Jefferson's Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the DIlemma of Black Patriotism

Jefferson's Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the DIlemma of Black Patriotism

by Roger W. Wilkins

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An outspoken participant in the civil rights movement, Roger Wilkins served as Assistant Attorney General during the Johnson administration. In 1972 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize along with Bernstein and Herblock for his coverage of Watergate. Yet this black man, who has served the United States so well, feels at times an unwelcome guest here.

In Jefferson's Pillow, Wilkins returns to America's beginnings and the founding fathers who preached and fought for freedom, even though they owned other human beings and legally denied them their humanity. He asserts that the mythic accounts of the American Revolution have ignored slavery and oversimplified history until the heroes, be they the founders or the slaves in their service, are denied any human complexity.

Wilkins offers a thoughtful analysis of this fundamental paradox through his exploration of the lives of George Washington, George Mason, James Madison, and of course Thomas Jefferson. He discusses how class, education, and personality allowed for the institution of slavery, unravels how we as Americans tell different sides of that story, and explores the confounding ability of that narrative to limit who we are and who we can become.

An important intellectual history of America's founding, Jefferson's Pillow will change the way we view our nation and ourselves.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807009574
Publisher: Beacon Press
Publication date: 07/28/2002
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 184
Sales rank: 429,874
Product dimensions: 5.51(w) x 8.48(h) x 0.42(d)

About the Author

Roger Wilkins, currently the Clarence J. Robinson Professor of History at George Mason University, was cited in the 1972 Pulitzer Prize award to The Washington Post for his coverage of Watergate. He serves on the school board of the District of Columbia and lives in Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt


The past is never dead; in fact, it's not even past.

William Faulkner

And as the moon rose higher the inessential homes began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes—a fresh green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder....

    Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.... And one fine morning—

    So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

"That don't sound like you, Ella. Me and you been pulling colored folk out the water more'n twenty years. Now you tell me you can't offer a man a bed? ..."

    "He ask, I give him anything."

    "Why's that necessary all of a sudden?"

    "I don't know him all that well."

    "You know he's colored."

Toni Morrison

Less than a mile from my home in Washington, on alittle peninsula jutting out into the Tidal Basin, inside a neoclassical temple, there is an awesome statue of Thomas Jefferson. He is on a high pedestal, standing easily and tall in a long coat with a gaze that seems fixed somewhere far beyond tomorrow. Some of Jefferson's most memorable words are set in the great stone panels that surround the statue. They are the throbbing phrases at the core of the American hymn to freedom that Jefferson composed and flung out against the sky. These are words that have enlarged the hearts and emboldened the spirits of generations of freedom-loving people across the globe.

    In the thirty-eight years I have lived in Washington, I have visited that place many times—to see it for myself, to show it to my children, or to show it to visitors who have come from far away. In the process of writing this book, I decided to visit the memorial again. I am always moved by it because the words touch the chords of myth and memory that are embedded in the hearts of most Americans. Who cannot be stirred when he thinks of an eighteenth-century American who could proclaim to the world:

We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. We ... solemnly publish and declare that these colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states ... and for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.

    Or this:

God who gave us life gave us liberty, can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between Master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free. Establish the law for educating the common people. This is the business of the state to effect and on a general plan.

    Another panel reads:

I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and Constitutions. But laws must and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.

    I can feel these ideas pulsing beneath the words of the Supreme Court opinion in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, in which it reversed its earlier approval of segregation. When Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote to explain the Court's decision, he said:

In approaching this problem, we cannot turn the clock back to 1868 when the [14th] Amendment was written. We must consider public education in the light of its full development and its present place in American life throughout the Nation. Only in this way can it be determined if segregation in public schools deprives these plaintiffs of the equal protection of the laws....

Whatever may have been the extent of psychological knowledge at the time of Plessy v. Ferguson, this finding [that segregation has a tendency to retard the educational and mental development of Negro children] is amply supported by modern authority. Any language in Plessy v. Ferguson contrary to this finding is rejected.

    There is also a panel on the wall of the temple with quotes relating to the issue of religious freedom, and then up high, just before the domed ceiling begins, there is a band with words carved in block capitals: "I HAVE SWORN UPON THE ALTAR OF GOD ETERNAL HOSTILITY AGAINST EVERY FORM OF TYRANNY OVER THE MIND OF MAN."

    It is a late-fall afternoon, and the chill has created an atmosphere suited to quiet contemplation because most tourists have chosen warmer destinations. I am standing in a temple of freedom dedicated to enshrining the memory of Thomas Jefferson in those chambers of our hearts reserved for the greatest of human spirits. And yet I am puzzled as I stare up at the image of this man who wrote that his earliest memory was of being carried on a pillow by a slave riding on horseback, and who at the time of his death still owned well over a hundred human beings upon whom, somehow, he had been unwilling or unable to bestow the blessings of liberty.

    As I stand alone, notebook in hand, pondering my question, I finally notice that another visitor, a white man, whom I have vaguely sensed circling the statue and therefore me, is staring not at Jefferson's image but at my demeanor as he makes his rounds. It seems that my deep contemplation of Jefferson puzzles him. At this point I notice that, as is often the case, I am the only black person in the temple. A little later on another stranger—also a white man—surreptitiously takes my picture as I stand there trying to understand the expression the sculptor gave to Jefferson's face. Is it my expression or my skin color that fascinates these men? Maybe they are asking themselves why I am here. Given all of my experience and all I know of American history, so am I.

    On another night, there is another puzzle. This time I am alone in a room in my house watching an Arts and Entertainment Channel movie about Washington's crossing of the Delaware on Christmas Night 1776, and the ensuing battle of Trenton. It is an enthralling drama about the fragility of the dispirited American army and the heroism of the commander in chief, who is depicted as willing the army to move, to strike, and to win. It, like the Jefferson Memorial and much else in monumental Washington, is designed to evoke awe and reverence at the contemplation of the founding of the republic and the people who accomplished it. Although I find the film and the valiant struggle it seeks to represent deeply moving, I get an eerie feeling about this version of history. There are no blacks in it. There are no black civilians, no black soldiers, and no black slaves or body servants—just white people bravely and busily creating a country.

    Both of these iconic references to the birth of the republic create awful absences in me. Jefferson's utterances on freedom and liberty are like the neutron bombs of words. They pack terrific force, but they seem not to have affected very many eighteenth-century black lives. And the battle of Trenton (and by implication, the entire Revolution), as rendered by A&E, indicates that blacks were absent at the creation—a suggestion implicit in most of the ways that history has been taught for most of the nearly four hundred years America has been making history.

    Yet I am always acutely aware that however noble their accomplishments, Jefferson and his fellow Virginians George Washington, George Mason, and James Madison—great patriots and founders all—lived lives cushioned by slavery. They were also the conveyors of the culture that has done and continues to do hideous damage to millions of black human beings and to many more millions of white Americans as well. They created a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that whites were and should be supreme. They celebrated freedom while stealing the substance of life from the people they "owned." They fought off the mightiest military power then on earth with the cry "We will not be slaves!" And they created the country that gives me, the descendant of slaves and slave owners, much of the context for my existence, the freedom that I cherish and the democratic citizenship that I have used relentlessly for the past half century.

    How is one to understand a country whose dreams the slave owners despoiled even as they were creating it? How is a black person to regard a land where his ancestors were meant to serve but not to grow?

    As I contemplate the tall, straight figure of Jefferson and think of his colleagues, I am truly in awe of the conundrum they present to me and people like me, and of the deep conflict they have laid on my soul—the "twoness," as W. E. B. Du Bois called it. Because I am black, I can't avoid it, and because I am American, I must confront it. As the new century begins, I am living out my sixty-ninth year in comfort, with the wonderful and successful wife of my later years, and my three children are all doing well. I saw Satchel Paige pitch way back down in Segregation, and I loved him; heard Frank Sinatra sing and Miles Davis play his horn; inhaled Harlem as a child; fell in love in Ann Arbor and married young in Cleveland; and have spent a lifetime in democratic struggles since then. When I am abroad, I feel profoundly American, and I must look that way, too. On a trip to South Africa in 1978, while that nation was still mired in apartheid, I was dressed casually and standing quietly alone, on a street corner in downtown Capetown, waiting to cross. I thought my brown skin made me look very much like the people then classified as "colored" in that country, but before the light changed, a little white South African woman squinted up at my face and asked, "Where're you from, Philadelphia?"

    Well, not Philadelphia, but my blood came down through Kansas City, Minneapolis/St. Paul, St. Louis; Pike County, Ohio; Holly Springs, Mississippi; Charleston, South Carolina; Northumberland County, Virginia; and surely a lot of other American places as well. And on that day, on that street corner in Capetown, the gaze of that little white South African woman caught that. Generations of my family are buried in this American ground, and this country has made its mark on us just as we have made our marks on it. My people and I have worked for America, and we have changed it, made it richer and better. The question is whether we blacks can join other Americans—including more recent immigrants—and become the full emotional and civic owners of the place where we were once owned. There is much pain and loss in our national history, which contains powerful echoes of the pain and loss many of us feel in our daily lives. For blacks there is the pain of slavery and the continual loss of dignity that accompanies our treatment as nonstandard citizens. For many Southern whites, the outcome of the Civil War brought a loss of prestige, power, and privilege, and some of the resulting resentment was felt in the North as well. Black people and white people became for each other color-coded symbols of the things they had lost or never achieved, and of the things they continued to resent and fear.

    Ancient pains are summoned up to cloak contemporary arguments in the self-righteousness of victimhood. So we divide up our past and use simplistic bits selectively—avoiding real human complexity—in order to fuel the argument of the moment or to meet urgent but unrelated needs. But in so dividing and simplifying history—for example, maintaining that the Confederate flag is merely the symbol of past honor and gallantry or that all blacks were innocent and noble victims—we ensure that our future will be rent along the same jagged seams that wound us so grievously today.

    Tales of the republic's founding—mythic national memories used to bind us together—are often told in ways that exclude and diminish all of us. They diminish the founders by denying them rich human complexity and giving us instead monumental heroes whose actual lives cannot possibly live up to the marble facades that have come down to us through the generations; and they diminish blacks either by simply excluding us or by minimizing our humanity and our contributions to the richness, strength, and vibrancy of the nation. And yet I feel and look American, and I have labored over the years to make the Constitution work for everyone. Does that make me a patriot? Can I embrace founders who may have "owned" some of my ancestors? Can I try to see them in their complexity and understand them—even identify with them? Can I see myself and my ancestors as active participants in a history from which we are too often absent?

    Perhaps the best way for me to unravel these questions is to look back at the story of the founding and at the characters and achievements of four of the Virginians—George Mason, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison—who were both massive contributors to the founding of the new nation and owners of slaves. The idea of this project is not to write yet another biography of any of these men or another colonial or revolutionary history. It is, rather, to apply what I know as a man who is now a few months older than Washington was when he died—a man who is American, black, and acutely aware of the frailties of humans, himself included. In my effort to understand and to evaluate these men, the revolution they helped make, and the legacy of their entire generation, I will try very hard to remember the constraints that culture imposes on free will. I will try to discern how they accepted or endeavored to reform their society, and look again at how they performed at some of the most challenging moments of their lives. I will probe their cultural and intellectual inheritance so as to avoid judging them by contemporary values—as my older daughter, Amy, judged George Washington when she was a little girl and learned on a visit to Mount Vernon that he had owned slaves.

    "What's so great about him?" she exclaimed shrilly.

    In the shock and quiet that followed, I didn't answer.

    This book is, finally, an attempt at a response.

    I often tell my students that we are all born with a thousand pounds of history on our back. This was no less true for the founding generation than it is for us. In an effort to make explicit the basis for my judgments, I will draw the history of the founding, up through what I know of slavery in my own family and then up through my own ruminations on being an American citizen. These latter may have begun in earnest when I was eight and attended my father's burial in a segregated cemetery in Missouri, where, in 1941, blacks were not considered good enough to be around whites even when they were dead.

    First, briefly, let me provide sketches of some founders in their time and then some notes on my family, drawing America into my soul as best I can. Notes, as my brother Jimmy Baldwin would have called them, of a Native Son.

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