act would add six seats to the North, and only two to
the South — thus cutting into the extra margin given by counting slaves. He
insisted that each state must be counted separately, with no extra seats for
any fraction above the 30,000 divisor (J 23.370–77). This left the total number
of seats eight fewer than the general population would warrant, but removed
the four new seats from the North. The Virginians in the cabinet, Jefferson
and Edmund Randolph, working with Madison in the Congress, jointly drafted
Washington's veto, which Hamilton had urged the president not to cast.
When Washington objected to Jefferson that his veto would appear like a
sectional move favoring the South, Jefferson said that the soundness of his
own argument should be relied on, not the appearance of equity.
The size of the slave representation was at issue in each of
Jefferson's expansions of what he called 'the empire of liberty' — the survey
of the West, his purchase of Louisiana, his attempt to add the Floridas and
Cuba to America, his support for slavery in Missouri and beyond, even his
panic over Burr's detaching part of the South- west from the Union. (For Burr
and the federal ratio, see Chapter 9 below.) In all these matters, the
importance of the federal ratio has been overlooked, largely because
historians have not listened to the objections raised on its basis by Federalist
critics like Timothy Pickering. Each new addition to the plantation region
became for them a flash point in the concern over the federal ratio, several
times prompting moves to amend the Constitution by its repeal.
People neglect this aspect when discussing the way Jefferson
changed his stand on slavery in the territories between 1784, when there was
no three-fifths representation, and 1820, when there was (see Chapter 1
below). Even Jefferson's drive to open as soon as possible the University of
Virginia was meant to provide educated defenders for the extension of slavery
westward, to keep good southerners away from Harvard or Yale, where men
were taught 'the sacred principle of our holy alliance of 'restrictionism." As
David Brion Davis puts it, 'When the chips were down, as in the Missouri
crisis, he threw his weight behind slavery's expansion.'
This had less to do with theories about slavery than with the
concrete advantage the three-fifths clause gave to any added slave territory.
Michael Zuckerman attributes Jefferson's plantation imperialism to a more or
less subconscious 'Negrophobia.' It is more plausible, as well as more
respectful, to see it as based on a simple political and economic calculus.
The Constitution rewarded too well any new slave territories for him to throw
away this advantage given to 'agrarian virtue.' Even an argument used
against taking the federal ratio too seriously shows how crucial it was. We
are told that the North almost always had a majority of seats in Congress.
But that just made the South more anxious to gain the territory that would
make the federal ratio give them a majority — as it made the North more
wary of letting that happen.

What Was the Slave Power?

The fear of a 'slave power' has been dismissed as alarmist by those who
think the term refers always to a slave owners' conspiracy. For a l time
historians were frightened away from reference to a slave power by a long and
influential article written by Chauncey Boucher in 1921, 'In re That Aggressive
Slavocracy.' The key word in that defense of Boucher's beloved South
was 'aggressive.' Boucher said that the South did not take unified and secret
actions to deprive northerners of their liberties, as some conspiratorialists
had claimed. Its actions were scattered, defensive, uncoordinated, and far
from secret. Boucher denied, in Russel Nye's words, that there was 'a secret
and highly organized group with conscious aims of imposing restrictions
upon traditional liberties.'
Some people did fear and denounce such a conspiracy. The most
famous of these was Abraham Lincoln, who in his 'House Divided' speech
said that Stephen Douglas and Roger Taney of the Supreme Court had
schemed with Presidents Pierce and Buchanan to bring about a second Dred
Scott decision spreading slavery throughout the Union. One problem with the
conspiracy view is that different men identified different conspirators with
different secret aims. David Brion Davis tried to overcome that problem by
saying there was a 'paranoid style,' rather than a unified thesis, behind
charges of a slave power conspiracy. He was picking up on Richard
Hofstadter's concept of the paranoid style, formulated to criticize those who
believed there were Communist conspirers in the federal government of the
1950s and 1960s. Davis explicitly compared conspiracy-mindedness like
Lincoln's with Mc- Carthyism.
One of the effects of this line of argument was to continue the
marginalizing of abo an effort at which the South was very effective.
William Lloyd Garrison was the Ur-conspiratorialist in this view. He thought
even the Constitution a plot against freedom (a 'covenant with death'). He
went beyond a criticism of the open concessions to southern demands — on
the three-fifths clause, the slave trade, and fugitive slaves — and found a pro-
slavery slant throughout the document. A claim that this was the conscious
aim of the framers cannot be sustained. But Paul Finkelman shows that the
South did find ways to use many clauses of the Constitution, and many
interpretations of it, to protect their slave property. The concept of 'state
sovereignty' was just one of these tools. For southerners 'states' rights'
meant first and foremost the right to declare that their slaveholding was no
one else's business. Other constitutional conveniences afforded them
included the bans on taxing exports or interstate taxes, which favored the
products of slave labor. Similarly, the guarantee of states against domestic
insurrection, and the use of the militia for that purpose, put the federal
government on the slave owners' side if their property should rebel. The 'full
faith and credit' clause made other states recognize all the South's legal
provisions for slavery. And so on.
Southerners did not foresee all possible uses of these clauses,
and provide for their inclusion with that in mind, duping their northern
counterparts in the process. But they were resourceful in turning each of
them to their advantage when the occasion for doing so arose. That is what is
really at issue. Most people, when they referre to the slave power, were not
thinking of a conscious conspiracy with secret goals and instruments. They
were talking about the slave interest, and the way that powerful interest
prompted people to defensive measures, whether short-term or long-range.
John Quincy Adams got it right in 1820, when he saw his own former vice
president, John Calhoun, defending the extension of slavery into the West: 'It
is a contemplation not very creditable to human nature that the cement of
common interest produced by slavery is strong and more solid than that of
unmingled freedom.' When, in this book, I talk about the slave power, I will
mean the political efforts exerted to protect and expand slavery. This took
many forms, but almost all of them depended in some way on the three-fifths
clause, since that permeated the process of representative government. It
was a potential factor in situations long before it became actual — for
instance, in the maneuvering to add new slave territories. The series of
antebellum compromises aimed at holding the nation together addressed the
balance of power that would result from adding or blocking states with the
three-fifths advantage.
One of the great achievements of the slave power was to use its
political clout to silence opposition. Freehling calls this its blackmail power
over the northern Democrats who needed the southern part of their coalition.
The price of this bargain was that slavery be ignored as an issue in the North.
The Democrats there were able to marginalize abolitionists as 'extremists,'
as disturbers of sectional harmony, as enemies of immigrant laborers (who
did n want free black competition). It was in the name of 'law and order,'
ironically, that these northern Democrats encouraged the mobs that beat or
intimidated abolitionists. The result was that, even after the formal gag rules
were defeated in Congress, there was a gentleman's agreement not to push
the slavery issue in ways that would embarrass the South. Lincoln accurately
described the general attitude toward slavery:

You must not say anything about it in the free states because it is not there.
You must not say anything about it in the slave states because it is there.
You must not say anything about it in the pulpit, because that is religion and
has nothing to do with it. You must not say anything about it in politics
because that will disturb the security of 'my place.' There is no place to talk
about it as being a wrong, although you say yourself it is a wrong [emphasis
in original].

Theodore Parker might have said, De te fabula narratur, 'You're telling your
own story,' since Lincoln prudently avoided all open association with
abolitionists like Parker.
But Parker agreed with Lincoln's description of the way the nation
was made almost mute on the subject of slavery.

It silences the great sects, Trinitarian, Unitarian, Nullitarian: the chief
ministers of this American Church — threefold in denomination, one in
nature — have naught to say against slavery. The Tract Society dare not
rebuke 'the sum of all villainies.' The Bible Society has no 'Word of God' for
the slave, the 'revealed religion' is not revealed to him. Writers of
schoolbooks 'remember the hand that feeds them,' and venture no word
against the national crime that threatens to become also the national ruin . . .
The Democratic hands of America have sewed up her own mouth with an iron

Mark Twain looked back on the Missouri of his mother's day:

She had never heard it [slavery] assailed in any pulpit but had heard it
defended and sanctified in a thousand; her ears were familiar with Bible texts
that approved it but if there were any that disapproved it they had not been
quoted by her pastors; as far as her experiences went, the wise and the good
and the holy were unanimous in the conviction that slavery was right.

The national reticence continued long after the Civil War. It
skewed the historiography of Reconstruction for decades. In the early
twentieth century, it whitewashed the South in popular culture and at sites
like Monticello and Mount Vernon. It entertained the absurd notion that the
Civil War was not fought over slavery but over tariffs, or states' rights, or
federal usurpation. It encouraged Edmund Wilson to romanticize the Ku Klux
Klan. In our time it has defended the Confederate Battle Flag as untainted by
slavery. And it has kept the image of Jefferson relatively unclouded by the
things he did to promote and protect and expand the slave power.
Luckily, things are changing. The fine works I have been citing by
Paul Finkelman, Leonard Richards, Don Fehrenbacher, William Freehling,
and others show that we are finally coming to grips with the vast octopus that
was slavery, with the tentacles it spread through every part of our nation and
its political life. No, I guess an octopus is not the ri image. For that we
should turn again to Theodore Parker:

There is an old story told by the Hebrew rabbis, that before the flood there
was an enormous giant called Gog. After the flood had got into the full tide of
successful experiment, and every man was drowned except those taken into
the ark, Gog came striding along after Noah, feeling his way with a cane as
long as the mast of the Great Republic. The water had only come up to his
girdle; it was then over the hill tops and was still rising — raining night and
day. The giant hailed the Patriarch. Noah put his head out of the window and
said, 'Who is there?' 'It is I,' said Gog. 'Take us in; it is wet outside.' 'No,'
said Noah, 'you're too big; no room. Besides, you're a bad character. You
would be a very dangerous passenger, and would make trouble in the ark. I
shall not take you in. You may get on top if you like.' And he clapped to the
window. 'Go to thunder,' said Gog. 'I will ride, after all.' And he strode after
him, wading through the waters; and mounting on the starboard side, steered
it just as he pleased, and made it rough weather inside. Now, in making the
Constitution, we did not care to take in slavery in express terms. It looked
ugly. We allowed it to get on the top astride, and it steers us just where it

Copyright © 2003 by Garry Wills. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin
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Table of Contents

Foreword : the great divide
Prologue : coming to terms with Jefferson
Introduction : the three-fifths clause 1
I Before 1800 15
1 Pickering vs. Jefferson : the Northwest 18
2 Pickering vs. Jefferson : Toussaint 33
II "Second revolution" 47
3 1800 : why were slaves counted? 50
4 1800 : the Negro-Burr election 62
5 1801 : Jefferson or Burr? 73
6 1801 aftermath : turning out the Federalists 90
III Pickering in Congress 103
7 1803 : the Twelfth Amendment 106
8 1803 : Louisiana 114
9 1804 : Pickering and Burr 127
10 1804-1805 : impeachments 140
11 1808 : Embargo 147
12 1808 : Pickering and Governor Sullivan 159
13 1808 : Pickering and J. Q. Adams 171
14 1809-1815 : Pickering and Madison 182
IV The Pickering legacy 195
15 J. Q. Adams : the federal (slave) district 200
16 J. Q. Adams : petition battles 214
Epilogue : farewell to Pickering 226
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