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Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave…
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Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power

by Garry Wills

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Interesting take on the long term affects of the 3/5 compromise. Gave the South a political power unwarranted by their free population, the effects which are still seen today... ( )
  mybucketlistofbooks | Jan 10, 2015 |
Garry Wills is one of the few people I'd really like to meet and have over for dinner, although his intelligence would make me shrivel. His writing is so thoughtful and erudite. He never ceases to astonish me with his insights.

The Negro President exams the election of 1800 through the biographies of Thomas Pickering, the anti-slavery arch Federalist and opponent of Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, and Thomas Jefferson and the impact the 3/5ths rule in the Constitution had on the outcome of the election. The 3/5ths rule, that counted slaves as 3/5ths of a person for purposes of representation, virtually guaranteed that the president would come from a slave-holding state especially, as in 1800, when a tie in the Electoral College forced the election into the House of Representatives. It meant that slave-holders got essentially more than one vote, i.e. 1 and 3/5th votes.

I had no idea that people like Pickering and Adams had proposed secession long before the Civil War but for reasons opposed to those that finally resulted in secession.

The implications were substantial. The extra representation gave Jefferson the election in 1800 [see my review of Bernard Weisberger's excellent book, http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/373591.America_Afire] when the tied Electoral college was thrown into the House of Representatives for decision. The difference was eight votes, precisely the advantage gained the south from the three-fifths clause. That's why Jefferson was called the “Negro” president. In his book by the same title, Garry Wills discusses the enormous impact slavery had on the mindset of our early presidents, twelve of whom owned slaves at one time or another.

In fact, a major reason for locating the new capitol in Washington, D.C., was because slave owners (all the early presidents owned slaves) would have been forced to manumit them had they remained in Philadelphia, the original capitol and a hotbed of Quaker abolitionism, for more than six months.


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1 vote ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
Surprisingly good. Wills is much more careful than, say, Joseph Ellis in His Excellency about sticking to facts and avoiding unwarranted speculation as to motives (particularly when it comes to chronology, and not retroactively ascribing later motives to earlier actions), though he does lapse a little in this regard toward the end. He clearly demonstrates that not only does private slave ownership tend to corrupt a man's moral character (as Jefferson himself noted), but political support of slavery corrupts a man's political character; and that the 3/5 compromise (unavoidable as it may have been) ultimately made the Civil War inevitable. ( )
2 vote AshRyan | Jan 29, 2012 |
In modern American politics, it has become a common parlor game to speculate -- or even investigate -- the special interests supporting various politicians. The assumption is that various people, including leaders of Congress and the President, are so beholden to certain groups for their power -- or at least the money to finance the campaigns that leads to their power -- that they make self-interested deals that vary from their personal beliefs.

Noted, and prolific, author Garry Wills shows that such interests are deeply rooted in the American system. He takes on the biggest of them all, the slave power of the antebellum South, in "'Negro President': Jefferson and the Slave Power." In this, Wills shows not only how the 3/5 compromise in the Constitution (which counted slaves as 3/5 person for purposes of electoral power) led to Jefferson's 1800 victory over the incumbent President John Adams, but how this power demanded Jefferson's deference as he governed.

Wills' initial argument, that Jefferson would not have defeated Adams in 1800 without the additional electoral votes given to slave states based on the 3/5 compromise, will likely surprise many readers, long accustomed to the notion of "one person, one vote." The strength of the book, however, is that this is merely the precursor for Wills' focus, detailing how this disproportionate electoral power not only swayed elections, but heavily influenced governing, long before the slavery-tinged debates of the 1850s.

To illustrate his argument, Wills gives Jefferson's words and policies a sparring partner, the prickly New England Federalist Timothy Pickering, who served in the Senate during most of Jefferson's presidency. Pickering, perhaps best known (if at all) as Adams' insubordinate Secretary of State. While Pickering was in the minority, his persistent and vocal opposition to Jefferson, particularly on matters touching on slavery, highlights Jefferson's political decisions on such issues. And while Pickering was far from a model statesman, his ongoing debate with Jefferson regarding these issues is rather prescient, voicing issues that will return with a vengeance in the volatile years before the Civil War.

As with all intellectual history, Wills is occasionally tedious as he describes the differing points of view, supported with frequent, and sometimes lengthy, quotations. Even with this trading of flowing prose for well-documented accuracy, the book is a pleasant read. It is also another valuable book on American history by Wills, offering a needed reevaluation of Jefferson's contorted, almost schizophrenic, views and policies regarding American slavery. ( )
2 vote ALincolnNut | Mar 4, 2010 |
I'd just like to take a moment to disagree slightly with the previous reviewers.

If you're looking for a biography of Thomas Jefferson, no, this is not where you want to start. But I believe that those reviewers who say that this book is misleading with its title or otherwise are missing the point. (I've seen similar reviews at Amazon and elsewhere.) I don't believe that Mr. Wills set out to write a biography of Jefferson, per se, but rather his intention was to explore how the Republicans (Jefferson in particular) exploited slavery through the three-fifths compromise in order to gain (and keep) power.

Perhaps a more appropriate title would have been something like "Negro Party: Republicans and the Slave Power" as the book is a bit broader than just covering Jefferson. Still, I don't think the title is all that misleading.

Oh, and it's a good read! ( )
2 vote stypulkoski | Nov 10, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0618343989, Hardcover)

Garry Wills' "Negro President": Jefferson and the Slave Power, despite its title, is not a profile of the Jefferson Presidency. Rather, the book offers a richly detailed study of the United States' tragic constitutional bargain with slavery, and meanders through the lives of several key figures in antebellum American history along the way.

While Thomas Jefferson does play a significant role in Wills' book, the real heroes are the relatively unknown abolitionist Timothy Pickering and, to a lesser degree, John Quincy Adams. Pickering offered a consistent voice of opposition to Jefferson's often secret campaign against Federalist power. Though he could never match Jefferson's charismatic persona, Pickering succeeded in his battle to undo Jefferson's embargo of England--an embargo that Pickering recognized as Jefferson's attempt to undermine the economic prosperity and power of the North. Pickering's ill-fated attempt to secede from the Union, while misguided, would fuel the latter-day abolitionist John Quincy Adams to threaten a similar revolution as the Civil War loomed.

Ultimately, "Negro President" is a book that recovers slavery as a context for understanding early American political life. At times Willis focuses too much on Jefferson, Pickering, or Adams, and the discussion is derailed by his fascination for the moral successes and failures of each personality. Nevertheless, the book addresses a long-neglected subject in American studies and will prove invaluable to readers interested in understanding America's early struggle to balance Northern versus slave-state power. --Patrick O'Kelley

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:23 -0400)

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Offers a new look at Thomas Jefferson and his presidency, his election due to the "slave power" vote, the relationship between the power of the slave states and his administration's policies, and the opposition he faced.

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