A SLAVE TO THE SYSTEM? Thomas Jefferson and Slavery

Monday, January 19, 2004

When the Constitution of the United States was ratified in 1789, the infamous "three-fifths clause" gave the southern slaveholding states disproportionate power within the federal government. To what extent did this southern advantage help the southerner Thomas Jefferson win the presidency? And to what extent did Jefferson, author of the phrase "all men are created equal," use the power of his presidency to preserve and perpetuate the institution of slavery?

Recorded on Monday, January 19, 2004

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge: Was Thomas Jefferson a slave to the South?

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, Thomas Jefferson and slavery--reassessing Jefferson's place in American history.When the Constitution was ratified in 1789, the infamous "three-fifths" clause counted each slave as three-fifths of a person in determining a state's representation in Congress and in the Electoral College. To what extent did this southern advantage help Thomas Jefferson win the presidency? And to what extent did Thomas Jefferson, author of the phrase, "All men are created equal," use the presidency to preserve and perpetuate the institution of slavery?

Joining us today, two guests. Jack Rakove is a professor of history at Stanford. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his book Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution. Garry Wills is a professor of history at Northwestern University. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his book Lincoln at Gettysburg. Wills is the author most recently of Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power.

Title: A Slave to the System

Peter Robinson: January 20, 1801, Boston newspaper The New England Palladium, commenting on Thomas Jefferson's election as president--but in a sense, it might as well have been commenting on Jefferson's place in American history. Jefferson, the newspaper said, made his "ride into the temple of liberty on the shoulders of slaves." Jack, will you grant The New England Palladium its assertion?

Jack Rakove: Only in a small part.

Peter Robinson: Only in small part. Garry?

Garry Wills: I think in a very important part.

Peter Robinson: All right. The three-fifths clause. We have to explain how this came about and what it was understood to mean. Article I of the Constitution, "Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states according to their respective numbers which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other persons." The term "slave" is not used but everyone knew what that meant. What is that clause doing in the Constitution of the United States?

Jack Rakove: The clause is there essentially to embody a compromise between northern and southern states over the formula to be used for apportioning representation in the lower house of Congress. The taxation part is a bit of a disguise to make it more legitimate than it would have been otherwise.

Peter Robinson: Oh, is that the case? I didn't understand that. I thought they were expecting more direct taxation to take place than actually did. But it was a disguise from the get-go?

Jack Rakove: I think it was a disguise from the get-go. There's a deep understanding in the 18th century that direct taxation is the last form of taxation you want to use because it's politically the most difficult to impose. So the idea is that by linking representation with taxation, you'll make it less offensive but there will be no real cost to the political economy or the government down the road because no one's ever going to try to use direct taxation.

Peter Robinson: So quite apart from the substance of the three-fifths clause, they understood themselves to be dirtying their hands by putting this into the Constitution right there and then at the convention. Is that fair?

Jack Rakove: I wouldn't say dirtying their hands or anything. I think they're saying this is a way they're thinking rather adroitly and certainly politically that they're going to make it more legitimate.

Peter Robinson: All right, Garry Wills, I quote you. "The three-fifths clause gave the South a permanent head start for all its political activities and for over half a century, right up to the Civil War, the management of the government was disproportionately controlled by the South. In the 62 years between Washington's election as President and the Compromise of 1850, for example, slaveholders controlled the presidency for 50 years, the speaker's chair for 41 years and the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee for 42 years." Thomas Jefferson is absent from the Constitutional Convention. He's performing his duties representing the United States in Paris. Do we know what he thought of the three-fifths clause?

Garry Wills: No.

Peter Robinson: We have no idea?

Jack Rakove: Jefferson writes a letter to Madison quickly after the convention in which he endorses its basic compromises over representation.

Peter Robinson: But nowhere in the record as it has come down to us does the author of the phrase, "all men are created equal" express distaste, reluctance, for the three-fifths clause?

Garry Wills: No, by no means. In fact, in every case where extending the slave interest--and that was part of the slave interest--arose, he always did it.

Peter Robinson: What is Thomas Jefferson thinking that the three-fifths clause is a necessary evil, that it preserves a great and good way of life? What is the rationale in his--I'm talking now about the period before he becomes President, the Constitution is drafted, it goes out for ratification. This is a vital period. What's he thinking?

Garry Wills: Well, he thinks that the northern evils, commerce, credit, banking, manufacturing, were such that you had to protect agrarian virtue as he defined it and that that would be very difficult because the South started out in a minority. And so there was a tremendous determination among all the southerners, that we have a way of life that's going to be hard to preserve and we must take every possible means to preserve it. And that was his attitude as it was the attitude of all the slaveholders.

Peter Robinson: You'd assent to that?

Jack Rakove: Well I was going to go back to your starting question. I don't think Jefferson has much of a position one way or the other around the three-fifths clause on the merits after 1789. It's simply a political fact of life, the same as giving each state two electors for, you know, to represent their seats in the Senate. So it's just a given of American politics. The question is how do you manipulate it or how do you manipulate that and other aspects of our politics to, you know, to win elections?

Peter Robinson: On to the role the three-fifths clause played in the election of Thomas Jefferson to the presidency.

Title: A Peculiar Election

Peter Robinson: The election of 1800. And from that election onward, Jefferson's Federalist critics refer to him as, "The Negro President," which is the title of your book. Explain why they used that term.

Garry Wills: Well, they used that term only of the 1800 election because…

Peter Robinson: Oh, is that so?

Garry Wills: …because he had 12 extra votes given to him by the slave count. And without those, he would not have won under the constitutional arrangement of the time. So that was the egregious example of something that they resented all the time.

Peter Robinson: That the northerners, the Federalists...

Garry Wills: Yeah, the three-fifths clause gave the South a third more representatives than they would have otherwise which, of course, affected every piece of legislation and it affected things like nominations for President and other things because they controlled the caucus, then the caucuses were nominating because of the three-fifths clause.

Peter Robinson: But for the three-fifths clause, Thomas Jefferson would not have been elected in 1800?

Garry Wills: Right.

Peter Robinson: All right. Joyce Appleby--let me quote Joyce Appleby and her criticism of your book. "The three-fifths provision was not the only compromise affecting the democratic vote. The most enduring gives every state a two vote bonus in the Electoral College for their senators. Had the two vote bonus been eliminated and slaves not counted at all, the outcome would probably have been a one vote victory for Jefferson. Is that true? Does it matter? Jack? Garry?

Garry Wills: It might be true but, you know, you can say there are hypothetical ways of counting the votes--which weren't the actual ways. I'm counting the actual ways. And in the actual ways, those 12 votes made the difference.

Jack Rakove: The problem with Garry's position, which I find a clever one but somewhat flawed from my way of thinking, is he wants to hold constant everything else but changing one fact about the electoral rules of 1800. But the critical thing about the election of 1800, we should really state the election of 1800-1801, because it's not over until 1801, is that a number of rules are subject to manipulation. They're being manipulated by both parties in different states entirely on the basis of calculation of partisan advantage. And how you assess what's going on in northern states as well as southern states really affects how you think about what we might call the counterfactual replaying of the election. Let me just give one example.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Jack Rakove: There are two examples that are closely linked. In New Jersey, seven electoral votes go for John Adams but all five Congressmen elected are Republicans. In Rhode Island, all four electoral votes--and the electoral votes are being cast in both cases by the state legislature--all four electoral votes go for John Adams but the two Congressmen being elected are going for Thomas Jefferson. In Pennsylvania, another example, which most people think is a solidly Republican state…

Peter Robinson: Thomas Jefferson is the Republican?

Jack Rakove: Thomas Jefferson is a Republican.

Peter Robinson: As those terms were used.

Jack Rakove: In those terms, right. Jefferson winds up with eight votes, Adams with seven electoral votes. And the reason for this is that the Federalists control the state Senate and the Republicans control the lower house of the legislature. And the two houses are deadlocked. In fact, Pennsylvania may not even vote at all and they broker a deal. That deal under-represents what Jefferson's strength was probably within the Pennsylvania electorate if you could have taken that. And again the Pennsylvania Congressional delegation goes nine to four for the Republicans. So if you…

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Jack Rakove: …if you factor in all these variables, you wind up with a very different impression of what's going on in 1800.

Garry Wills: Well, I do factor those in. I do write about that in the book. I say that the Pennsylvania vote mattered, the New York vote mattered. But the one constitutional stable thing in this as it was actually played out, was the three-fifths vote. For instance, here's an historian. "The Republican victory depended on the additional votes gained through the application of the three-fifths clause to the Electoral College. But this factor arguably brings us within the realm of constitutional tragedy rather than mere stupidity." Recognize it?

Jack Rakove: Right, it's me. Yeah, yeah, how can I ignore my own deathless prose? So, you know…

Peter Robinson: Ah, a master of the dirty trick himself here. Okay, let me give you a multiple choice question then. The election of 1800, choice A: Jefferson won fair and square. Choice B: Jefferson's election is forever tainted because of the three-fifths clause and he could not have won without the slave power, so to speak. Choice C: The whole thing is such a mess that we have to say of the election of 1800 what Theodore White in his book, Breach of Faith, said about the election of 1960 where there were widespread irregularities in Cook County, Illinois and down in Texas. And Theodore White concluded that we will simply never know who actually won John Kennedy or Richard Nixon in 1960. So what do we do with this election of 1800? A, B or C? Multiple choice, Jack?

Jack Rakove: You know, I'd be tempted to say, you know, all of the above because I think the key factor is you have to understand how open the system was to manipulation. And to come back to Garry's point, you know, quoting me and I'll take that authority is that the capacity of state legislatures to manipulate the appointment of electors is also part of the Constitutional scheme. This is, by the way, something that was confirmed for us in the 2000 election…

Peter Robinson: Let's look at three episodes from Thomas Jefferson's presidency that may shed light on his attitude toward slavery.

Title: Doubting Thomas

Peter Robinson: Episode one, Haiti. 1804, black leader Jean Jacques Dessalines overthrows the French rule of Haiti declaring independence for the Caribbean Island. I quote Garry Wills. "Jefferson refused to grant diplomatic recognition to the new nation of Haiti, even though this went against the clear norms he had earlier established for granting such recognition." He won't do it because they're black.

Garry Wills: True.

Peter Robinson: Jack?

Jack Rakove: Sure.

Peter Robinson: You grant it?

Jack Rakove: Well, I mean, it's a fact, right. So what is it you want me to quarrel with?

Peter Robinson: Well, no, I thought there might be some loophole in the history there, some way out of it.

Jack Rakove: I mean, I suppose he might have been enjoying exploiting Hamilton's enlargement of the meaning of the clause in the Constitution, granting the President the right to determine whether or not to receive ambassadors. But…

Peter Robinson: Okay, so you simply grant it. Episode two, the Louisiana Purchase, 1803. In purchasing this territory from the French, of course, Jefferson adds more than 800,000 square miles to the United States, territory that forms part or all of present day Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado. It was a big deal. Jefferson wrote that the purchase would make it "possible for the United States to remain a nation of farmers for a thousand years." But you argue that Jefferson's chief interest lay not in agrarian agriculture or sort of the yeoman farmer, but in perpetuating the slave system.

Garry Wills: Well, he thought of them as the same.

Peter Robinson: He did?

Garry Wills: Sure.

Peter Robinson: You're going to grant that as well?

Jack Rakove: I think there's a more complicated story to Jefferson's idea about what the Louisiana Purchase would be useful for. It's, in some ways, I think it's much more tied to Jefferson's notion of Indian removal--the idea that the trans-Mississippi west would become a permanent or at least a long-term reservation for Indians who are moving from east of the Mississippi--whether the extent to which he thought about it as an area into which slavery itself would expand or how quickly that expansion would take place, that I think is a bit of a question. So it's actually--but because…

Peter Robinson: So it's solving a different problem.

Garry Wills: Well, that's certainly a consideration. On the other hand, he was careful to say no foreign slave trade into those territories which he had been against for years and years, put it in the Declaration of Independence which is a way of guaranteeing the trade of Virginia and Kentucky, which were the leading exporters of slaves into that territory. So slavery was very much on his mind.

Jack Rakove: You know, one thing worth noting about the three-fifths clause though is it does have a somewhat ironic playing out or aftermath. Let's say by 1820, it's fairly clear that even with the three-fifths clause, the South is going to remain the permanent minority within the expanding union. And the mechanism for protecting or maintaining an intersectional equilibrium within Congress from that point on, from the post-Missouri period on--is much more tied to the admission of states--you know, a free state and a slave state simultaneously to the Senate. So the three-fifths clause though certainly enhances the influence of the South.

Peter Robinson: Well let me ask you…

Garry Wills: The vote for the admission of those states was itself affected by the three-fifths clause. The Kansas and Nebraska Act was affected by it. The Wilmot Proviso was affected by it. Voting to admit them--they had a lot of power still in the 1830s and the 1840s. As late as the 1840s, the gag rule passed only because of the three-fifths clause.

Peter Robinson: Let me take you to the third episode in your book that was surprising--I knew about it but you put a new spin on this. June 1807, British ship Leopard fires on the USS Chesapeake, kills three, wounds eighteen. Jefferson retaliates by persuading Congress to enact an embargo. The embargo forbids American ships to sail from American ports to European ports, does widespread damage to the economy, becomes intensely unpopular and Jefferson insists on enforcing it. I quote you once again. "Jefferson casts the embargo in terms of two cultures, the agrarian South against the mercantile North." Explain that.

Garry Wills: He always thought that the carrying trade of New England was a kind of usury, a kind of predation upon genuine labor and that the South's pure agrarian life had to be preserved. And so he didn't care that it would hurt the New England merchants. That was fine with him although, as a matter of fact, it hurt the South probably even more.

Peter Robinson: How?

Garry Wills: Well, they had no ships to carry their products.

Peter Robinson: Oh, I see. So that cotton sits on the docks…

Garry Wills: Yeah and tobacco and rice. Yeah.

Peter Robinson: You grant this interpretation?

Jack Rakove: Yeah, but again I would say Jefferson's policy represents an attitude that was much more deep-seated in early American thinking about foreign relations. And, in fact, has remained with us long since. That the best way and the cheapest way and the least confrontational way for the United States to assert its interests and to, you know, try to assert its will is by withholding our commerce. The modern version of this, of course, is sanctions. The idea that sanctions could be an effective foreign policy against nations that have deep security interests of their own that they want to pursue has been a great deception for us as well. So I think Jefferson represents an attitude--I mean, what Garry says is right and certainly taps Jefferson's anti-commercial bias though there are a lot of qualifications you can make about that. But it also represents a deeper way of thinking about foreign relations more generally.

Garry Wills: Yeah, but the difference between sanctions and this is that we punished ourselves in this case. We've never cut off all our trade in any other case.

Peter Robinson: Next let's compare Thomas Jefferson's actions on slavery with those of the man who was "first in the hearts of his countrymen."

Title: Master and Commander

Peter Robinson: So Jefferson turns out to be a tough, calculating politician, a man of his time and place. That is to say, the agrarian South. Now we contrast him with another man of the same time and place, George Washington. I quote you Jack. "Among all the leading founders of the republic, Washington was alone in providing for the emancipation after his death of the substantial number of slaves he owned in his own right." Tell us about that. What did Washington do in his will?

Jack Rakove: Well, I'm drawing here on Henry Wiencek's recent book An Imperfect God, which traces Washington's own conflict with slavery, going back, of course, to his own beginnings as a young man, a young surveyor, who marries into the Virginia planter elite in the 1750s and acquires slaves of his own and manages others through his wife, Martha's estate and who shares many of the characteristic prejudices that we would ascribe to southern planters. But, at some point during the course of the war and I think cumulatively on into the 1780s and 1790s, becomes increasingly troubled by the existence of slavery's institution. Now there's no question that Jefferson shared the same moral awareness. I mean, there's no doubt that Jefferson found slavery profoundly troubling as a moral question but never allowed it to interfere too much with his politics or his personal life. Washington, towards the end of his life--at some point, you know, in the late 1780's, 1790's, reaches the determination that he will free his slaves. He can't free Martha's slaves because they remain her property...

Peter Robinson: He has no legal right.

Jack Rakove: …under the law of dower in Virginia. But he retains--he does become committed to this. He writes it into his will. So here's the interesting way to think about this though I think. Washington could have--this is Wiencek's point when he describes Washington as an imperfect god. You know, Washington when he was President had probably already formed this determination. So Wiencek raises the question, suppose Washington had committed himself to emancipation publicly while he's still President as opposed to doing so privately really ex cathedra--shouldn't say ex cathedra with Garry here but from the grave, you know, from the world to come. What difference would that have made? Compare that with Jefferson. When Jefferson writes his Notes on the State of Virginia in the 1780s which he had not intended to become a big, public work but it does become a big public work, he endorses a bill which he claims to have drafted that would have called for the gradual emancipation of the African American slave population in the South, followed by its colonization elsewhere. And he does put this before the American public and he writes the famous passage where he says, "I tremble before my nation when I think that God is just, that his justice will not sleep forever." There's no doubt that Jefferson was morally troubled to put it mildly by the existence of slavery but was just as, you know, in some ways, just as puzzled or maybe not puzzled in a somewhat different way than Washington.

Peter Robinson: But Washington does it. Washington dies in 1799 and from that moment on, everybody in the South and the entire nation knows full well where he stood, this great man, the great first President, "first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen"--where he stood on the question of slavery. And Thomas Jefferson lives another 26 years.

Garry Wills: Well, let me say two things about Washington. He kept it secret that he was going to do this. And he was opposed even by his own family.

Peter Robinson: But can I ask, was it done secretly? It became well known as soon as it took place…

Garry Wills: Well, it became known after he died.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Garry Wills: And his own family opposed it. So I think--I like Wiencek's book a lot and but the idea that he would have done that as President is inconceivable to me. No southern politician could oppose the slave system and retain power. That's why none of them freed their slaves. And that was true of Washington too. I think he knew that. I think he knew he had to keep it secret. Not only that, he had the discipline to accumulate the funds. You could not throw slaves out on society. It was very difficult. They made it difficult to have a lot of freedmen around. You had to get them a job, get them out of the state, get them a pile of money. And that's what Washington did. He accumulated a big fund. It was so big…

Peter Robinson: It was much more elaborate than simply…

Garry Wills: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.

Peter Robinson: …signing a codicil in his will.

Garry Wills: It was still being paid out to them in the 1830s, the freed slaves, from his money. Now Jefferson never had any money. I mean, he lived so extravagantly and drove himself so deeply into debt, he didn't own his slaves by the end. They were owned by the creditors. He almost lost his house by a matter of months; he would have been kicked out of his house. So he never had the discipline that Washington did.

Peter Robinson: Last question, how should we today judge Thomas Jefferson and George Washington?

Title: American Idols?

Peter Robinson: Can you say as a historian--this may be the kind of moral judgment from which you shrink as a historian for all I know--that one man had greater integrity than the other? That one man had a greater sense of honor than the other? That one man speaks more clearly and forcefully to us today than the other?

Garry Wills: I do. Washington.

Peter Robinson: Washington. Jack?

Jack Rakove: I don't, but for more philosophical reasons. I don't believe it's the function of the historian to pass moral judgments on people in the past or put another way, it's easy to pass moral judgments on people in the past and there's not really much point to it unless you see one's self consciously disabusing the public of a myth that needs to be punctured which is a legitimate function I think of our public discourse in general but not of what historians do in particular. I mean, when I teach the stuff and I teach this, you know, year in, year out, the first point I try to make to my students and also the last point of the class--of the course because it's always a lecture about Jefferson--is that historical explanation is not primarily about moral judgment. It's about trying to explain why people in the past did what they did. And whether they were, you know, good or bad in their private motivation, we could reach certain conclusions about that, is rather beside the point.

Garry Wills: But you can say slavery is bad.

Jack Rakove: Well, slavery was bad, of course. But it was so much a part of the fabric of life.

Garry Wills: Well, you can explain that without palliating it which is what history has done for a long, long time.

Jack Rakove I disagree with that.

Garry Wills: The increase of racism…

[Talking at same time]

Jack Rakove: You know, there's so much that's been written about slavery in the past. I mean, maybe that was true down to 1950 or 1955. I certainly don't think as a working historian that that characterizes the state of historical scholarship in the last thirty-five or forty years.

Garry Wills: Well, then they are condemning it which is all I'm asking for.

Peter Robinson: Last question. It's television alas, I have to wrap it up. Clare Boothe Luce used to love to say that history had time to give each great man only a single sentence. Lincoln freed the slaves. Churchill defeated Hitler. You've written Thomas Jefferson was "a giant trammeled in a net." Is that the sentence that history should give him?

Garry Wills: It should give it to all of the southern leaders. They were all, you know, that's what I say is this--Jefferson is no different from all the southern--not from Madison, from Monroe, from Washington--they all had to defend their economic base. And that was tragic.

Peter Robinson: Jack?

Jack Rakove: If we have to make moral judgments about Jefferson and slavery, then we have to understand and do our best to understand why it was that Jefferson was so nervous about the prospect of emancipation. And at that point, we really have to be prepared to look into our own hearts and ask the question, why is it that racial relations remain so sensitive for us today? Because when Jefferson writes his most famous passages about slavery in the Notes on the State of Virginia and when he explicitly makes a racist argument in comparing whites and blacks, it's not to defend slavery. It's to explain why emancipation has to be followed by colonization. And that's a judgment about the possibilities of a bi or a multi-racial society. Now we could fault Jefferson for not being as optimistic as others have been but if we're going to continue arguing that race remains the great unsolved problem of American public life and our private life as well, then I think we also need to give Jefferson some credit for being willing to confront that and indeed to confront it in his own heart and then to raise that question for his fellow citizens.

Garry Wills: The only trouble is the colonization scheme was absolutely impossible...

Jack Rakove: Well, of course it was a crazy idea. Of course it was a crazy idea.

Garry Wills: It was a gesture.

Jack Rakove: But the problem to which it was addressed--that Jefferson understood that the creation of a biracial society would be extremely difficult, you know, that's not a naïve formulation. That's a serious problem. That's what he's wrestling with.

Peter Robinson: I'll give you the last word. Give me the way you want the next generation, the generation that Jack is teaching now, to understand Thomas Jefferson.

Garry Wills: Well, I want them to understand the entirety especially as a defender of religious freedom and a formulator of a national vision. There're all kinds of aspects to him. As I say, this book is about one aspect alone.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Garry Wills: …that has not been paid enough attention to.

Peter Robinson: But the point of your book is take him whole?

Garry Wills: Sure.

Peter Robinson: Take him whole.

Peter Robinson: Garry Wills, Jack Rakove, thank you very much.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge, thanks for joining us.