The Details of Greatness

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BOOKS MARCH 29, 2004

The Details of Greatness

"Negro President": Jefferson and the Slave PowerBy Garry Wills(Houghton Mifflin, 274 pp., $25)An Imperfect God:George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of AmericaBy Henry Wiencek(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 404 pp., $26)

In 1839, Thomas Morris, a radical Jacksonian senator from Ohio, took aim at John C. Calhoun, the Southern slaveocracy, and their timid Northern appeasers from both national parties, and coined a new phrase. "The slave power of the South and the banking power of the North ... are now uniting to rule the country," Morris told the Senate. Over the next twenty years, Morris's exhortation to fight the "slave power" became the rallying cry for the anti-slavery forces that eventually carried Abraham Lincoln to the presidency. The dissident Democrat Morris, forgotten today, stood tall in the minds of anti-slavery agitators. Salmon Chase, another Jacksonian sympathizer and later a leader of both the Liberty and the Republican parties, credited Morris as the man who "first led me to see the character of the slave power as an aristocracy, and the need of an earnest organization to counteract its pretensions."

So out of the tradition of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and Andrew Jackson--it was indeed a unified tradition--came a powerful motto, and an anti-aristocratic politics that would help bring slavery to its knees. Recent historians have caught up with Morris's phrase, if not with Morris--but they have used the knowledge perversely, as a club to batter Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, and their followers and admirers. According to such scholars as Richard H. Brown, Paul Finkelman, and Leonard L. Richards, the "Slave Power" was born in 1788, with the ratification of the three-fifths clause of the Constitution. Thanks to the clause's artificial inflation of Southern representation in the House of Representatives and the electoral college, these historians assert, the party of slavery, led first by Jefferson and Madison and then by Jackson, was able to keep the country safe for human bondage.

Northern anti-slavery opinion, so the argument goes, either turned its back on party politics or allied itself with Jefferson's, Madison's, and Jackson's opponents, first the Federalists (the political faction, most certainly not to be confused with the earlier Framers of the Constitution) and then the Whigs. But owing to the three-fifths clause, neither the anti-slavery Federalists nor the anti-slavery Whigs could muscle aside the slaveocrats for very long. Not until the 1850s did the demographic and political imbalance shift. Only then did Lincoln and the Republicans--the political heirs of the anti-slavery Federalists, according to the revisionists--finally win national power and trigger Southern secession.

I am simplifying. The provocative writings of Brown, Finkelman, and especially Richards present a more sophisticated account of this muddle. Yet I am not simplifying when I so describe Garry Wills's appropriation and amplification of those historians' work in his misadventurous new book. The good news is that there is also a new example of how to get the problem of slavery, democracy, and the American founding right: nothing could be more different from Wills's book in its argument, its spirit, and its soundness than Henry Wiencek's rich study of George Washington and his slaves.


The imputation of Senator Morris's "slave power" argument to the nation's very beginnings marks the convergence of several scholarly trends, some of them admirable. Having long slighted slavery's importance in the early republic, historians were overdue for a reckoning on the subject. At the nation's founding, approximately one-fifth of the population was enslaved. Slavery still existed in New York and New Jersey, and the last slave would not be freed there until, respectively, 1827 and 1846. Northerners participated in and profited from the slave trade, as well as from the Southern plantation economy. In every part of the country, non-slaveholders and slaveholders alike were implicated in the system. Four of the first five presidents, all of them Virginians, owned slaves.

National politics turned chiefly on matters of government finance, foreign policy, and civil liberties for freemen, but hardly a year passed without some conflict over slavery and its future. In 1798 and again in 1804, Congress debated whether to allow slavery to expand into the new Western territories. There were debates about closing the transatlantic slave trade (which was accomplished in 1808), about whether to accept and to discuss anti-slavery petitions from Quakers and Northern free blacks, about whether to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. Foreign policy became entangled with slavery after the Haitian slave rebellion of 1791 that toppled the French colony of Saint Domingue. Thus the congressional battle that was joined in the Missouri crisis in 1819, and which quickly raised the specter of disunion, had been thirty years in preparation.

The re-discovery of these conflicts--and of the victory, in almost every instance, of slaveholding interests--has cast shadows on the era's political leadership, and above all on its greatest leader, the slaveholding democrat Thomas Jefferson. Beginning in the 1960s, powerful studies by Winthrop D. Jordan and David Brion Davis deposed the accepted view of Jefferson as an anti-slavery man. Scholars re-discovered the paradoxical and hair-raising sections of Jefferson's anti-slavery work Notes on the State of Virginia, written in the early 1780s, in which he speculated freely on the biological inferiority of blacks, likening them at one point to orangutans. Beyond his youthful anti-slavery ventures, Jefferson's later reticence on the subject, his willingness to go along with and even to encourage slavery's expansion, his coldness to the Haitian rebels, and most of all his own slaveholding (including his untroubled buying and selling of human beings) all made him appear at best two-faced about freedom and democracy, and at worst a sinister instrument of the nation's disgrace.

The more historians examined Jefferson and slavery in the early republic, the more sordid and brutal the era's politics looked--and the more distorted their own vision became. Instead of reconsidering slavery as an important and neglected issue, they began to regard it as the only issue that mattered. In the final chapter to his distinguished book American Slavery, American Freedom, Edmund S. Morgan wrote as if all of early America were Virginia, and suggested that at its inception American egalitarianism existed firmly on a foundation of slavery and racial oppression.

Other writers focused their blame on Jefferson and the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans, while finding new virtues in the Federalists. Among the more outspoken early anti-slavery whites had been such pillars of Federalist politics as Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. Many of the later abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison, had political roots in New England Federalism. But the Democratic-Republicans were strongest in the South and were led by the slaveholders Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, charlatans all. The origins of the anti-slavery movement--and of modern racial liberalism--lay not, as has long been supposed, in Jeffersonianism, but rather in Federalism, long abused as the politics of anti-democratic reaction.

Most recently, this revisionism has circled back to Jefferson himself, and provoked one of the most ferocious assaults ever launched on a great American. The fallout from the Sally Hemings controversy is the least of it. On the basis, largely, of one overheated letter that Jefferson wrote about the French Revolution in 1793, Conor Cruise O'Brien has denounced him as a forerunner of Pol Pot. On the basis, largely, of a crabby letter that the eternally crabby eighty-eight-year-old John Adams wrote in 1823, Pauline Maier has stripped Jefferson of his authorship of the Declaration of Independence. Another writer has compared him unfavorably to Adams, the doughty conservative signer of the Alien and Sedition acts, and still another has called Jefferson the foremost American racist of his time.

The worse things have gone for Thomas Jefferson, the better they have gone for the Federalists, those supposedly intrepid foes of the three-fifths clause and Southern slavery. History, like politics, can be a zero-sum game; and so the trashing of Jefferson has been accompanied by a full-scale Federalist revival. The same has proved true for the succeeding period in our history, in which the pro-Jefferson slaveholder Andrew Jackson gets cast as a villain and his Whig opponents as comparative paragons of racial enlightenment. The reversal in reputation yields a seductive new paradox: that in the matters of slavery and race, the hierarchical conservatives were the true egalitarians, and the democrats were frauds.

Perhaps liberal sentimentalism was due for a qualification; but this revisionist history has come to recapitulate, down to the last petty detail, the wildest of partisan Federalist polemics. And down to the last detail this history is warped, willful, and wrong. Jefferson certainly wrote the Declaration of Independence, even if, as he always conceded, he had help. The American political leader of the era who delivered the most outspoken defense of slavery and white supremacy was not Jefferson but a puffed-up South Carolina Federalist named William Loughton Smith. Most Yankee Federalists, in and out of politics, could be counted on to side with the most obstreperous slaveholders until it became politically inconvenient to do so. The Federalists' attacks on the three-fifths clause arose from their hysteria over the spread of democratic politics in the North, not from some imaginary Federalist abolitionism. In any event, the South's inflated power under the three-fifths clause was irrelevant to the most important congressional slavery debates of the time, up to and including the Missouri crisis of 1819-1821, when anti-slavery proposals were thwarted by the Senate (where the three-fifths clause had no effect) and not by the House of Representatives.

Although some Northern Federalists took principled stands against slavery, so did Northern Republicans; in fact, after 1800 there was a growing core of Northern anti-slavery Jeffersonians in Congress that became the predominant anti-slavery political force by the time of the Missouri crisis. Jefferson himself was far more ambiguous, and in his old age, when the chips were down, he backed the spread of slavery into the West. But he believed that this diffusion would hasten slavery's demise, not make it stronger. He may have been deluding himself; but he was emphatically not in favor of slavery, as so many of his Federalist foes were.

What, exactly, is stoking the contemporary rage against Jefferson? An anachronistic political correctness, certainly, in which the early twenty-first-century personal is the early nineteenth-century political; and an ideological disquietude about the greatest articulator of American democracy, the burden of whose principles might be lifted off certain shoulders if he could be shown to have been a mountebank. Jefferson embodies the Enlightenment, which infuriates both the religious right and the postmodernist left. Trashing Jefferson is also a sure path to attention and fame. Until now, partisans from across the American political spectrum sought to use Jefferson for their own purposes. Today it is fashionable on the left and on the right to debase Jefferson, and score contemporary political points, and pray for the best-seller lists. Historians are always out to show that great figures had feet of clay, and to find merit in what previous historians have discarded; but the passion behind this particular onslaught exceeds the normal re-adjustments of historical reputations.

At the most recent meeting of the American Historical Association, for example, an audience of academics roared its approval when Joseph Ellis pronounced Jefferson "the deadest white male in American history." The assault has reached the point where anyone who speaks up on behalf of Jefferson and his party, or who calls into question the detractors' arguments, can expect to be labeled (or rather libeled) by Garry Wills and others as a defender of slavery. That the charges come not simply from demagogues, journalists, and neo-Federalist apologists but from reputable writers and scholars indicates that some larger cultural distemper is at work. But whatever the reason, caricature and diatribe have begun to displace history in studies of the early republic--which makes Henry Wiencek's subtle book about the first slaveholder president so refreshing.


George Washington is at once the most familiar and the most distant figure in early American history. His name and his image are everywhere. He is still remembered as the father of his country, but he remains as he was to most of his contemporaries: so Olympian, so lacking in foibles or other human qualities, that he seems to have been carved out of marble. Apart from his Farewell Address, delivered when he left the presidency in 1796 and composed chiefly by Alexander Hamilton, Washington left behind no memorable piece of writing. (The deeply insecure John Adams called him "too illiterate, unread, unlearned for his station.") The best-known story about him, that as a boy he told his father the truth about cutting down a cherry tree, is a myth. His plantation home at Mount Vernon stands chiefly as a shrine to his augustness. His famous wooden dentures, one set lovingly preserved at the National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore, serve as lonely testimony to his humanity--and even they turn out to be constructed mostly out of ivory.

But historians have known better. Plenty of what Wiencek discovers about Washington--his inner struggles for self-mastery and order, his neoclassical stoicism (one part Seneca, one part Joseph Addison), his mighty ambition for wealth and fame--has been explored by earlier biographers. Wiencek has a gift for elucidating Washington's personality and inner life in crisp, unpretentious prose. He tells his readers how he conducted his research, turning his story into an engaging tale of scholarly discovery. His fresh and direct approach breathes new life into even the most hackneyed material. (Young George did refuse to tell a lie, but the incident involved a horse, not a cherry tree.) Still, as Wiencek admits, scholars have studied the historical record on Washington so closely that most of the mysteries are likely to remain mysterious.

Except that there turns out to be a great deal more to learn about Washington and slavery, and especially about his life as a slaveholder. Everybody knows that Washington owned slaves, and also that, unlike Jefferson, Madison, and the vast majority of Southern masters, Washington provided for the manumission of all his slaves after his wife's death. But what kind of a master was he? Who were his slaves, how did he treat them, and how did they treat him? When did Washington's conscience begin to bother him, and why? What made Washington different from other Southern Revolutionary leaders--including those, like Jefferson, who professed to hate slavery but freed no more than a few of their slaves?

To answer these questions, Wiencek pored over some of the driest sources, including Washington's accounts books, and found fascinating nuggets that others had overlooked. He also expanded the Washington archive by taking seriously the bits and pieces of lore that have been handed down through the generations of families descended from Washington's slaves. From his work on his fine earlier book, The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, as well as from the Jefferson-Hemings controversy, Wiencek had concluded that these kinds of informal oral histories should never be dismissed as the apocrypha of uppity blacks who yearned to possess their own special piece of American history, which is more or less how earlier historians had treated such sources. Instead, these family stories had to be checked and double-checked for accuracy against the rest of the record. Wiencek found that to a large degree the stories had merit. And so he collected the recorded stories and searched out new ones; and by the time he had assembled them alongside the more conventional sources, and had compared notes with Washington family members, National Park Service Rangers, and other Washington historians and buffs--and, along the way, had done a little literal digging on the grounds of Mount Vernon--he had the makings of a frightening and inspiring biography of Washington unlike any written before.

The frightening part of the story is that before the Revolution Washington does not appear to have been an especially cruel or callous slaveholder. His cruelty and his callousness were perfectly normal for a Virginia planter--which makes the system of slavery seem all the more atrocious in retrospect. Washington became a major slaveholder upon his fortunate marriage to the widow Martha Dandridge Custis in 1759; at his death, forty years later, he owned 164 slaves and controlled another 139 "dower slaves" through his wife. An enthusiastic farmer and improver, he kept up with the latest trends, switching over from tobacco to wheat when the tobacco market became glutted. He adopted scientific methods for planting and farm management. Despite his assiduity, he chronically fell in arrears to his creditors, as was common among Virginia planters. (After the Revolution, Washington was one of the commonwealth's largest debtors.) Yet his debts did not keep him from going further into debt by purchasing all the appurtenances of a great magnate, including a handsome coach.

For his slaves, Washington's combination of orderliness and the pursuit of material happiness had the unfortunate result of making him a particularly watchful master, who took a personal hand in making sure that his property was working efficiently, and who was unafraid to punish slackers or malcontents by selling them off or ordering his overseers to pick up the whip. While Washington lived well beyond his means, he skimped on furnishing his slaves adequate clothing and shelter. His sincere expressions of benevolence--"It is foremost in my thoughts," he wrote, as president, to his Mount Vernon manager, "to desire that you will be particularly attentive to my Negroes in their sickness"--were connected to his anxieties about his bottom line.

While Wiencek chronicles the mundane oppression of slavery on Washington's plantation, a few spectacular episodes leave the deepest impression. Mount Vernon, no less than any other great slave estate, contained its twisted stories of sex across the line. Washington lived alongside a slave named Ann Dandridge, who was his wife's half-sister. Wiencek finds nothing to substantiate the lore that Washington himself sired a child with a slave, but he makes a strong argument that Martha's son (and George's adoptive son) Jacky Custis did so with Ann Dandridge, which made it a case of incest.

The more Wiencek probes, the more the odious strangeness piles up. When Washington was owed debts and the debtor was broke, Washington would breezily raffle off the debtor's slaves, boys and girls as well as their parents, to get his cash. Any of Washington's slaves who dared to run away could expect to be thrown into heavy irons and summarily sold to the killing sugarcane fields of Barbados. Parts of the dentures that famously humanize Washington were made not of ivory but of actual teeth extracted from the mouths of his slaves, whom, it should be said, he had the decency to pay for their trouble. (In 1784, Washington seems to have attempted to end his dental problems once and for all by having slaves' teeth transplanted into his jaw, but the operation failed.)

The true horror of these stories is that they were not at all unusual. This was how the great planters lived. The god-like Washington--who as late as a year before his death called slavery "neither a crime nor an absurdity"--was no exception for most of his life. Wiencek's repugnant scenes testify not to Washington's depravity, but to how different his assumptions (and those of eighteenth-century Virginia) were from our own. No more, no less. And the difference is a strong reminder that there is such a thing as moral progress.

The remarkable thing about Washington, and a minority of his fellow Virginia planters, is that they changed their minds. Washington's re-thinking did not involve, as Wiencek had first suspected, a deathbed conversion by an old man trembling over the fate of his immortal soul. It was a long and tortured process begun during the Revolution, when Washington suddenly found himself in command of a patriot army that included a substantial number of black troops. By the middle of the war, somewhere between 6 percent and 18 percent of the Continental Army consisted of men of African descent. At war's end, the figure rose even higher. Black soldiers fought valiantly and effectively, turning the tide at crucial engagements such as the Battle of the Cowpens; they suffered with the rest of Washington's troops at Valley Forge; and by 1781, when the Americans won the final decisive battle at Yorktown, the black presence in the army was so common--one-quarter of the total--that it raised little comment.

Washington's leadership of the Negro soldiers was his first lesson that blacks were fully human, every bit as capable (and often more so) than whites. He encouraged the recruitment of more black troops when white enlistments began to lag. When the black poet Phillis Wheatley sent him some verses written in his honor, the general replied with a friendly and respectful invitation to meet him at his headquarters. (Jefferson would soon dismiss Wheatley and her poetry as "below the dignity of criticism," citing her work as further proof of black inferiority.) Washington's closest comrade during the Revolution was the Marquis de Lafayette, a staunch anti-slavery advocate who once remarked that he never would have picked up his sword on behalf of American liberty if he thought it would lead to slavery's expansion. Slowly, slowly, the political principles of the Revolution also undermined Washington's preconceptions and self-justifications.

By 1796, the final year of his presidency, Washington was seriously considering a plan to emancipate his slaves. Three years later, shortly before his death, he prepared a will specifying that all of his slaves should be immediately freed upon the decease of his wife. The will further specified in great detail how this should be done, with instructions about how the children should be given education and training so that they could support themselves in freedom. Those provisions overturned all of Washington's old excuses about how slavery was too well entrenched to be eradicated suddenly. They reflected his new view--delivered in the same little speech in 1798 in which he said that slavery was neither criminal nor absurd--that slavery had to be abolished not just "on the score of human dignity," but because only "the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union, by consolidating it in a common bond of principle."

Wiencek means to leave his readers impressed with Washington as, in his title, "an imperfect god," a flawed giant capable of honest reflection and self-reform, a great American whose ability to understand that he had been wrong only enhanced his greatness. At a time when caricature has driven out nuance in historical studies, especially of "dead white males," such an assessment could not be more welcome. And yet it would be a shame if readers now come to regard Washington as a lonely, racially enlightened superhero of the revolutionary South, pitted against other white planters in general and Thomas Jefferson in particular. After the Revolution, there was a brief wave of manumissions by Virginia planters, some of them motivated by egalitarian ideals. Washington may have been unusual, but he was not singular. More important, as Wiencek himself discusses, Washington's conversion to anti-slavery had sharp limits, especially in the realm of politics.

As president of the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia in 1787, Washington raised no objection to the concessions on slavery made to the Deep South as the price for its joining the Union, including the three-fifths clause and the twenty-year delay in considering the closing of the transatlantic slave trade. On the contrary, Washington's numerous statements about how creating the Union superseded every other political question placed his stamp of approval on the compromises. In 1790, James Madison and various Northern congressmen argued that Congress ought to consider petitions, including one endorsed by Benjamin Franklin, favoring gradual emancipation, and inquire into Congress's powers to regulate slavery and the slave trade. Washington, now president of the United States, kept his silence in public on the matter, and in private called the effort "an ill-judged piece of business" and "a great waste of time." (Relying on the writings of the pro-Federalist historian Ellis, Wiencek ignores Madison's exertions on behalf of acting upon the petitions and slights the ambiguities of Madison's subsequent alarmed change of heart, thereby minimizing the grievousness of Washington's reticence.) Washington's struggle with slavery occurred, Wiencek writes, "in private, in secret, among families." In politics, he kept his own counsel.

Wiencek calls Washington's private initiatives his "most important" actions, but that begs a larger question. So long as he held political power, and even into his retirement, Washington never made the slightest public utterance against slavery. His entire public record, on the contrary, bowed to the demands of the most determined pro-slavery forces--more reflexively than Madison and most of the emerging Virginia Jeffersonians. (On considering the anti-slavery petitions in 1790, the Virginia House delegation, disregarding the furious objections of the Deep South slaveholders, broke eight to two in favor.) Given his immense prestige, it would have made an enormous political difference had Washington squared his public stance with his private conversion. But he chose to let the contradiction stand, viewing the odds for a political solution to the slavery issue, Wiencek notes, as "hopeless." Not coincidentally, his silence also helped sustain his Federalist party's comity over the slavery issue--a comity that, like the Union, was bought by truckling to its most powerful pro-slavery members and supporters.

A comparison with Jefferson is illuminating. Unlike Jefferson, Washington arranged to free his slaves after his wife's death. Unlike Jefferson, Washington had no Sally Hemings in his life, though he tolerated Jacky Custis. Yet in politics, Washington appears to have adopted the same circumspection about slavery as the later Jefferson did. He was more timid over the issue than Madison and many of Jefferson's other close political associates. As a young man Jefferson did take public anti-slavery stances, which is more than Washington ever did. Above all, Jefferson propounded throughout his life an egalitarian politics that Washington eschewed. From one angle, therefore, Jefferson looks like a hypocrite. But from another angle the comparison looks very different. Who, finally, is more admirable: a political leader who was against slavery early in his career, consistently expressed egalitarian ideals, but then fell short of those ideals by trimming his sails over the issue in politics and failing to free his slaves; or a political leader who never professed egalitarian ideals, kept his new anti-slavery opinions confined to his private correspondence, and then finally, but only at his death, arranged to free his slaves?

From the standpoint of the slaves of Mount Vernon and Monticello, the advantage clearly belonged to Washington. But for the nation at large it is not so clear. As far as I know, not a single leader in the later fight against slavery, and then against segregation, looked to George Washington for political validation. Yet generations of racial liberals and radicals--from the free black insurrectionist David Walker (who despised Jefferson's racial views but not his writings about equality) to Frederick Douglass, the Free Soilers, Abraham Lincoln, and on to Martin Luther King Jr.--cited Jefferson's democratic creed regularly as the summation of those self-evident truths that made slavery and segregation America's foremost lies. Washington certainly deserves the belated credit that Wiencek claims for him. But sometimes a public hypocrite can have a far more auspicious influence on history than a private convert. It is one of many points about our past that the current bashers of Thomas Jefferson, most notably Garry Wills, refuse to understand.


In his writings on politics and history, Garry Wills is rather reminiscent of Edmund Wilson. This is not entirely a compliment. Like Wilson, Wills writes prodigiously; there is barely a subject, from St. Augustine to John Wayne, from Venice to Gettysburg, that he cannot "work up," as Wilson used to say. The energy and the erudition are remarkable, but they offer no more of a guarantee of intellectual rigor or historical reliability than was the case in Wilson's work. Get Wilson off on some enthusiasm or some bit of crankiness, and he could easily lose his way. Sometimes Wilson combined genuine mental force with wild speculation, most notoriously in Patriotic Gore, a wondrous book on the literature of the Civil War that he topped off with a crackpot pro-Confederate introduction. The same treacherous unevenness is evident in Wills's productions.

Wills takes the title of his new book from a letter written by its hero, Timothy Pickering, the High Federalist from Massachusetts and Jefferson's great antagonist. Cast by Wills as a principled anti-slavery fighter--indeed, as an "abolitionist"--Pickering supposedly invented the term "Negro president," in Wills's telling, to refer to the infernal extra representation that the Constitution gave to the South, which permitted the slaveholders to strengthen and to expand their evil.

Here is the full story. In 1804, Pickering was in a panic over the gains being made by pro-Jefferson Republicans in Federalist New England, including in his home state. He had good reason to fret: Jefferson would carry Massachusetts in his landslide re-election campaign later that year, and in 1806 the Jeffersonians would gain control of the Massachusetts legislature. And so Pickering tried to organize a conspiracy to get New England, and if possible New York and New Jersey, to secede from the Union. He explained to his would-be recruits the grounds for separation: Jefferson had given no patronage to Federalists, and he and his supporters had tried to debase morals and religion (not least, as his friends knew, in the Congregationalist theocracy of Connecticut), and above all they had tried to make government more democratic, thereby ending, as Pickering wrote, "the protection of the best." Curbing democracy and preserving Federalism--with not a word about slavery--was reason enough to dissolve the Union.

On March 4, Pickering sought to enlist the moderate Federalist Rufus King in his plot. "I am disgusted with the men who now rule," he began, and especially with "the cowardly wretch at their head," who, "like a Parisian revolutionary," enjoyed "prating about humanity" while actually endeavoring to destroy "integrity and worth" and install "Jacobinism." On and on Pickering went about the inferior Jacobins whom Jefferson was appointing to office--including one Virginian, Pickering observed in revulsion, "who could not now get credit in Richmond for a suit of clothes!" Nothing at all about slavery or its cruelties turned up--except (in what had become a familiar excuse among Federalists for their national political failures) how the three-fifths clause aided the Jacobins. "Without a separation," Pickering wrote, "can those states ever rid themselves of negro Presidents and negro Congresses, and regain their just weight in the political balance?"

King saw the conspiracy for what it was and strongly disapproved, as did Alexander Hamilton. John Quincy Adams, still a Federalist, also took deep exception to Pickering's maneuvering, noting the "party grounds" on which the plot was founded--"the victory of professed democracy over Federalism," which Adams, taking the Federalist line, said had been enabled by the triumph of "the slave representation over the purely free." So it is important to recognize that Wills's title comes not at all from some lofty abolitionist tract, but from a bit of ultra-Federalist, anti-democratic secessionist propaganda that even staunch Federalists considered harebrained and ludicrous.

How did Wills come to such an unfortunate pass? His main argument is the old Federalist canard that the three-fifths clause was the only reason that Thomas Jefferson was elected president and that the Democratic-Republicans won control of Congress. With that control, the Democratic-Republicans, led by slaveholders and with their national interests inextricably bound up with slavery, created legislation to shore up human bondage and to permit its expansion. "On crucial matters," Wills writes, "the federal ratio gave the South a voting majority." That influence lasted long after Jefferson left office--preventing, according to Wills, the exclusion of slavery from Missouri and in the late 1840s dooming the Wilmot Proviso that would have banned slavery in territories won from Mexico. The chief political beneficiaries were Jefferson, his party, and their successors, who were opposed prophetically but unsuccessfully by Federalists like the unsung hero Timothy Pickering.

There are many howlers in this argument. It is hard to know where to begin. The three-fifths clause certainly did not prevent the exclusion of slavery from Missouri in 1819, for the simple reason that the House passed the anti-slavery resolutions proposed by the Republican James Tallmadge, only to have the bill rejected by the Senate, where the three-fifths clause made no difference at all. The same was true of the Wilmot Proviso, which passed the House on numerous occasions. So the House was not as rigged for slavery as Wills thinks. He also confidently reports as an outrageous fact the Federalist claim (which many professional historians have fallen for as well) that the Federalists remained the majority party in 1800 and that except for the three-fifths rule John Adams would have defeated Jefferson. Based on a quick look at the numbers, this would appear to be true. But Wills, like others, slights the Federalists' partisan shenanigans in heavily Jeffersonian Pennsylvania, which led to Adams getting as many as seven more electoral votes, and Jefferson getting seven less, than they respectively deserved. (Jefferson swept Pennsylvania in 1796 and 1804, as did every other Democratic-Republican presidential hopeful through 1816, and in 1800, Democratic-Republicans swept the state's congressional elections.) Without the pro-Adams manipulation, and without the three-fifths rule, Jefferson still would have defeated Adams by anywhere from six to ten electoral votes. Without the three-fifths rule but with the chicanery, the Jeffersonians could have charged that the Federalists had stolen the election, and they would have been correct.

Given the Senate's role in deciding so many vital matters concerning slavery, Wills's preoccupation with the "federal ratio" is badly skewed. Then, as now, each state had equal representation in the Senate, which, unlike now, was elected by the state legislatures and not directly by the voters, making it in many respects the less democratic house of Congress. For most of Jefferson's presidency, the North enjoyed a majority in the Senate. In 1804, the year Timothy Pickering plotted Yankee secession, the Northern states held an eighteen-to-sixteen edge; in 1812, midway through Madison's presidency, the balance became equal, but in 1816, after Indiana's admission as a state, the North regained a two-seat advantage for two of the next three years. Wills is confused: on many "crucial matters," for the entire period under discussion, either the North enjoyed the "voting majority" in the deciding chamber, the Senate, or the chamber was evenly divided. And even so, the Senate repeatedly backed slavery and its expansion.

Wills distorts the early political history of slavery in order to make Jefferson look as bad as possible and his foes look as good as possible. He notes, correctly, that Jefferson cast a cold eye on the Haitian revolutionaries, but he fails to mention that most Federalists, Northerners and Southerners, tried to exploit the revolution by blaming it on the spread of Jefferson's political principles. He notes, again correctly, that slavery was more of an issue in national debates than some pro-Jefferson historians have been willing to allow, but he gets the politics, and the importance of the three-fifths clause in Congress, almost completely wrong. The approval of the Louisiana Purchase--an essentially pro-slavery move, in Wills's eyes, which is a view that Rufus King, Alexander Hamilton, and John Quincy Adams knew better than to endorse--was yet another matter determined by the Senate, not the House. In 1798, a New England Federalist in the House proposed an amendment to ban the spread of slavery into Mississippi Territory, and only two members, both Republicans (including Albert Gallatin, Jefferson's future secretary of the treasury), spoke on the amendment's behalf. In joining the vast House majority against the bill, the Federalist stalwart Harrison Gray Otis, Timothy Pickering's friend and ally, declared haughtily that he "would not interfere with the Southern states as to the species of property in question," and that "he really wished that the gentlemen who held slaves might not be deprived of the means of keeping them in order."

The most important congressional vote about slavery during Jefferson's presidency, apart from the vote on shutting down the transatlantic slave trade, came in 1804, on the so-called Hillhouse amendments. Proposed by the Federalist James Hillhouse, a senator from Connecticut, the amendments would have banned slavery in Louisiana Territory, but they failed to win passage. Once again, though, the crucial vote involved the Senate, not the House; pace Wills, the three-fifths clause was irrelevant. And the record on the vote is highly revealing. Although Hillhouse was a Federalist, the bulk of his support came from Northern Jeffersonians. The northern Federalists, meanwhile, split right down the middle, with the pro-slavery position getting the backing of, among others, Wills's hero Pickering! (Wills has Pickering voting for the amendment banning slavery, which is another howler.)

Where Wills cannot keep his facts straight, he loads the historical dice. Unable to let go of the election of 1800, he argues that Aaron Burr--who, through a fluke, got the same number of electoral votes as Jefferson, thus throwing the outcome into the House of Representatives--was an upright if slightly dazed statesman compared with Jefferson. "Technically," Wills asserts, Burr was entitled to every vote he received, and his behavior was beyond reproach. (Wills makes Jefferson out to be a miserable politician during the House negotiations, by misreading some Federalist sources that turn out to be innocuous testimony to Jefferson's political skills and the Federalists' self-deceptions.) Wills completely ignores that everybody, including Burr, knew that Burr was really running for the vice presidency, and that one Burr elector was supposed to cast his vote for the New Yorker George Clinton instead of for Burr, thereby assuring Jefferson's election. In the confusion of South Carolina's legislative caucus, this failed to happen. Had Burr acted honorably, he would have called the mistake what it was, taken himself out of the race, and headed off a constitutional crisis. Instead he stuck it out, deceptively pledging his fealty to Jefferson while some Federalists plotted to find a way to make Burr the president instead of the "Parisian revolutionary" Jefferson.

Wills does make some interesting points about Timothy Pickering's openness to the Haitian revolutionaries during his tenure as John Adams's secretary of state. Wills may also be correct that Pickering's dislike of slavery was far greater and more consistent than that of Otis and other Massachusetts Federalists. Yet Wills lays aside Pickering's increasingly bitter ravings against democracy; and he also inflates Pickering's anti-slavery commitments, apart from his sorry schismatic efforts to enhance Federalist political prospects after 1800. Pickering certainly hated slavery and called it, in private, an "evil"--but Wills provides barely a handful of public statements by Pickering attacking slavery or upholding the human rights of the slaves. The one statement that Wills does cite at length comes from Pickering's early career, when, in calling for a halt to slavery's spread, he also remarked that "the continuance of slaves" in existing slave states "may be pardonable because unavoidable without hazarding greater evils"--not exactly what one expects from an "abolitionist."

Wills's claims look all the sillier today, given that the historian James M. Banner Jr. destroyed them in his indispensable study of Massachusetts Federalism, which appeared in 1970. Banner overlooked how anti-slavery politics flowed into Northern Republicanism as well as Federalism after the Revolution, but he decisively laid to rest any case to be made on behalf of Pickering's and the Federalists' "abolitionism." (Wills does not seem to have read Banner.) Before 1800, Banner explained, some prominent older Federalists of Pickering's generation, including Theodore Sedgwick and George Thacher, were outspoken opponents of both slavery and the slave trade. Yet even then, Banner showed, the anti-slavery streak in Federalism was "cautious and restrained," and thereafter it occupied "a marginal position in the Federalist ideology." The assaults upon the three-fifths clause were designed to win "not the abolition of slavery but the abolition of Negro representation." Southern manumission, as Banner explained, would only have increased Southern representation and further diminished Yankee Federalist influence, exactly the opposite of what Pickering wanted: "Freed, it appeared, the Negro was more of a political threat than enslaved."

In his fury at Thomas Jefferson, Wills fabricates a Timothy Pickering who never existed. Although he claims no special fondness for the man--"I suspect I would have found his company irksome," he writes--he is puzzled by the unflattering portraits of his champion that were painted by previous historians. But there is no puzzle here. Outside of his cramped little circle of ultra-Federalist cronies, contemporaries universally regarded Pickering as a conniving, vindictive, partisan ideologue, a loathsome, simpleminded mediocrity whose chief political purpose after 1801 was to thwart democracy and to embarrass Jefferson by any means possible, including secession. The moderate New England Federalist William Plumer was an anti-slavery advocate with no personal or political ax to grind; and he did find Pickering "honest." (Wills quotes Plumer on various subjects, always approvingly.) Yet Plumer also found Pickering's manners so "disgusting," and his public vituperations so "personal & very gross," that he broke off all but the most formal relations with the man. "[Pickering's] passions often produce as fatal consequences to society as the wickedness of other men," Plumer wrote. Those passions, as reported by Plumer, had nothing to do with slavery or anti-slavery.

It is true--and it is a point that Wills, like a few others before him, belabors--that the young William Lloyd Garrison admired Pickering for opposing both the expansion of slavery into Missouri and the colonization of free blacks in the early 1820s. But Garrison was still something of a Federalist hack in those days, and not at all the abolitionist that he would become when his ideas on slavery and race would finally outstrip anything that Pickering contemplated. For his own part, Pickering seems never to have made a significant contribution to any anti-slavery organization--except, late in life, to the American Colonization Society, which he himself came to realize was as racist as it was anti-slavery, and which he turned against.

And what, finally, of the object of Wills's ire, Thomas Jefferson? Wills flails away, but he hits practically nothing that even Jefferson's admirers among the historians have failed to concede about his record on slavery after the Revolution. In his private correspondence, Jefferson continued to express his belief that slavery's days were numbered, and that "interest is really going over to the side of morality," but he swore a vow of public silence on the subject. In part, his silence was politically expedient. Not only would attacks on slavery endanger both his party and the Union; but he had learned from hard personal experience in his younger days that anti-slavery sentiments could be politically disastrous in Virginia. Yet his circumspection was not purely self-protective and self-serving. He appears to have become genuinely pessimistic about the prospects of free blacks and whites living together in harmony. The long chain of abuses that was slavery, he feared, had so hardened the color line that nothing short of "diffusion" (that is, spreading slavery out far and wide) or colonization would solve the problem.

We may be permitted, in our own enlightenment and our own hindsight, to lament the lapses in Jefferson's idealism. Yet Wills, who does not just lament Jefferson's lapses but also excoriates him for them, cannot admit that there was a realistic core to Jefferson's gloominess--a realism that must not be dismissed as hateful racism. Wiencek understands this. As early as when he wrote Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson forecast that "deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites" and "ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained" would always preclude racial peace. Wiencek remarks that "Jefferson was wrong about the blacks, whose history since Emancipation has consistently been one of forgiveness, not revenge. Yet Jefferson was correct about the `deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites,' as evidenced by subsequent events during Reconstruction and into the twentieth century." He might have added the twenty-first century as well.

Wills cannot consider that Jefferson's realistic assessment, however ugly and hateful to admit, did have a point. Worse, he cannot give Jefferson credit for his greatest act of humane egalitarianism during his presidency: his firm support for the closing of the transatlantic slave trade in 1808, which was the earliest possible date under the Constitution. Revisionist interpretations hold that Jefferson and other Virginians supported shutting down the trade only because it suited their material interests. With slavery given a new lease on life as a consequence of the cotton boom after 1795, Virginia slaveholders stood to make great profits by selling off their redundant slaves to the cotton growers. Allowing the continued importation of new slaves from Africa, so the argument goes, would only depress the domestic market in human beings. Wills does not quite come out and say so, but he acquiesces in the revisionists' reasoning. "Louisiana looked like a bonanza to people [like Jefferson] anxious to unload their slaves at high prices," he observes, "and it looked that way precisely because Jefferson excluded slave importations from abroad."

This is economic determinism so crude that it makes the old works of Charles Beard look like exercises in idealism. Wills's chronology is also out of sync with the evidence. Long before the cotton boom, George Mason, Jefferson, and others had denounced the overseas slave trade. In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson sharply attacked the trade as "piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers." In 1807, Jefferson faced stern opposition from Southerners, Republicans and Federalists alike, especially in South Carolina and Georgia, where more Africans had been imported over the previous twenty years than during the entire colonial period. Yet Jefferson stuck by his long-standing principles, congratulating Congress for ending the "violations of human rights which have been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa, and which the morality, the reputation, and the best interests of our country have long been eager to proscribe." Wills's jaundiced view makes even that speech sound squalid.

Nor, finally, does Wills understand that Jefferson's ideas formed the basis of the most impassioned political anti-slavery efforts during the opening decades of the nineteenth century. While Federalists such as Pickering railed against the two-thirds clause, Northern Jeffersonians attacked slavery and its enlargement, as well as the slave trade, on the explicitly Jeffersonian ground that all men are created equal. Numerous Federalists, including Rufus King and Elias Boudinot, also opposed slavery on principle--but from Albert Gallatin in 1798 through the Missouri crisis, it was the Northern Democratic-Republicans who usually made the most trenchant arguments. It was not some pro-slavery Jeffersonian Southern interest, artificially inflated by the three-fifths clause, that carried the House over slavery's expansion into Missouri in 1819. Instead, an outraged majority of Northern anti-slavery Republicans who opposed that expansion won the House votes--egalitarian democrats who asserted that Jefferson's Declaration was the great "national covenant," and who proclaimed that the fulfillment of Jeffersonian ideals meant the prohibition of slavery's spread and the commencement of slavery's extinction. Jefferson's principles were larger than the man himself. But those are reasons for admiring Jefferson, not abhorring him.


In one of his book's few praiseworthy sentences, Wills lauds "modern historians' general and growing labor to grasp the pervasiveness of slavery's effects on our early history." He expresses his hope that his book can join in that effort. But in this it fails dismally. Slavery's effects certainly were pervasive, but anyone looking for an explanation for how and why this was so will only be misinformed by Wills's errors and polemics. Wills claims that he is not a Jefferson-basher, and says that he plans to write a book in praise of Jefferson. I fear that with friends like Wills, Jefferson needs no enemies.

Wills's book is a perfect document of our cultural and political moment, in the way that Wiencek's book is not. The discrediting of the Enlightenment, the debunking of great white men, intellectual fortune-hunting--all play a part, but these causes cannot explain why Thomas Jefferson has become the greatest target in the politicized history of recent times. I understand that the more greatly admired a figure is, the more likely he or she is to come under attack; but the American pastime of scandal-mongering and idol-crushing has not extended itself as viciously to Washington or Franklin or the Roosevelts, let alone to Lincoln. Why Jefferson?

It is grotesque to see writers such as Joseph Ellis and Garry Wills go so far as to resuscitate the dead (and deservedly dead) tradition of the Federalists--including the political lunatic Timothy Pickering, about whom, as Wills shows, one or two positive things can indeed be said--in order to destroy the prestige of Jefferson and Jeffersonianism. Shall we call these historians neo-Federalists? But that makes no sense either, because Federalism has been safely dead since sometime between 1800 and 1824 (historians disagree about the details). It does not threaten our sense of the nation's virtues and, more important, of its shortcomings. If nothing that is alive can be blamed on Federalism, then it becomes all the easier to root around in it for debater's points--an anti-slavery diatribe here, a realistic rumination on original sin there, or perhaps something that looks (with enough squinting) like a precursor to modern liberal activism. Since it is dead, few will bother to point out that its defenders have erred. Since it is dead, its apologists look merely iconoclastic and erudite and clever.

But Jefferson is alive, and therefore dangerous. By his best examples and his worst, he still eats at American consciences. Among the founders of this democracy, Washington was its father and Madison was its mind, but Jefferson was its conscience. That he could not live up to his own high principles, at Monticello as well as in the President's House, is not the same as saying that he betrayed those principles, or that the principles themselves embodied some hidden evil. Failure, or hypocrisy, always attends high ideals. The imperfection of the morally ambitious is not surprising; it is only the most rudimentary information about how the moral life is actually lived.

Jefferson articulated an egalitarian standard that neither he nor the early republic matched, and that the nation is still struggling to match. He is, in other words, an abiding torment. The progenitor of American egalitarianism, he is the lasting messenger of the bad news about ourselves, the stubborn monitor of our truancies, the hard if human teacher against whom we sin, collectively and individually. His is a stringent and reproaching legacy. Who would not wish to have it complicated or qualified or (mis)interpreted out of its stringency and its reproach? I tremble for my country when I reflect that Jefferson is right.

And there is another reason that Jefferson's example is so irksome: he tried to put his high democratic principles into practice at the highest levels of politics. No philosophe anywhere in the Atlantic world succeeded as Jefferson did in turning the highest values of the Enlightenment into living realities. (His friend Madison, who was chiefly responsible for the Constitution, came awfully close, but he proved to be a less capable political leader than Jefferson.) Jefferson preached equality, not purity. His insistence that political philosophy be carried directly into politics meant that he had to make compromises and to protect his political viability, over slavery as over every other difficult issue. As president, beleaguered by his critics, he observed to a friend that "what is practicable must often control what is pure theory." This, in turn, meant that he would expose himself to charges of inconsistency and cunning, from posterity as well as from his contemporaries. Judged by the standard of purity demanded by many historians, Jefferson is easily traduced as a monster of manipulation and self-contradiction. Any effective political leader is similarly vulnerable--but none, not even Lincoln, set as high a level of expectation as Jefferson did. And so he comes in for sulphurous abuse.

Thomas Jefferson will survive this latest bashing, just as his democratic political ideals outlasted the Federalists and their wretched Pickering. Historians will correct the errors and the tendentious prosecutions, and will retrieve Lincoln's judgment that "the principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society." Indeed, the time to worry will come when Jefferson is no longer vexing and oppressive--when he becomes so untroubling, so safe, and so disgraced that nobody bothers to attack him anymore. When that happens, our democracy, and not just Jefferson, will have expired of its own complacency.

By Sean Wilentz

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