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Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Negro President by Gary Wills

Gary Wills is among my favorites historians. As a left leaning thinker at Northwestern University he doesn't write the same sort of uncritical books about our founding fathers as Joseph Ellis, Gordon Wood and most notably David McCullough have written. He also doesn't simply trash all the figures in American History the way the likes of Gore Vidal and Howard Zinn do. Simply put, he's an objective contemporary historian.

The Negro President is largely about Jefferson. That much you could guess. However it is not about Sally Hemmings: her name is mentioned scarcely if at all in the book. The title is a reference to Thomas Jefferson's election as President in 1800 over John Adams based on the 3/5 vote rule in slave states. Basically African American Slaves while held in bondage in the South we counted a 3/5 a person in the census which gave several Southern states undue extra electoral votes and threw the election to Jefferson.

The book is a fascinating overview of the power of slaveholders in American politics. While Thomas Jefferson professed an egalitarian ideology largely for political reasons he never strayed far from the line of the slaveholders. This included his successful attempts to aid those trying to put down the Haitian Revolution and his open advocacy of the planter class in the West Indies. Jefferson claimed to be a revolutionary and someone who detested royalty and aristocracy but as Wills convincingly argues, Jefferson's foremost concern was the maintenance of slave power.

Most of the Federalists who opposed Jefferson were against Slavery. John Adams and his wife Abigal opposed slavery, but Mr. Adams never made much of a public stand around it. Alexander Hamilton was anti-slavery but was more interested in successfully building American commerce (partly as a bulkwurk against slave holding South) and cozying up to the British. The real anti slavery leader among the Federalists was Timothy Pickering, who took consistent principled stands against the power of the South and slaveholders throughout his career as Secretary of State and in the Congress. Wills work allows us to rediscover a lost heroic figure of the early years of the American Republic: Timothy Pickering.

Pickering is the other major character in the book and is cast as the Federalist "anti-Jefferson." Up until his death in 1829 Pickering led the resistance to Slavery in Washington, and his legacy was fulfilled by Charles Sumner, William Lloyd Garrison and others. Another interesting side note about Wills book is that he does not take the knee jerk historical view of Aaron Burr. Burr, Wills points out was well within his rights to pursue the Presidency in 1800 and 1801 when the Electoral College was deadlocked and that Burr in fact took some very principled stands with the obvious exception of his duel with Hamilton. Wills theorizes that Burr's Western adventure which led to his trial on treason offended Jefferson not because it threatened the union but because it threatened slaveholders in the areas that are now Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Burr after all was himself strongly opposed to slavery.

This book is a great read and a refresher course on the Thomas Jefferson that most modern day historians avoid.
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I am the host of the Major League Soccer Talk and EPL Talk Podcasts and am frequent guest on other (world) football shows. I am also the publisher of various other websites including this one. I work in public/government relations in addition to my soccer work and have a keen interest in history, politics, aviation, travel,and the world around us.