SLAVE POWER. Two hundred years before Stokely Carmichael called for black power, the black slaves in the United States elected a President. How? The much hailed blueprint of justice, the American Constitution, gave each of them, man, woman, or child, status in the political arena as three-fifths of a person. Hence they formed a voting bloc which elected Thomas Jefferson as our nation’s third president.
But how could they elect a President? They couldn’t cast ballots on the plantations. It didn’t matter. The Constitutional Convention allowed the counting of slaves as part of the apportionment process for determining the vote allotment for each state’s Electoral College representation as well as for the number of seats in the House of Representatives. This set into motion not only the election of Jefferson but made sure that until the Civil War the concerns of southern slaveowners steered national politics.
Critics of Jefferson’s policies called him “the Negro President.” One opponent even jibed at the third President’s siring of five children by the slave Sally Hemings as continuing to weigh future elections towards the interest of Southerners. The couplet read: “Great men can never lack supporters Who manufacture their own voters.”
These historical dimensions are laid bare and explored in a new book by Pulitzer-prize winning author Garry Wills in a new book appropriately titled “The Negro President.” The vested interests and the benefits reaped by Jefferson and other Southerners who made domestic and international policy decisions conform to a mold of continual oppression and exploitation of blacks have vital importance in the current debate over reparations for black Americans.
Slaves, while mere chattel legally, played a crucial role not only in the economic production of the building blocks of wealth for the plantation system, but indeed were the linchpins for the statecraft which held them as captives. Even before blacks were “free” and forced to pay taxes with equitable representation after Emancipation, they still had a legal status which empowered important decisions that grew a darkness over their own futures.
This darkness elongated, in the words of Randall Robinson, the “long impenetrable shadow of slavery (which)â¤|.covers our national society still, leaving one community with false gods and another with no gods at all.” Randall Robinson wrote in The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, his memorable treatise published in 2000 which stakes out reasons for reparations, of his alienation when he stared up at the paintings that surround the Capital Rotunda that supposedly depict American history. The former head of Transafrica saw no representations of black life in the monumental fresco which covers 4,664 square feet.
But how many school children who visit the building are told that the very existence of that building and others in the seat of government in Washington, D.C. is a testament to slavery? Our seat of government was built on land drained from the swamps of Virginia and Maryland because Jefferson and other slaveowners wanted to rule from a place where slavery was legal! Washington, Jefferson, and James Madison fought very hard to locate the nation’s capital far from the seats of commerce and culture in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston since it would be very hard to force free states to return escaped slaves. When the national government moved to the Potomac, over a fifth of the District of Columbia’s residents were slaves, many of whose masters were public officials.
Jefferson wrote of blacks that they could scarcely be capable of “comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless and anomalous.” The reference to Euclid, the purported Greek father of geometry, is striking since the streets of the District of Columbia were designed by Benjamin Bannekar, a free black mathematician from Maryland who sent Jefferson a copy of an almanac he had compiled. Jefferson greeted the almanac with scorn, writing to a friend that he was sure that the black had a mind of a very common stature and was surely helped in his efforts by a white neighbor.
Jefferson’s fear of black liberation influenced international relations as well. He refused to grant diplomatic recognition to the new nation of Haiti in 1804. This posture contradicts his posture as Secretary of State in 1792 when he defended the recognition of the revolutionary French government(whose birth he had witnessed first hand as Ambassador to France with the fourteen year-old Sally Hemings with him as “companion”). Jefferson supported the recognition of the revolutionary French government, saying that “every nation has a right to govern itself internally under what forms it pleased.” Yet when former slaves in Haiti proclaimed a republic in 1804 , Jefferson displayed an immediate hostility towards it. The fear was that the Haitian Revolution would create a “great disposition to insurgency among American slaves.” Jefferson was terrified that “ten thousand recollections by the slaves of the injuries they have sustained(would)…never end but in the extermination of one or the other race.”
The federal government prohibited the African slave trade in 1808; now there were new economic considerations that affected decisions related to the Missouri and Louisiana purchases. Slave owners could, in many instances make more money by breeding and selling slaves to farmers who were tilling the more fertile lands gained in these acquisitions than by cultivation of their own crops. Hence the slaveowner lawmakers had ample impetus to have the newly annexed lands designated as slave states. It is extremely important to note that the move by the South to secede from the Union was the fuse which lit the Civil War-not a desire to free the slaves-a historical misconception which runs through many textbooks today.
A new history of the Democratic party, “Party of the People” by Jules Witcover, stresses that black suffrage was anathema to northern Democrats. A Union general, George W. Morgan, made the point graphically in a Fourth of July speech, saying northern Democrats had agreed “to sacrifice life and limb in defense of the Constitution and Union, but not for the nigger.”
Passage of the Thirteenth Amendment was hailed by northern Democrats who felt that the blacks would no longer be counted as three-fifths of a person, but each now could be counted as a whole vote. Hence, the exploitation by northern carpetbaggers who came to post-civil war black voters to further exploit them occurred. Institutions such as schools and courthouses did not exist which could nurture and protect brothers and sisters of a darker hue. Even after his death, “the Negro President” still held forth his image of contempt and exploitation for generations not yet born. Sally Hemings’ children still had no power in their father’s homeland.