Study Guide

"Negro President"

by Garry Wills

"Negro President" Essay - Critical Essays

“Negro President”

Garry Wills focuses on the influence of slaveholding in United States politics from the post-revolutionary period through the 1840’s, especially 1800 through 1808. “Negro President”: Jefferson and the Slave Power provides a vivid portrait of unsavory and generally ignored aspects of the political career of Thomas Jefferson, the “Negro President” of the title. His opponents styled him thus after the presidential election of 1800, because he would have lost it had not the South’s representation in Congress and the Electoral College been augmented by 60 percent of the census of slaves. This was the “three-fifths clause” of the Constitution at work.

Although missing from the title, a large portion of the contents is given over to the forgotten Timothy Pickering, a notable opponent of slavery, and a friend and inspiration to the abolitionists who followed. As John Adams’s Secretary of State, Pickering provided material support for the successful slave revolution that created Haiti; and was a Senator in 1800 and a Representative afterwards. In the latter roles he fought Southern schemes to extend slavery in the territories, which would increase slaveholders’ power in the national government even more, and provide a market for slaves from Virginia where the played-out soils made plantations unprofitable.

Jefferson’s dirty tricks in 1800 included a threat of insurrection in Pennsylvania should he be denied the election, and a promise to retain the opposing party’s civil servants and federal judges, who were promptly purged once he gained power. In this revelatory and gracefully written work, Wills astutely critiques the historiography of the period as he shines a light on how the “slave power,” the Southern politicians, successfully influenced national policy to the benefit of slaveholders and the detriment of Northern commercial interests.