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Newsday, 7 December 2003

AN IMPERFECT GOD: George Washington, His Slaves and the Creation of America, by Henry Wiencek. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 404 pp. 

"NEGRO PRESIDENT": Jefferson and the Slave Power, by Garry Wills. Houghton Mifflin, 274 pp.


There are two easy ways of dealing with the fact that many of the founding fathers were slave owners. One is to ignore the topic entirely, as generations of schoolteachers did, or to change the subject just as soon as it is convenient to do so. Why linger on the past? After all, this is a country in which saying "that's history" is an argument- stopping gesture indicating complete irrelevance.

The other method is to be cynical, treating the whole crew as a bunch of hypocrites and hustlers -- their talk of freedom in the Continental Congress being as empty and self-serving as that of any gasbag addressing the camera on C-SPAN today. Everyone in public life is a crook. And 'twas ever thus.

The line between indifference and sneering smugness is very thin. Either response allows us to forget -- assuming we ever remembered -- just how extreme were the values implied by the Declaration of Independence. The American revolutionaries claimed that any political order derived its legitimacy from a dimension of primordial equality built into human existence.

The men who endorsed this movement put more than their John Hancocks on the line. They faced death. They tore themselves out of a familiar pattern of life in order to create new institutions -- always a risky venture, to put it mildly. And in allowing slavery to continue, they betrayed the revolution, as some of them recognized from the very beginning. The Declaration of Independence stunned some early Americans, including a close friend of George Washington's. "He thought that it meant the slaves had to be freed," Henry Wiencek writes in An Imperfect God; "he read the document and could see no other interpretation of it."

Wiencek's portrait of Washington and Garry Wills' new book on Jefferson, "Negro President," are remarkable for their willingness to confront the founding fathers on their own terms, which is by no means the same thing as giving them alibis. Each volume has its blemishes, some of them very irritating  indeed. But they are serious books, avoiding the cheap sentiments of blind reverence or self-aggrandizing contempt.

Wiencek begins his exploration of Washington's relation to slavery with an account of the president's final will, which freed all of his human "property." It did so in terms that were as explicit, and as binding on his family, as legal language could make them. This reveals not only a firm resolve on Washington's part, but an awareness that his heirs would otherwise try to violate his intent. How did he reach the decision to release his slaves after a lifetime of accepting the old arrangement? Indeed, for a gentleman-farmer like Washington, slavery was not only a fact of economic life but something woven into the very fabric of identity, for one's sense of honor involved knowing how to "handle" one's slaves.

The difficulty Wiencek faces in answering this question is huge. Washington was not, by nature, an introspective person. His contemporaries found him hard to read in person. The same could be said of his diaries, which are remarkably dull.

Yet there are intimate connections between that cold demeanor and the social system of colonial America. Wiencek chronicles the routines of buying and selling slaves, of working them in the fields and of hunting them down when they escaped, as often happened. An old joke has it that Washington is unsmiling in the famous portrait because of his dentures -- which becomes distinctly less hilarious upon learning from Wiencek that the teeth in one set came from a slave.

No professional historian would devote page after page, as Wiencek does, to narrating scenes from contemporary re-enactments in a colonial theme park. But he deserves credit for avoiding the temptation to find a single moment of dramatic change, when Washington went from ordinary slave owner to the man who, in 1794, referred to "a certain species of property which I possess, very repugnantly to my own feelings."

The process was not sudden, but it went deep. One factor was the disappointment of his Revolutionary War comrade, the Marquis de Lafayette, who said, "I would never have drawn my sword in the cause of America, if I could have conceived that thereby I was founding a land of slavery." Wiencek also suggests, very plausibly, that Washington began to see the very existence of slavery as corrupting the virtues required for a republic. His fellow Virginians were turning, as Washington put it, "imperious and dissipated from the habit of commanding slaves and living in a measure without control."

The title of Garry Wills' book seems, at first, as if it might be an allusion to the kind of thing Washington worried about. After all, calling Jefferson a "Negro President" brings to mind the fact that the rumors of his affair with Sally Hemings were circulating even while he was in office. (Five years ago, DNA testing linked Hemings' descendents to those of Jefferson.) But the title is misleading - deliberately so, I think. For Wills wants to short-circuit our tendency to dwell on the private and prurient dimension of Jefferson's relationship to slavery.

Jefferson was a "Negro President," as the pundits of the day called him, because he was elected in 1800 due to the weight of the Southern states in the Electoral College. Thanks to the terms written into the Constitution following the "Great Compromise" of 1787, states were afforded seats in the House of Representatives according to population, with slaves counting as three-fifths of a person.

Wills traces the wrangling that went into the formulation of this convoluted political math. Not only did this arrangement allow slavery to continue -- thus making the new political order a travesty of legitimate government, by the terms of the Declaration of Independence -- but it also meant that disproportionate influence would be given to the slaveholders. A man who owned 100 slaves enjoyed the same degree of representation in Congress as 60 freeborn citizens did in a Northern state.

Jefferson himself makes only intermittent appearances in the book, which appears to be the prologue to a forthcoming work by Wills that will be much more explicitly focused on the president himself. Far more attention goes to Timothy Pickering, a testy but altogether admirable figure who denounced Jefferson's compromises with "the slave power" in no uncertain terms.

Wills is seldom a graceful writer. His book has the forensic brilliance of a really good legal brief. But it is an impressive reminder of how the first modern experiment in representative democracy failed -- thus requiring a second and far bloodier American revolution, more often called the Civil War.