Jefferson and the ‘three-fifths clause’

Special to The Times

‘Negro President’

Jefferson and the Slave Power

Garry Wills

Houghton Mifflin: 274 pp., $25



Garry Wills is a rough-and-ready writer with an unusual turn of mind he uses to explore aspects of U.S. history and his own Roman Catholic Church in new ways. He has sometimes done this to singular effect, notably in “Lincoln at Gettysburg” and “Saint Augustine.”

Wills, on occasion, has also let the reader down by not giving his subjects the thorough treatment they deserve. “Papal Sin” was in this category. So was “Why I Am a Catholic,” which left you wondering “Why, indeed?”

His new book, “Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power,” belongs, unfortunately, with the latter list. It is not a well-thought-out treatment but a seemingly hurried first draft of a book that should have been held back for rethinking and rewriting.

That is too bad, because the subject is important and not addressed fully enough in works on U.S. history from the writing of the Constitution through the Civil War. Wills’ principal subject -- and it is to his credit that he brings it into the light of historical scrutiny -- is the “three-fifths” clause of the Constitution and its effect on U.S. government and politics.

It said that for the purpose of apportioning seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, slaves should be counted as three-fifths of a person. Since seats in the Electoral College, the body that actually elects presidents, are awarded on the basis of two seats for each state (based on the number of U.S. senators each has) plus the number of representatives, the three-fifths clause meant that the Southern states, with large populations of slaves, had disproportionate representation, and therefore power, in not only the business of Congress but also in the election of U.S. presidents.

“Negro President” was the appellation leveled at Jefferson by Massachusetts Federalist Timothy Pickering. Pickering charged -- and Wills shows that he was correct -- that Jefferson beat incumbent President John Adams in the famously close election of 1800 only because of the extra votes the three-fifths clause gave to Southern slave-owning states.

Wills says the three-fifths clause evolved from the new nation’s earlier Articles of Confederation as a means of defining tax liability, and was one of several compromises made at the Constitutional Convention that were necessary at the time if there was to be a Union at all. Slavery was a reality in the original United States of America, an ugly fact, a scarcely redeemable one, and a stumbling block for the nation that was removed only by the Civil War.


He quotes President Ulysses S. Grant, who wrote in his memoirs that “nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.”

It is one of Wills’ theses that Jefferson supported extending U.S. territory and any new Southern states that would be carved from it, in part to extend the power of Virginia and its slave-owning allies. While it is right to be reminded of the consequences of the three-fifths clause and of Jefferson’s actions in defense of Southern power, Wills slights Jefferson’s vision for the greater nation in his pursuit of the Louisiana Purchase and parts of Florida. He partially concedes as much, declaring that his next book on U.S. history will be about Jefferson’s great contributions.

Here is the muddle left by this book: By emphasizing one aspect of Jefferson’s complex character, so beset by ambiguities, Wills seems to belittle him, yet asserts that is not so.

And despite its title, “Negro President,” which singles out Jefferson, the book is by no means confined to the third president. Parts read as if Wills commenced to write a biography of Pickering, but dropped the notion. There is a long, tangled chapter on Aaron Burr and Jefferson that only scholars of that relationship are likely to be able to follow easily. Wills also appends a fine account of John Quincy Adams, who, long after Jefferson’s death and his own return to Congress after one term as president, fought to abolish a gag rule imposed by Southerners in the House on any discussion of slavery.


In concept, “Negro President” is an imaginative work. In execution, it is disappointing.