Skeletons in the Closet

Skeletons in the Closet

Editor’s Note: Due to an unfortunate glitch in production, two lines are missing from the printed version of Daniel Lazare’s essay. They have been restored in this version.


Editor’s Note: Due to an unfortunate glitch in production, two lines are missing from the printed version of Daniel Lazare’s essay. They have been restored in this version.

Perhaps the best way to understand the history of the early American Republic is as a prolonged variation on the theme of the French Revolution. Although the starting date for that event is usually given as 1789, the process actually began a year or two earlier with a strange aristocratic prelude. Up in arms over royal centralization, the French nobility seized on the state’s growing fiscal crisis to call for a return to the “balanced” Constitution of more than a century earlier when the aristocracy and the church had served as an effective counterweight to the power of the throne and the provinces were able to hold their own against Paris. In order for society to advance, the theory went, it needed to go back to some golden age in the past. This position was not unpopular. But then the third estate–the commoners–began asserting its power, arguing that the purpose of revolution was not to turn the clock back but to turn it ahead to some brave new world in the future. For a time, backward and forward, progress and regression, were all bollixed up. But then the radicals were able to consolidate their power beginning in mid-1792, and the process of sorting out one from the other got under way.

A similar process occurred on this side of the Atlantic, only here it has taken a little longer. Most people in British North America–most white people, that is–believed their way of life to be the very definition of freedom until London started tightening the reins in the mid-1760s. Consequently, their goal in rebelling against the stamp tax, the tea tax and other “intolerable acts” was not to go forward but to return to some halcyon age in the past when imperial oversight was minimal. America’s restorationist revolution led to a looking-glass system of politics in which progress and retrogression, left and right, were jumbled, just as they were in the initial stages of the French Revolution. The confusion persisted right up to the Civil War, but even then the sorting-out process was cut short when the Radical Republicans lost their grip in the late 1860s. Only with the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and ’60s did the great sorting out of left and right, Jeffersonian regression versus Hamiltonian progress, start up again, and only since the 1990s has it really begun in earnest.

American history, as a result, has been stood on its head–or on its feet. Federalists formerly dismissed as conservative elitists have been rediscovered and rehabilitated. David McCullough’s celebratory biography of John Adams was a surprise bestseller, as was Richard Brookhiser’s 1999 biography of Alexander Hamilton. Previously regarded as yet another stuffy Bostonian, Adams’s son, John Quincy, emerged as an unexpected moral hero in Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film Amistad owing to his legal efforts on behalf of a group of slaves fighting for their freedom.

Jefferson, that erstwhile champion of American liberalism, has meanwhile come in for one thrashing after another, of which Garry Wills’s “Negro President”: Jefferson and the Slave Power, is merely the latest. Wills is the author of two previous, largely positive books about America’s third President, Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (1978) and Mr. Jefferson’s University (2002). But he opens his latest with an apology: “I have admired Jefferson all my life, and still do–though some may question that statement after reading this book.” And, indeed, “Negro President” is an extended study in moral hypocrisy. Where previously Jefferson had been seen as a high-minded philosophe torn between the conflicting goals of slavery and freedom, it’s now clear that protecting slavery was always his top priority. Even his championing of the University of Virginia, one of his proudest achievements, was not quite as selfless as it seems. Rather than spreading the light of education for its own sake, Jefferson’s real aim, to quote Wills, was to turn out “educated defenders for the extension of slavery westward” and provide “good southerners” with an alternative to abolitionist bastions like Harvard and Yale.

Jefferson’s embrace of popular democracy was similarly sullied. According to what most of us learned in high school, the new Republic in the 1790s was suffering under the dual lash of a New York-based creditor class and a group of overbearing, Anglophilic New Englanders. A new oligarchy was taking shape, as the Alien and Sedition Acts and the creation of a national bank showed. But then came Jefferson’s “Revolution of 1800,” and Americans could once again breathe free. In reality Jefferson’s triumph over John Adams was about as democratic as George W. Bush’s over Al Gore in December 2000. Wills shows in painstaking detail how Jefferson owed his triumph entirely to the Constitution’s infamous “three-fifths clause,” which required slaves to be counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of Congressional apportionment. Slaves could not vote, of course, so the provision gave their owners roughly a third more seats in the House than they would otherwise have had, and roughly a third more electoral votes, just enough to put Jefferson over the edge.

This is why Jefferson’s critics referred to him as the “Negro President”–because, they said, he had ridden into the White House on the backs of otherwise voiceless slaves whose sole raison d’être was to multiply their owners’ political and economic clout. As one newspaper declared at the time, it was as if “New England horses, cows, and oxen” had been used to expand Adams’s tally. Federalists were stunned, yet generations of historians, both liberal and conservative, have mobilized to cover up on Jefferson’s behalf. Wills notes that two book-length accounts of the Revolution of 1800 by respected academic historians, one published by Knopf in 1974 and the other by Morrow in 2000, ignored the three-fifths clause altogether, as did Page Smith’s two-volume 1962 biography of Adams and Dumas Malone’s whopping six-volume biography of Jefferson, published between 1948 and 1981. David McCullough’s discussion of the clause’s role in his 2001 Adams biography is so fleeting that some readers may have missed it. “What was surprising” about the election of 1800, he writes, “was how well Adams had done…. he had, in fact, come very close to winning in the electoral count…. Also, were it not for the fact that in the South three-fifths of the slaves were counted in apportioning the electoral votes, Adams would have been reelected.” His man was robbed, yet all McCullough can muster is a single sentence.

Wills is understandably obsessed with the three-fifths clause, which he sees as the basic motor force behind what abolitionists called “the slave power.” Not only did it allow the slave states to capture the White House in 1800 but it allowed them to dominate the federal government as a whole right up to the Civil War. Thanks to the extra votes it provided, slaveowners succeeded in controlling the presidency for fifty of the sixty-two years between Washington’s election and the Compromise of 1850, the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee for forty-two of those years, and the Speaker’s chair for forty-one. Eighteen out of thirty-one Supreme Court Justices during this period were slaveholders as well. Instead of empowering the people, the American Revolution wound up empowering a tiny slaveholding elite. While moving forward in some respects, America was hurtling backward in others, which explains the popular fury against Southern outrages that exploded across the North in 1860-61, igniting the Civil War.

But while the three-fifths clause deserves much of the blame, it doesn’t deserve all of it. Other constitutional provisions were also important to the Southern cause–for example, the equal representation clause in Article I, which gives each state two seats in the Senate regardless of population, or the complicated amending machinery set forth in Article V. The first provided the South with the constitutional means to offset the power of an increasingly populous North. The second, by requiring approval by two-thirds of each house plus three-fourths of the states for any constitutional change, no matter how minor, enabled Southern states to see to it that any attempt at constitutional reform of slavery would never get off the ground. Individually, each of these provisions gave Jefferson and his fellow slaveowners a significant edge. But it was only collectively that they provided them with a stranglehold over national policy that was virtually unbreakable.

Wills’s silence on these other aspects of the problem is curious. One reason may be that the three-fifths clause is safely in the past thanks to the Thirteenth Amendment, which, by abolishing slavery, rendered it null and void in 1865. But the others are not. The Senate, still organized on the basis of equal state representation, is as unrepresentative as ever (if not more so) thanks to a growing demographic gap between mega-states like California (population: 35.1 million) and micro-states like Wyoming (population: 499,000). By allowing thirteen states representing as little as 4.4 percent of the population to veto any and all efforts at constitutional reform, Article V is no less unfair and undemocratic. It is the survival of antiquated provisions like these that is so perplexing, which is perhaps why Wills prefers to stick to something a bit easier.

Henry Wiencek’s An Imperfect God is another exploration of slavery and the founders, in this case George Washington. It’s an important topic not only because Washington is such a revered figure in American history but because he was an especially interesting type: a Federalist who was not from New England or the mid-Atlantic region but from Virginia, and hence one who was increasingly at odds with the rest of his class.

As Wiencek shows, Washington’s attitudes toward slavery were initially fairly typical. As the owner or manager of 18,000 acres of land and some 250 slaves by virtue of his marriage to the wealthy widow Martha Custis, he minimized costs, maximized output and maintained discipline by dressing his slaves in rags, auctioning off their children, ordering the disobedient among them to be whipped and punishing captured runaways by shipping them off to disease-ridden pestholes in the West Indies where he knew they would likely die from overwork. When it came to the British, meanwhile, he was capable of hypocrisy so soaring it can only be described as Jeffersonian. Denouncing taxation without representation in 1764, for instance, he declared: “The crisis is arrived when we must assert our rights or submit to every imposition that can be heaped on us till custom and use shall make us as tame and abject slaves as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway.” He would be damned if he would allow the British to do unto him as he did unto others.

What changed Washington was his participation in a national struggle. Jefferson, a Virginia loyalist to his dying day, rarely left his home state during the Revolutionary War. Washington, by contrast, rarely returned. Elected commander in chief of the Continental forces in the summer of 1775, he quickly left for Massachusetts, where fighting had broken out the previous April. There he not only came into contact with radicals who were beginning to draw connections between America’s desire for independence and the slaves’ longing for freedom, but took charge of what Wiencek says was the most integrated US military force prior to the Vietnam War. By 1778 African-Americans would compose up to 13 percent of the Continental Army and, a few years later, may even have accounted for more. As one foreign officer observed, “You never see a regiment in which there are not negroes, and there are well-built, strong, husky fellows among them.” Blacks had enlisted in Minute Man regiments and rallied to Paul Revere’s call, a black sharpshooter named Peter Salem had shot a British major dead at Bunker Hill and a mixed-race regiment of seamen from Marblehead, Massachusetts, would later save the patriot cause from certain disaster by rescuing 9,000 besieged troops near Brooklyn Heights and ferrying them to safety across the East River.

Washington should have been grateful, but instead was torn. Free blacks who had taken up arms were bad enough from the planter point of view, but slaves were even worse. How could colonists claim to be struggling for freedom if they had to rely on slaves to do their fighting? One solution might have been to emancipate them in return for military service. That would have made Afro-Americans something approaching a partner in the struggle. But it would also have triggered a profound social upheaval across the South as one slave after another deserted his master to join up. An entire economy based on slave labor would have collapsed. Either the slaves or their owners would get their independence, but not both.

Freedom for the pike was death for the minnow. Faced with such a choice, Washington vacillated. Shortly after arriving in Massachusetts, he issued an order expelling blacks from the ranks. Then, when black veterans of Lexington and Concord objected, he took it back, at least as far as free blacks were concerned. In 1778, he gave his approval to a Rhode Island plan to raise a regiment of slaves by offering them freedom as an inducement to enlist. But when two of his aides, Alexander Hamilton and a wealthy young planter named John Laurens, proposed the same thing on a national scale, he withheld his support. Wiencek notes that Washington was contemplating a massive sale of his own slaves around this time to raise funds. If the Hamilton-Laurens plan had gone through, the value of such assets would have plummeted, something he was not prepared to see happen. Yet when his overseer wrote to complain that Washington’s newfound reluctance to break up slave families was making a sale more difficult, the general refused to back down. He was not prepared to see that happen either.

Unlike Jefferson, Washington was genuinely torn between loyalty to his nation and loyalty to his class. Nonetheless, it is to Wiencek’s credit that he does not let his subject off the hook. Had Washington freed his slaves while still President, “the effect,” he argues, “might have been profound. He would have set the precedent that the chief executive cannot hold slaves.” Instead, all Washington could bring himself to do was to draw up a will freeing his slaves after his widow’s death. The gesture was painfully inadequate in view of the catastrophe that slavery represented. Still, at least it was something. By contrast, Jefferson not only refused to free his own slaves but in his “Notes on the State of Virginia” advanced a doctrine of black racial inferiority that would provide slaveowners with ideological ammunition for decades to come.

An Imperfect God is a model of controlled indignation. Wiencek admires Washington, yet piles detail upon detail about the slave system of which he was a part: what it meant, how it functioned, the costs it imposed on both its immediate victims and larger society, and so forth. Even for those of us who consider ourselves well informed, the results are shocking. Whether or not black Americans were more oppressed in absolute terms than comparable groups throughout history, three things about their condition stand out: Their imprisonment was infinite in duration, extending not just to them but to all their descendants; their treatment was unmitigated by either custom, law or religious morality; and their enslavement took place in an otherwise advanced society in which everyone around them, slaveowners first and foremost, was shouting for freedom and natural rights. The combination was (and is) infuriating.

Gore Vidal’s Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, on the other hand, is not an example of the new American historiography but of the persistence of the old. Vidal, as most readers are aware, is a patriot at war with his own country. Like a lot of people, he is furious over Bush’s theft of the White House in December 2000 and his use of 9/11 as a latter-day Reichstag fire with which to plunge the country into war and repression. Yet the curious thing about Vidal is that the more anti-American he becomes, the more American he reveals himself to be. In politico-taxonomical terms, he is an “Old Whig,” a premodern Anglo-American type that our eighteenth-century Constitution has preserved as if in amber. The Old Whigs were angry patriots furious over their country’s slide into imperialist decadence and filled with nostalgia for the rustic old Republic, when ways were simpler and people were braver, more courageous and more honest. Thus, Vidal is amused by the shortcomings of Washington, Jefferson et al., he chuckles over their foibles, but he believes in the end that they tower over their modern-day equivalents. He quotes John F. Kennedy as asking one morning in Hyannis in 1961, “How do you explain how a sort of backwoods country like this, with only three million people, could have produced the three great geniuses of the eighteenth century–Franklin, Jefferson, and Hamilton?”

To which Vidal says he replied: “Time. They had more of it. They stayed home on the farm in winter. They read. Wrote letters. Apparently, thought, something no longer done–in public life.”

Nonsense. As impressive as Franklin and Hamilton were (Jefferson is another story), their greatness had to do with the fact that they were in a position to benefit from historical opportunities unavailable to many of their contemporaries, for example, all those slaves languishing in the American South. As for “the three great geniuses of the eighteenth century”–a century that gave us Haydn, Mozart, Kant, Robespierre and Toussaint L’Ouverture, to name a very, very few–the remark says more about JFK’s provincialism than anything else. Vidal claims in Inventing a Nation to be a fan of Henry Adams’s histories. If so, he should know that Adams reserved his most withering contempt for American chest-thumping of precisely this sort.

This is not to say that Inventing a Nation is without wit or insight. Vidal knows his subjects well and paints each portrait with a few deft strokes. There is Washington as the canny politician, Franklin as the wise old sensualist and the short, fat John Adams (“His Rotundity”) as someone oscillating between bouts of vanity and self-pity. Adams, “the best-read man in Boston,” has something catty to say about nearly everyone who heaves into view–Hamilton (“bastard brat of a Scotch peddler”), Franklin (“in a constant state of dissipation”), Jefferson (“indolent…poisoned with ambition”) and so on–and Vidal, with his fine ear for gossip, quotes him with relish. Washington struggles to control his Cabinet, Hamilton plots and conspires and makes life miserable for Adams, while Chief Justice John Marshall, like Washington a Virginia Federalist, prepares to smite the Jeffersonians with Marbury v. Madison and judicial review–Vidal’s political comedy is nothing if not busy.

Still, there’s something a bit musty about the whole exercise. Not surprisingly, perhaps, given Vidal’s roots in the Virginia gentry, Inventing a Nation is consistently hostile to Hamilton, the great modernizer of the period, while apologetic about Jefferson and his dependence on slave labor. “If all men are created equal, then, if you are serious, free your slaves, Mr. Jefferson,” he admonishes. Vidal adds, however, “But they were his capital. He could not and survive, and so he did not…. It might be useful for some of his overly correct critics to try to put themselves in his place.” Yet Jefferson has come under repeated assault in recent years not only because he refused to free his slaves but because he sought to extend slavery to the West while protecting it against Northern dynamos like Hamilton. Nation readers will enjoy the anti-Bush jabs that Vidal weaves into his account, but what will they make of his swipe at Lincoln for his neo-Federalism? In his first draft of a resolution eventually adopted by the Kentucky state legislature in 1799, Jefferson argued that states had the power to nullify–refuse to execute–federal policies they viewed as unconstitutional. Vidal comments:

The man who had once–rashly?–said that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants” was indeed on record that if a state denied liberty to its lawful citizens, revolution is, as it was in 1776, the weapon of choice. This is a great truth savagely if not fatally tested by a Civil War in which the abolition of slavery replaced disunion, despite Lincoln’s most poetic efforts to the contrary, and any hope of a decentralized Union as the issue has been dead until this day.

Vidal confuses secession with revolution and, near as I can make out, seems to be accusing Lincoln of using slavery as an excuse to ram through a centralized state. Vidal, for one, wishes that he hadn’t. If only Lincoln had abolished slavery and left it at that, we would have the old Republic back in all its homespun, decentralized glory, purged of its original sin. Imperialism, product of a centralized state, would never have reared its ugly head. Instead of a hypertrophied White House running roughshod over civil liberties, America would still be a land of checks and balances and separation of powers. Thus, we come full circle to the French aristocracy’s politics of nostalgia in 1787-88.

Vidal’s explanation of America’s fall from grace is similarly nostalgic, resting as it does on that eighteenth-century mainstay, “corruption.” He quotes Franklin telling his fellow delegates at the Philadelphia Convention that the Constitution they had just drawn up was probably as good a plan of government as any, but that it “can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other.” Vidal adds: “Now, two centuries and sixteen years later, Franklin’s blunt dark prophecy has come true: popular corruption has indeed given birth to that Despotic Government which he foresaw as inevitable at our birth.” The result is “Enron et seq., not to mention November 2000, and, following that, despotism whose traditional activity, war, now hedges us all around.”

Rather than the Founders failing the people, it is “we the people” who have failed the Founders. Perhaps Vidal should dissolve the people and elect another.

Let me suggest an alternative to this all-too-common narrative of descent and decay. Rather than a race of demigods, the Founders were a group of ordinary mortals–intelligent, resourceful, but otherwise with the full complement of flaws and limitations–who succeeded in coming up with a government yoking together thirteen jealous statelets. Notwithstanding all the complicated Rube Goldberg machinery they put in place, their real achievement was barring the door to the most obvious forms of aristocracy while opening it just a crack to democracy–not the premodern, localist democracy beloved of Jeffersonians but the centralized, mass, neo-Jacobin democracy–“the red lightning of the people’s wrath,” to quote one Radical Republican–that finally burst through, if only for a time, in the Civil War. Few of the Founders would have predicted such a development, and many would have opposed it. Yet it is the only thing that carried American society forward. We all share Vidal’s outrage at the Bush Administration. But when it comes to figuring out where America has gone wrong, he’s got it exactly backward.

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