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 stately image 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.