Before Thomas Jefferson was known as the third president of the United States he was elected as the first secretary of state by George Washington. He was the second youngest member delegate in the second continental congress at Philadelphia in which he was selected for drafting the Declaration of independence which is a part of our nation’s constitution to which he acquires a lot of his fame. He was also very well known for the three-fifths comprise which is one of the many analytical highlights discussed in the Negro President by Gary Wills.
His personal life also became a scandal and his views on slavery which John C. Miller elaborates on events in his life in the book Wolf By The Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery. However his ultimate legacy was the founding of the University of Virginia. The Negro President was a very interesting book and it had satisfactory information with references to support its findings. Jefferson was a member of the southern aristocracy in which he was standing in the middle of the nation’s major controversy which would eventually astound America to its foundations, that of slavery.
The intention Wills carries out in this book is to analyze Jefferson’s role in the ongoing debate concerning it and he was able to become president on the strength of a rule that was seen as a compromise between the north and the south on the subject of slavery, known as the three-fifths rule. In this book the Wills sees Jefferson as a “negro president” because he was the recipient of the discreditable rule, achieving the presidency as a result of its application.
By having large numbers of slaves counted as three- fifths of a person this fragment made it possible for Jefferson to attain the presidency. With so many slaves located in the states where Jefferson had potency, the three-fifths compromise provided a missile thrust which made the difference in the election of 1800. The terrible irony is that conjured votes of individuals who were not even considered people in the legal sense, and had no right to vote, made the difference. Slavery sadly ended up serving as a gargantuan bonus, providing an electoral boost.
In the prologue of the book Wills states he disagrees with those who diminish Jefferson’s great achievements the declaration of independence, or those who call him more a friend. He concentrates solely on his role as a protector and extender of the slave system. To highlight that aspect of Jefferson, he reviews the trenchant criticisms of him voiced by one of his most vociferous congressional critics Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts. He goes on to say his purpose of Pickering is he is a useful anti-Jefferson, a mirror image reversal.
He focuses on one aspect of Pickering’s career who was a critic not an equal of Jefferson and the issue between them was the slave system Pickering was most credible and Jefferson was least credible. Jefferson felt no choice but to defend the evil, there was no large-scale political career open to southerners who refused to defend it. That is the tragedy of Jefferson and the nation (xiv). We may admit that he was trapped in the system; which is all the more reason for condemning the trap.
In Pickering’s 1783 plan for exchanging slavery which was previously mentioned in which he was least credible against Jefferson he states: “ To suffer the continuance of slaves till they can be gradually emancipated in states already overrun with them may be pardonable because unavoidable without hazarding greater evils; but to introduce them into countries where none now exist – countries which have been talked of, which we have boasted of, as asylums to the oppressed of the earth – can never be forgiven. For God’s sake, then let one more effort be made to prevent so terrible a calamity. Pickering’s main contention with Jefferson in regards to his working towards the abolishment of slavery was why extend it for another sixteen years when the goal at hand should be to end it as soon as possible. His argument against Jefferson would make him out to seem like he was an advocate for slavery, and not the anti-slavery activist Jefferson was actually trying to be. Pickering also feared that this extension would negatively influence other countries into adopting this cruel notion of buying and selling human beings, and the overall unjust and inhumane acts that go along with the treachery known as slavery.
Pickering drew his argument from Jefferson’s own Declaration of Independence: “Congress once made this important declaration: ‘That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable right; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ – and these truths were held to be self-evident. Nevertheless, a proposition for preventing a violation of these truths – in a country yet unsettled, and from which such violation might easily have been excluded – did not obtain. What pretence (argument there could be none) could be offered for its rejection? ”
Pickering’s point seemed valid, even though this is not at all what Jefferson was aiming towards. The most important attribute to this situation that Pickering, along with his believers, seemed to ignore was the position that Jefferson was in. There were only but so many people in the south at that point in time that were against slavery. Any major political figure who openly opposed slavery were sure to have their time in office come to quick and bitter halt. So even though Jefferson was adamant about the abolishment of slavery and even though he was the President of the United States, his power was limited on this sensitive issue.
Had he tried to do away with slavery all together immediately, he would have most likely been impeached faster than Clinton after the Monica Lewinsky scandal. With that said, Jefferson had to approach the situation with extreme caution, and assess it the best way he could. Looking back, the fact that Jefferson was able to get the country, especially the southern states to count slaves as individuals (or partial individuals, but it was still major progress) was nothing short of astonishing and was ingenious on his part. That was the first step. If Jefferson wanted to get rid of slavery he would have to do so over time.
He came up with the idea to put an end to it, but in a little over a decade of half. This would give time for society to get used to the idea, and make way to personnel in support of the idea to make further advancements over that period of time. Pickering looked at this action as an extension of slavery. He then held on to the idea that Jefferson was a despicable person doing an evil deed and ran with it. Pickering did his best to convince others of his viewpoint, and because his idea sounded logical they believed him. What Pickering failed to realize is, this wasn’t an extension of slavery, but more like a limit.
Jefferson figured this grace period was enough time to make what seemed once impossible. This act overtime would have greatly benefitted the current slaves, getting them to be recognized as regular people in society, and more so the future generations of would-have-been- slaves to come. Another interesting book about Thomas Jefferson and the events that took place in his life is Wolf By The Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery by John C. Miller. The author’s motivation for the title was a famous quote by Thomas Jefferson himself. This quote is: “We have the wolf by the ears; and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.
Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other. ” In this particular quote Jefferson is making reference to the slaves and the general outlook of slavery. He is saying a slave is like a wolf whom they have constrained y fear and chains, but if they were to be let loose they would either killed those who have oppressed them or revolt. Jefferson was a wealthy man; in fact he was one of the wealthiest men in all of Virginia. During his involvement in politics, the majority of his salary was paid indirectly (in large proportion) by slaves.
Their labor provided the tobacco, cotton and sugar which were exports that stimulated exports, especially for Northern shipping. Despite that, Jefferson saw slavery as something to be exterminated. As he saw it, the eradication of slavery was to be the crowning achievement of the American Revolution. He insisted that this revolution could not be considered complete until this ugly scar, this vestige of the colonial period, had been outright removed. At that period in time, Virginia had more than two hundred thousand coloreds, which was over half the entire population in the United States.
Jefferson himself inherited land and slaves from both his mother and father. One would automatically assume that with the wealth and power he acquired from owning so many slaves, he would be an advocate for slavery. On the contrary, he regarded slavery as a “hideous evil,” the bane of American society. This idea led Jefferson to eventually write the Declaration of Independence. As soon as he was in a position of power, he immediately took the necessary steps to make his ideals and thoughts a reality. He began working decolonization and equal rights for everyone.
He asserted that the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was inalienable and self-evident. His main concern was whether or not these “universal” human rights where being applied to black slaves (who were considered property after all) as they were to free white men. Even though the slaves were admittedly human beings, which meant they had rights as such, they were also property, and the rights of property took precedence over the rights of a human being. Simply put, blacks were nothing but spectators of the transactions of the free men around them.
Jefferson asked to be judged by his acts rather than by his words. He wanted people to recognize his beliefs through his actions, and form their praise or criticism from that point rather than going just by his spoken words. But on the issue of slavery in America, he emerges with greater splendor if he is judged by his words rather than by his acts. There was a lot that he wanted to do for America, especially on the topic of slavery, but given the time period and the conditions no matter how big his ideas or how high his status, there was only so much he could do as one man.
Luckily for him, the Declaration of Independence in which he wrote was made law, and helped shape the way America was constructed. He was certain in his mind that the Declaration would prove to be: “the signal of arousing men to burst the chains… and to securing the blessings and security of self-government. All eyes are opened, or opening to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs or a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. In the preface, the author, John Chester Miller, speaks a lot on Jefferson’s personality. He labels him as, “a scientist and a philosopher as well as a politician and a man of action – a combination of diverse talents supported by a fund of knowledge that has rarely graced the presidency of the United States. ” He openly recognizes Jefferson’s tenacity, and the relentlessness of the work he did for the greater good of the nation, not only for then but for future generations.
Another quote from Miller exemplifying why he deserve to be put on the high pedestal in which he is held is, “…his confidence in a benign futurity – which sustained his conviction that slavery, along with other social evils, would ultimately yield to the combined power of the right reason and a divinely implanted moral sense – colored his views of all the great events of his lifetime. ” The overall idea of the book Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery is creative, and a good idea in theory, but it is lacking in a few areas.
One of the major areas that need work is the consistency of the reading. There is no solid idea around the general idea of the book, meaning there is no solid foundation to build on. The author takes you on a joy ride from one concept to the other, without validating the all the unfinished points he leaves behind as he moves on to the next subject. The way the book is written, is more like a story book than educational literature simply because of the inconsistency of the way it was structured. Another major issue with it is the citation, or lack thereof.
With the ambiguousness of the bibliographical references, there might as well not be a bibliography. This book is satisfactory for the purpose of a simple reading, or a brief reference, but that’s as far as it can be taken. Then again, in the preface Miller did state that he reserved for a later book a more comprehensive and well-rounded portrait of Jefferson and a more definitive assessment of his contributions to American democracy. So perhaps the choppiness of the structure of this book wasn’t an accident and the entire book is a preface of a better piece of work to come.
A similar topic that was mentioned in both readings, Negro President and Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery, was the mother of five of Jefferson’s children, Sally Hemings, who had traces of African history in her blood. They first met when Jefferson was in France, and she was chosen as a companion to his daughter. Her mother, Betty Hemings, and all fourteen of her children became Jefferson’s property upon the death of his father-in-law, John Wayles, a wealthy Virginia planter. On Jefferson’s estate Betty Hemings and her quadroon children received special treatment.
Instead of being put out in the fields to work, they were made into trained household servants and artisans. The logical reasoning Jefferson gave to the public for giving the Hemings family special treatment is that some of them were descendents of the late Colonel Wayles, and hence Mrs. Jefferson’s half brothers and half sisters. After a series of events, Jefferson fell in love with Sally Hemings and proceeded to make her his mistress, there-in convincing her to return with him to the States from France. The children
Sally bore were also given special treatment. They were of fair skin, with small traces of black, but they were never sold or hired out as laborers. Jefferson’s attitude and actions as a father made him known widely as possessive and overprotective. He was concerned about everything little detail of his children’s life, so much so that he was sensitive to even the trivial things. But when it came to Sally’s children he showed no affection as a father at all. He was neither present at their birth, nor was he present at their death or even the funeral.
As meticulous as he was with his recordings of his children grandchildren and his love letters to his wife and children and grandchildren, there was no record of letters to Sally, and only faint recordings of her children, this leaves no trace to him being intertwined in the family at all. If Sally’s children were indeed Jefferson’s offspring, his actions towards would seem as harsh as any neglectful, good for nothing father. Or, it is one of the greatest cover ups, ever. In his will, he freed all the Hemingses, except Sally.
The reasoning behind such actions would seem as if he wanted to keep the one whom he hold so dear to his heart close to home. It was surprising that she wasn’t freed as well, because this is the same woman that gave up her rights to be a free woman to succumb to his will at the very beginning of this liaison. Even in her death the affair was treated with the utmost caution and secrecy. When she died she wasn’t even buried on the estate, she was buried with the rest of the slaves. Jefferson most likely did the utmost to conceal his affair to protect his image.
He would have surely been renounced from his presidency had there been concrete facts that these events took place. His lifestyle and love for a Negro woman may have played some part in his adamant attitude towards the complete eradication of slavery. He was a good man with good intentions, and simply wanting to do what’s right is one thing. But have such a strong personal connection to the matter with give a man a whole new sense of motivation. There were some major differences between the two books, Negro President and Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery, a lot more differences than here were similarities. The book by Wills, Negro President, was structured to focus on combative political relationship between Jefferson and Pickering. Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slaver on the other hand, as was previously stated, was equivalent to a book with a bunch of random copy and pasted stories pasted into it. However, they were both insightful and very helpful nonetheless. In my opinion, Jefferson was neither for slavery nor against slavery. He was just wanted to do what was morally right, but couldn’t exactly do everything pertaining to that because of his position in politics.
Jefferson was referred to as the “Negro President” due to his actions an activist. There are also many other feats of Jefferson that weren’t mentioned outside the topic of discussion, such as his most precious and proudest finding, the University of Virginia, him being a member of Southern Aristocracy, in depth discussion of the Declaration of Independence, his involvement in many other laws, etc. Yes, Jefferson most definitely had slave, but he wasn’t in a position to get rid of them all.
He wasn’t in a position to fight for their freedom either, since before the three fifths rule they were nothing more than property, but he fought for their freedom and more importantly the American Revolution. “All men are created equal”, is what Jefferson stood for, and his ambitions have re-directed American history from the inevitable downfall of America due to slavery to the world we know today, a world where the President of the United States is a black man, a mulatto, but a black man none the less.