Thomas Jefferson and Slavery

I’m not a big Charlie Rose fan. But last Monday night’s interview on PBS with Gary Wills on his new book, “Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power (Houghton Mifflin),” was one of the most fascinating I’d ever heard. Wills is re-examining early US history. His analysis of racism and Thomas Jefferson sheds entirely new light, for me, on such questions as why a slave is portrayed as 3/5ths of a person in the US Constitution.

Usually this stinging racist issue is cast in moral terms: Because the slaveowners viewed their slaves as less than human, we are taught, they were opposed to having any mention of slaves as people in the Constitution; Northern anti-slavery advocates wanted to include slaves among the free people.

Not so!, says Wills, who argues that it was the North and northern capitalists who were insisting that Slaves not be counted as persons in the Constitution, and it was the South (and the slavocracy) that insisted that slaves must be counted as full people!

What a reversal of what we’ve all been taught! Wills is not arguing that this curious reversal of positions occurred out of the goodness of anybody’s heart. NONE of the framers, for instance, argued for Constitutional clauses guaranteeing voting rights to slaves, women, or the poor–that vast majority of the people. No, Wills lays out the real reason: Power. By counting slaves as full people, the slaveowners would get to cast votes on behalf of the number of people they “represented.” If one counts slaves in that equation, the southern slave owners would have an indefeatable majority. Thus the 3/5ths clause in the Constitution was indeed a means to protect and extend the institution of slavery — but with the proponents of slavery advocating for a full counting of slaves as people, in order to advance their grip on the levers of power.

Although he was in France during the negotiations over the Constitution, Jefferson–who had been in the thick of discussions of this issue for years — again made his views known, from afar, in letters to James Madison and to others. These views were not those of a believer in real democracy, but of a strong proponent of slavery. Indeed, Wills argues, it was the 3/5ths weighted vote of the southern slaveowners that propelled and maintained Jefferson–and the South — into control of the US government. As John Quincy Adams remarked, “The election of Mr. Jefferson to the presidency was, upon sectional feelings, the triumph of the South over the North — of the slave representation over the purely free.”

Wills reviews much of this in a recent article: “Though everyone recognizes that Jefferson depended on slaves for his economic existence, fewer reflect that he depended on them for his political existence. Yet the latter was the all-important guardian of the former. Like other Southerners, Jefferson felt he had to take every political step he could to prevent challenges to the slave system. That is why Southerners made sure that slavery was embedded in the very legislative process of the nation, as it was created by the Constitution — they made the three-fifths “representation” of slaves in the national legislature a nonnegotiable condition for their joining the Union.” (New York Review of Books, Nov. 6, 2003)

At least twelve of Jefferson’s electoral votes in the presidential elections of 1800 “were not based on the citizenry that could express its will but on the blacks owned by Southern masters,” Wills writes. “A bargain had been struck at the Constitutional Convention — one of the famous compromises on which the document was formed, this one intended to secure ratification in the South. The negotiated agreement, as I have said, decreed that each slave held in the United States would count as three fifths of a person in setting the members of the Electoral College.”

Wills points out that “Though the election of 1800 is one of the most thoroughly studied events in our history, few treatments of it even mention the fact that Jefferson won it by the slave count.” He asks: “Why is the impact of the federal ratio so little known?”

In his article in New York Review of Books, Wills goes through several surveys of the literature to analyze this ‘federal ratio.’ “Without the federal ratio as the deciding factor in House votes, slavery would have been excluded from Missouri; Andrew Jackson’s policy of removing Indians from territories they occupied in several states would have failed; the 1840 gag rule, protecting slavery in the District of Columbia, would not have been imposed; the Wilmot Proviso would have banned slavery from territories won from Mexico. Moreover, the Kansas and Nebraska bill outlawing slavery in Nebraska territory and allowing it in Kansas would have failed. Other votes were close enough to give opposition to the South a better chance, if the federal ratio had not been counted into the calculations from the outset. Elections to key congressional posts were affected continually by the federal ratio, with the result that Southerners held ‘the Speaker’s office for 79 percent of the time [before 1824], Ways and Means for 92 percent.’

“The historian Leonard Richards shows another pervasive influence of the three-fifths clause. Even when it did not affect the outcome of congressional votes, it dominated Democratic caucus and convention votes, since the South had a larger majority there than in the larger body. This meant that it guaranteed presidential nominations that would be friendly to the slave interest. When control of the caucus seemed to be slipping from Southern hands, a two-thirds requirement for nominating candidates gave them the power to veto men unacceptable to them. The federal ratio was, therefore, just the starting point for seizing and solidifying positions of influence in the government. It was a force supplemented by other maneuvers. It gave the South a permanent head start for all its political activities.”

Gary Wills, who has written other books and articles admiring Jefferson, is nevertheless relentless here in holding Jefferson responsible for the consolidation of the slavocracy’s hold on the reins of the federal government. He points out that even those who opposed the trans-Atlantic slave trade were not against chattel slavery per se, but mostly desirous of selling the offspring of their own slaves into the new western territories opened up by the Louisiana Purchase, without competition from abroad.

Similar opportunistic arguments against the trans-Atlantic slave trade developed in France around the time of the revolution in Haiti, which culminated in Toussaint’s coming to power in 1803, as documented in detail in “The Black Jacobins” by CLR James. These legislators purportedly opposed slavery on philosophical grounds, but in actuality many became opponents of slavery in competition with England for colonies and trade.

The slaveowners weighted vote was responsible for the fact that “ten of the pre-Civil War presidents were slave owners themselves, and two of the postwar presidents had owned slaves earlier — Johnson and Grant. That means that over a quarter of the presidents in our history were slaveholders,” Wills writes. “Even those who were not Southerners had to temporize with the South. Northerners or westerners like Van Buren, Tyler, Polk, Clay, and Buchanan helped draft the gag laws protecting slavery in the District. Tyler added a slave Texas, and Polk waged the war for slave territory taken from Mexico. It was a Northerner who constructed the North-South alliance that protected slavery for decades. In the words of Leonard Richards: ‘Many scholars have long suspected that Van Buren and his colleagues purposely fashioned the Jackson coalition so that it protected slavery and southern interests.’ Buchanan worked behind the scenes to keep Dred Scott a slave. Even John Quincy Adams had to settle for a Southern cabinet, led by the slaveholding Clay, to deal with a Jacksonian Congress.”

There’s a lot more to Wills’ argument. He concludes: The silence over the truth about Jefferson and slavery “has defended the Confederate battle flag as untainted by slavery. And it has kept the image of Jefferson relatively unclouded by the things he did to promote and protect and expand the slave power.”

Despite the philosophical virtues of Jeffersonian democracy prized by Greens and other activists today (such as the romanticization of early American agrarian culture) — Jeffersonian democracy often gets counterposed to Marxist analysis of capitalism within our activist circles — the over-arching historical significance of racial slavery in Jefferson’s framework, his role in protecting and promoting it and its legacy shape much of what we’re facing today: The reason why agricultural workers and restaurant workers are not afforded the right to unionize under the National Labor Relations Act; the collaboration of the Democratic Party in voting for and passing the USA Patriot Act, NAFTA/GATT/WTO; the mass transference of wealth from the working class and the poor to the corporate execs and millionaires — all have their roots in the collaboration of the so-called liberal North with the southern slavocracy defended by Jefferson.

Meanwhile, the installation of huge prisons in sparsely populated rural areas today serves a similar function as the 3/5ths weighted vote served for the first hundred years of this country’s existence. Annelle Williams points out that “though it has not been talked about, a similar issue of ‘counting slaves’ is central to the re-districting issue in Texas. The 13th Amendment did not do away with with slavery but only transferred the right to own/hold slaves from private citizens to the State. Prison labor is ‘outsourced’ in more than 33 states, the vast majority without pay and if pay is involved, like California, it is minuscule. Prisons in Texas have been built in rural, and in many instances Republican areas. They have brought industry jobs to the people (prisons support many layers of these cities/counties). For census purposes, prisoners are counted in the cities/counties in which they are incarcerated not the cities where they are from. Similarly, they can not vote or have their views expressed or represented by themselves. Prisoners are being counted to impact federal and state funding to areas, redesign districts, thereby impacting electoral politics for the state legislatures and congressional representatives. There is not a provision in the Constittution for a reduction by percentage in representation, etc. for those who cannot vote and have been convicted of a crime. With the large and ever-increasing numbers of persons being incarcerated, we not only have prison labor as slave labor, but also the alarming prisonization of Americans, with prisoners being counted without represenation. The long range implications of political, social, and economic, cultural viability of Black and Brown communities is cause for concern,” increasing the power of the legislators from those areas against the will of those behind the walls of the modern-day plantation, who are counted nevertheless as one basis for their representation.

There are many terrific things about Jefferson, much in his vision of real democracy that can be useful today. But … BUT (!!!) … Gary Wills’ takedown of the great man on the question of slavery and his role in promoting it (and the need for 2 centuries of cover-ups about it) is bracing, to say the least. It’s no wonder we’re not taught any of that in school, for we might then develop alternative frameworks for transforming society at its very roots.

MITCHEL COHEN is the co-editor of Green Politix, the national newspaper of the Greens/Green Party USA. He organizes with the Brooklyn Greens, and with the No Spray Coalition. He can be reached at:


Mitchel Cohen is Coordinator of the No Spray Coalition in New York City. He can be reached at: