The Negro President

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson; drawing by David Levine

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.…

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