• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Negro President

I have admired Jefferson all my life, and still do. His labors to guarantee freedom of religion would in themselves be enough to insure his place in my private pantheon. But there is much else I revere in him. A quarter of a century ago, I published a book praising him as an Enlightenment philosopher. A year ago, I published a book praising him as an artist. Along the way I have written articles that looked at different aspects of his life.1 But I have only now devoted an entire book to one deadly part of his legacy—the protection and extension of slavery through the three-fifths clause in the Constitution.2

This book depends on the general and growing labor of modern historians to grasp the pervasiveness of slavery’s effects on our early history. I don’t mean to join an unfortunate recent trend toward Jefferson-bashing. I disagree with those who would diminish his great achievement, the Declaration of Independence.3 Or those who call him more a friend to despotism than to freedom.4 Or those who would reduce his whole life to an affair with a slave. My Jefferson is a giant, but a giant trammeled in a net, and obliged (he thought) to keep repairing and strengthening the coils of that net.

One of the most important elements in this self-imprisoning purchase upon power was the three-fifths clause of the Constitution, which provided that each slave would count for three fifths of a person in determining the numbers of citizens in each state and therefore the numbers of both the congressional representatives and the electoral votes to which each state was entitled. It was with the help of that clause that Jefferson won the presidential election in 1800.

My recognizing that fact does not mean that I would prefer that John Adams had won. Like Henry Adams, I think Jefferson was a better president than either of Adams’s forebears.5 Jefferson had a national vision that the Federalists lacked. In one of the many ironies studied by Henry Adams, the states’-rights school imposed a national system on this continent. The Southern regionalists realized, as the Northern ones never did, that they had to recruit other sections of the country to the protection of their own turf. The South tended its stake in slavery when it looked west; but at least it did look west, and created a continental system in the process, while the Federalists were more concerned with purifying themselves at home. The Federalists, by righteously defining themselves as the party of the few, guaranteed their own demise.

Yet this does not make the Republicans of the time “pure” democrats. They blended a paradoxical and insidious populism with approval of the right to hold slaves. Though everyone recognizes that Jefferson depended on slaves for his economic existence, fewer reflect that he depended on them for his political existence. Yet the latter was the all-important guardian of the former. Like other Southerners, Jefferson felt he had to take every political step he could to prevent challenges to the slave system. That is why Southerners made sure that slavery was embedded in the very legislative process of the nation, as it was created by the Constitution—they made the three-fifths “representation” of slaves in the national legislature a nonnegotiable condition for their joining the Union. This had nothing to do with the approval of slavery itself—only with the political use of slavery to fend off challenges to the Southern economic base. One could feel revulsion against slavery as an institution, yet expend great energy in buttressing it—George Washington freed his own slaves at his wife’s death, but labored mightily to place the national capital in slave territory, where it would be populated with slaves and slave-trading marts.

Here I neglect Jefferson’s many other claims on our admiration and gratitude—material I shall be returning to in my next book—to concentrate solely on his role as the protector and extender of the slave system.

That system ruled the South. It cowed and silenced the North. There was no large-scale political career open to the Southerners who refused to defend it.6 That is the tragedy of Jefferson and of the nation. We may admit that he was trapped in the system—which is all the more reason for deploring the trap.


Jefferson’s Election

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.7 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 votes of a popular majority. It was no such thing, they argued. In number of actual votes cast, John Adams was reelected. The second revolution never occurred.

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 the citizenry that could express its will but on the blacks owned by Southern masters.8 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, as I have said, decreed that each slave held in the United States would count as three fifths of a person in setting the members of the Electoral College.

It galled the Federalists that Jefferson hailed his 1800 victory as a triumph of democracy and majority rule when, as the newspaper 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” nonvotes, 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, hogs, and oxen.”9 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 vote, and Negro congress- men.10 Senator William Plumer of New Hampshire wrote that “the negro votes made Mr Jefferson president.”11 He felt that “negro Electors exceed those of four states, & their representative are equal to those of six states.”12

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 leader 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.13 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.14

The Federalists predicted that this Negro “representation” would grow year by year so long as the federal ratio was 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 nonslave 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 vote.

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.”15

The election is studied, as well, because it was the first to be 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 vote 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 historians have written books on the election of 1800 without a single reference to the votes given Jefferson by the slave bonus.16 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.17 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 peripherally, as if it were unimportant.18 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.

  1. 1

    Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (Doubleday, 1978); Mr. Jefferson’s University (National Geographic, 2002). Most (though not all) of the articles appeared in The New York Review: “Uncle Thomas’s Cabin,” April 18, 1974; “The Strange Case of Jefferson’s Subpoena,” May 2, 1974; “Jefferson’s Jesus,” November 24, 1983; “The Aesthete,” August 12, 1993; and “Storm Over Jefferson,” March 9, 2000.

  2. 2

    To be published in November as “Negro President”: Jefferson and the Slave Power (Houghton Mifflin).

  3. 3

    Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (Knopf, 1997).

  4. 4

    Conor Cruise O’Brien, The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785–1800 (University of Chicago Press, 1996).

  5. 5

    Recent readers of David McCullough’s book, which canonizes John Adams, should read the classic account of Federalism’s demise by Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788–1800 (Oxford University Press, 1993). Though their account of Federalism is sympathetic, they come to judgments like this: “[Adams] thereupon gave himself over to the torrent of rage whose after-effects, by the end of the year 1800, were to leave the ruins of Federalism in even smaller fragments than they were in already.”

  6. 6

    Paul Finkelman argues that Jefferson could have and should have freed his slaves, since other Virginians did. But the men he names either had no important electoral career or—like Washington and John Randolph—freed their slaves only after their death and hid their intent to do so while in politics. See Finkelman, Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson (M.E. Sharpe, second edition, 2001), pp. 134–147.

  7. 7

    But in fact, Jefferson had declined, while in Paris, an invitation to join the Société des Amis des Noirs. See David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770–1823 (Cornell University Press, 1975), p. 94.

  8. 8

    The number of extra votes given by the slave population is variously computed, because raw population numbers have to be rounded down to fit the ratio of delegates to inhabitants (one to every thirty thousand). The number of “slave voters” in 1800 has been estimated as low as twelve and as high as sixteen (William Plumer set the number at sixteen). Then, to reach the number of these given to Jefferson, one must subtract the black population in the few slave-state districts—in states still voting by district rather than general ticket—where Adams won. The most respected figure currently given for 1800 is that of William W. Freehling in The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay, 1776–1854 (Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 147—a book that generally uses census statistics in a sophisticated way. Freehling sets the number of “slave votes” at fourteen, of which Jefferson received twelve. Leonard L. Richards sets the number even higher: “In winning nationally by just eight electoral votes, he [Jefferson] had the benefit of at least thirteen of the fourteen slave seats; some pundits thought he had all fourteen. In any event, without the so-called slave seats, he would have lost the election and John Adams would have served a second term. Many historians, celebrating the virtues of the master of Monticello, forget this fact. New England Federalists never did.” See Richards, The Slave Power (Loui-siana State University Press, 2000), p. 42.

    It is significant that Republicans did not try to refute the Federalists’ claim. For them, the only numbers that mattered were the ones reached by constitutional process—which undermines Jefferson’s boast that 1800 was a triumph of majority will. The Democrats’ attitude is summed up by Albert F. Simpson: “The South was standing firmly on the Constitution; the three-fifths rule being a part of that document; her congressmen and leaders felt that it was not necessary to defend it.” See Simpson, “The Political Significance of Slave Representation, 1787– 1821,” The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 71 (1941), p. 341.

  9. 9

    Simpson, “The Political Significance of Slave Representation,” p. 321, provides a fine survey of Federalist denunciations of the role of the federal ratio in Jefferson’s election.

  10. 10

    In 1803, John Quincy Adams understood exactly what was meant when conversing with a man who attacked “the Negro vote” (Diary, 27.338).

  11. 11

    William Plumer to Edward Livermore, December 23, 1803, cited in Lynn W. Turner, William Plumer of New Hampshire, 1759–1850 (University of North Carolina Press, 1962), p. 137.

  12. 12

    William Plumer’s Memorandum of Proceedings in the United States Senate, 1803–1807, edited by Everett Somerville Brown (Macmillan, 1923), p. 67.

  13. 13

    George Gibbs, Memoirs of the Administrations of Washington and John Adams, Edited from the Papers of Oliver Wolcott, Secretary of the Treasury, Vol. 1 (Van Norden, 1846), p. 409.

  14. 14

    The Papers of Timothy Pickering, Vol. 14 in the Massachusetts Historical Society, p. 101.

  15. 15

    Noble Cunningham, “Election of 1800,” in The Coming to Power: Critical Presidential Elections in American History, edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. et al. (Chelsea House, 1972), p. 66. Cunningham does not mention the slave count.

  16. 16

    Daniel Sisson, The American Revolution of 1800 (Knopf, 1974), and Bernard A. Weisberger, American Afire: Jefferson, Adams, and the Revolutionary Election of 1800 (Morrow, 2000).

  17. 17

    The Revolution of 1800: Democracy, Race and the New Republic, edited by James Horn, Jan Ellen Lewis, and Peter S. Onuf (University of Virginia Press, 2002), p. xv. None of the references is made the basis of discussion; though none of them, it should be said, challenges Freehling’s claim that Jefferson would have lost without the slave count.

  18. 18

    Page Smith’s two-volume biography John Adams (Doubleday, 1962) does not mention the slave count, and David McCullough’s John Adams (Simon and Schuster, 2001) makes only a fleeting (one-sentence) reference to it. Dumas Malone dealt with the election of 1800 in two volumes of his six-volume biography of Jefferson without mentioning the slave bonus in either one. In Jefferson and the Ordeal of Liberty (Little, Brown, 1962), the only reference made to a vote margin is this: “The margin of his party in the electoral vote was small, but it was larger than that of the Federal-ists in 1796.” In Jefferson the President: First Term, 1801–1805 (Little, Brown, 1970), he castigates the Federalists for lack of “proper sportsmanship” in not “bowing to the obvious will of the American electorate”—with no mention of the fact that the electoral mandate depended on slaves, who had no will in the matter. Mil-ton Lomask’s two-volume biography, Aaron Burr (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979) does not refer to the slave margin.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print