‘NEGRO PRESIDENT’: Jefferson and the Slave Power, by Garry Wills. 274 pages. Houghton Mifflin, $25
When this book was written, America had never had an African-American president. Now we have. The term “Negro president” (and “Negro Congress”) meant something different 200 years ago.
It referred to the additional weight given to Southern votes by counting each 5 slaves as 3 persons for purposes of allocating seats in the House of Representatives.
In 1800, the presidency was decided in the House, but the 3/5ths ratio did not have any direct consequence there: Each of the 15 states had one vote. Thus Thomas Jefferson was a “Negro president” at one remove.
Garry Wills argues, though, that Jefferson – and every other Southern politician – had to accede to the “slave power” to have any chance of being elected at all. In the event, Jefferson was not just an easy rider of slave power.
And the slave power was maintained, forever, by the 3/5tsratio.
Jefferson worked tirelessly, and often deviously, to preserve and extend slavery. His highhandedness in managing the Louisiana Purchase is well known. Less known – and only alluded to here, not explicated in detail – were his plots to get East and West Florida into the Union.
His most consistent opponent from the antislavery side was Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts, an incorruptible and sometimes wily opponent.
Pickering is not well-remembered, and when he is it is mostly as a separationist behind the infamous Hartford Convention.
Wills, always drawn to correcting impressions, finds that Pickering was once a separationist, but by the time of the Hartford Convention had softened his approach.
Political junkies will love this book as Wills deftly traces the partisan undercurrents behind the maneuverings whose surface ripples are all we see in general histories.
Along the way we find out more about Hamilton and, especially, Burr. John Quincy Adams, who was a senator along with Pickering for a while, assumes a large place.
So m any things were going on – at cross purposes as politics always work out – that it is somewhat hard to summarize what Wills wants to say about Jefferson as a “Negro president.”
However, his overarching conclusion is easy enough to summarize: To get a Union, everyone had to submit to chattel slavery in perpetuity. If some thought they were making a tactical choice that would result, somehow, in an opposite strategic outcome, they were wrong.
The slave power swept all for 75 years and nothing in the Constitution did – or ever could have – restrained it.
When Lincoln died in April 1865, having fought and won a great war to preserve the Union and end slavery, and won re-election – his capital city was still a slave city.
Wills, a great ironist, explains how that bizarre result came about.
A committed unionist, he writes from the premise that a big union was a good thing, so he never addresses the alternative choice that the Founders rejected: To have formed 2 unions, one slave and one free.