Wills on Jefferson

Gary Wills has a sharp and somber honesty that produces a sometimes contrarian clarity of vision and constantly acute prose. His Nixon Agonistes was one of the first serious political books I ever read as a child, and is still, I think, one of the best books on the man who later authored our 'long national nightmare'. His current article in the NYRB is about Jefferson — but unlike the celebratory stuff he's written on Jefferson in the past, this is about Jefferson's dark side. It's about the three-fifths clause, which Wills locates at the center of Jefferson's political strategy and career: lynchpin of the South's power, it was also the but-for cause of the supposed Great Democrat's election, and gave the Southern white establishment enough extra votes to distort national politics until the Civil War.

Wills has written a wonderful essay, again. But this time, instead of shaking my head in awed agreement, I find I have two reactions that he may not have intended.

First, this view of Jefferson supports my impression of him: more opportunist than visionary. A wonderful writer, yes, the source of some of our best and most inspiring political prose, yes, but a man whose life — based on lavish expenditures derived from debt and slave labor — did not just fail to live up to, but gave lie to his ideals. The Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson's great achievement as President, was technically illegal; it also contradicted all of Jefferson's earlier constitutional principles. I had known that it went against the views Jefferson had previously trumpeted; I had not known that one reason for the switch was that westward expansion now meant the three-fifths clause could expand West too, and before it had not.

The size of the slave representation was at issue in each of Jefferson's expansions of what he called “the empire of liberty”—the survey of the West, his purchase of Louisiana, his attempt to add the Floridas and Cuba to America, his support for slavery in Missouri and beyond, even his panic over Burr's attempt to detach part of the Southwest from the Union. In all these matters, the importance of the federal ratio has been overlooked, largely because historians have not listened to the objections to it raised by Federalist critics like Timothy Pickering. Each threatened new addition to the plantation region became for them a flash point in the concern over the federal ratio, several times prompting moves to amend the Constitution by its repeal.

People neglect this aspect when discussing the way Jefferson changed his stand on slavery in the territories between 1784, when there was no three-fifths representation, and 1820, when there was. Even Jefferson's drive to open the University of Virginia as soon as possible was meant to provide educated defenders of the extension of slavery westward, to keep good Southerners away from Harvard or Yale, where men were taught “the sacred principle of our holy alliance of 'restrictionism.'” As David Brion Davis put it, “When the chips were down, as in the Missouri crisis, he threw his weight behind slavery's expansion.”

This had less to do with theories about slavery than with the concrete advantage the three-fifths clause gave to any added slave territory.

My second reaction was that we're still living out the consequences of the other, less disgusting, electoral error in the Constitution—the composition of the Senate. I get grumpy reading about how filibustering Democrats are thwarting the will of the majority when the so-called minority thwarting the so-called majority (which usually cuts them out of key parts of the process) actually represents fewer people; by giving empty states the same two Senators as crowded ones, our electoral system “gives states with small populations — mainly, though not entirely, red states — disproportionate representation in the Senate, and to a lesser extent in the Electoral College. In fact, half the Senate is elected by just 16 percent of the population.” (Krugman) The largest disproportion between the biggest and the smallest state at the time of the Founding was something on the order of 11:1; today it must be nearing 100:1.

Gary Wills's latest Jefferson book, “Negro President” : Jefferson and the Slave Power will be published in November. The excerpt alone gives one lots to think about. It looks to be another winner.

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2 Responses to Wills on Jefferson

  1. suzy says:

    Why 3/5 and not 3/7 or something else. What is the federal ratio or something he is talking about.

    I dislike historical parallels but as I read the book, which is not that easy, it constantly reminds me the struggle for non/republicans & democrats to get representation. Especially when reading the Lincoln thing on slavery, i think of us, blanks (in New YOrk) we don’t talk about it in because we have it and we don’t talk about it because we don’t have it, we don’t talk about it at the pulpit beacause……..


  2. Michael says:

    The 3/5 clause was inserted in the Constitution by the Framers as a political compromise between the North — which didn’t want to give any representation to Southern states for non-voting slaves — and the South, which refused to join the new constitution unless it had approximately equal representation to the north (or at least enough votes to block any elmination of slavery), something that couldn’t be achieved on just the southern white free male population alone. There was no reason for that number other than expediency.

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