Founding sinners

While Thomas Jefferson never freed his slaves, George Washington did, despite his wife's wishes. Historians are finally coming to terms with America's oldest wound.

Published November 25, 2003 8:42PM (EST)

"How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negros?" said Samuel Johnson, no fan of the American Revolution. The legitimate question behind the jeer has never gone away, mostly because Americans have long avoided answering it. As Garry Wills writes in his new book, "Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power," "Through much of our history Americans have shied away from slavery as too divisive or hot an issue, leading to a great national amnesia about its impact and reach." This means not that Americans have literally pretended that slavery never happened, but that our historians have traditionally avoided asking what slavery really was and what it tells us about our past. That "great national amnesia," however, is coming to an end.

For many decades, American history engaged in the secular canonization of the Founding Fathers. (Sometimes the canonization has been not so secular; defenders of Judge Roy Moore's Ten Commandments monument cite the religiosity of the nation's founders, seemingly unaware that many of them -- Jefferson, for example -- were deists, or proto-Unitarians, and arguably not Christians.) Making saints of liberty out of men who were, after all, only human didn't just gloss over the inconvenient truth that Jefferson, James Madison, Patrick Henry, John Marshall, James Monroe and -- most revered of all -- George Washington were slave owners, but also egged on iconoclasts to tear down the idols of previous generations. And so, to bookend earlier hagiographies of Jefferson, we have essays like Conor Cruise O'Brien's 1996 portrait, "Thomas Jefferson: Radical and Racist," a furious indictment of the third U.S. president.

Replacing the semi-deified vision of Jefferson with the image of a white supremacist hypocrite, while an understandably angry reaction to discovering some of Jefferson's disgraceful ideas about and actions toward African-Americans, is just that: a reaction. It breeds counterreaction, more excessive glorification of Jefferson and excuses for his failings, and in turn more indignation. Serious debate about the nation's formative years descends to the level of Sunday morning political talk shows.

So Wills' book, along with Henry Wiencek's "An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves and the Creation of America," are most welcome. They represent a trend in American history that is, in Wills' words, "finally coming to grips with the vast octopus that was slavery, with the tentacles it spread through every part of our nation and its political life." Both authors admire their subjects. Wills has devoted a goodly portion of his career to praising Jefferson; "His labors to guarantee freedom of religion would in themselves be enough to maintain his place in my private pantheon," he writes. And Wills insists that he does not mean for "Negro President" to "join an unfortunate recent trend toward Jefferson bashing."

Yet neither Wills nor Wiencek flinches from scrutinizing the moral compromises made by the great men they study, and those compromises were often grotesque. "Negro President" takes as its central idea the assertion that Jefferson would not have won the 1800 presidential election without the Electoral College votes provided by the "three-fifths clause" in the Constitution, and that Jefferson knew this all too well. (The clause counted each slave as three-fifths of a person in apportioning representation to each state.) "Negro President" goes on to offer a vigorous critique of Jefferson's inglorious efforts to preserve and extend slavery.

For his part, Wiencek tries to pin down the moral evolution of George Washington. The stately Virginian -- more worshipped in his day than any other leader of the Revolution -- went from a man who could participate in the raffling off of a debtor's slaves (thereby arbitrarily tearing apart families) to become the only Founding Father who posthumously freed all of his slaves.

Yet these two books couldn't be more different. Wills is an old-fashioned historian in focus and voice if not always in his ideas; "Negro President" concerns itself with intrigues and maneuvering on the highest levels. It sets Jefferson against a Massachusetts native, Timothy Pickering, who was one of slavery's staunchest foes, and dissects the shaking out of diplomatic, electoral and constitutional conflicts between the two men with so much detail and familiarity that the general reader must struggle to keep up.

Wiencek's is the more emotional and intimate book, and this makes it a fine example of another new approach to America's past. Wiencek started out as a popular historian of great old houses. He wrote National Geographic and Smithsonian Guides, essentially guidebooks and coffee-table volumes. While not the kind of work that leads to Guggenheim and MacArthur grants, researching such books rousts a scholar out of Ivy League university libraries. It means driving around the countryside where history actually happened and meeting the descendants and neighbors of the people who built and inhabited those great houses. This led in turn to Wiencek's National Book Critics' Circle Award winner, "The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White," the story of a planter who willed his entire estate to his daughter by a slave woman, and the white family members who claimed for generations that he was insane.

So, when Wiencek writes that "the history of slavery is in large part the history of families," he knows whereof he speaks. When he continues, "the recovery of that history has become today, most powerfully, the work of white and black families trying to piece together their history and understand themselves," he gives credit to a category of amateur historians and genealogists whose most visible members are the descendants of Sally Hemings, a slave who DNA tests show almost certainly gave birth to at least one child by Jefferson. (Her family had been claiming as much for years.)

Wiencek's own family doesn't enter into "An Imperfect God," but he's the kind of writer who attends reunions where the black descendants of Southern plantation owners are finally being invited to mingle with their white kin. He is a hands-on historian in more ways than one. After gathering figures about the workload required of Mount Vernon's slaves from Washington's diaries and wondering just how hard their duties were, Wiencek heads off to Mount Vernon itself to put in a day's work at the model farm there, using period tools.

This kind of history isn't better than Wills' painstaking study of the records of the Federal Convention of 1787 or the letters and other papers of nearly forgotten figures like Pickering, just different. It creates a fuller picture of the Founding Fathers and, as important, a more immediate sense of the connection between their times and ours. Wiencek's down-to-earth techniques expand our range of feeling about the past and make it real. In "Negro President," slavery is a moral issue to get outraged about; in "An Imperfect God," it's a rotten taste in your mouth, something to gag on.

Ordinary Americans get this visceral sense of slavery's atrocity in "living history" museums like Colonial Williamsburg, where they can see interpreters acting out the parts of 17th century Williamsburg residents. "An Imperfect God" features a short history of the site's tricky relationship to the truth about Williamsburg. When the site was first restored and established as a living history site in the 1930s, Americans jangled by modernity sought "a historical refuge, a place of repose" in its idealized portrait of noble, gracious life in the old South. (A visitor in the '40s objected indignantly when a guide suggested that Jefferson might have "made merry" in the local tavern.) But, as Wiencek puts it, "the yearning for a history that 'makes sense' has collided with actual historical reality. Slavery wrecks the simple heroic narrative of the Founding."

Today, Colonial Williamsburg and Mount Vernon itself have become places where Americans confront slavery head-on. (Many of these sites expanded their depictions of slaves' lives in response to requests from members of the public, black and white.) Wiencek describes one scene in which site visitors, observing a secret meeting of "slaves" planning an escape, attempted to organize a violent defense when a "slave patrol" made up of white interpreters descended on the conspirators. A year after visiting the park, a 9-year-old Colorado boy was still asking his family to return to Williamsburg because he wanted to help one of the "slaves" escape.

When contemporary Americans witness slavery "on the ground," their reflexive impulse, even when they know they're seeing a performance, is to intervene, to say this will not stand. Surely the Founding Fathers, who saw slavery in its far uglier reality -- the harsh conditions, the brutal beatings and maimings, the children ripped from their mothers' arms, the constant and pervasive degradation designed to smother any inclination toward rebellion -- must have felt something similar.

Some have argued that it's unfair to impose contemporary values on people who lived in what was essentially another culture. But the truth is that all of the Founding Fathers knew that owning slaves was wrong, and the slaveholders among them did it anyway. To oppose it uncategorically was to risk the integrity of the union and beggar their own families. Much is made of Jefferson's torments over the matter; he was too intelligent not to see the glaring hypocrisy in his proclaiming that "all men are created equal" while holding fellow human beings as chattel.

The historian Edmund Morgan has advanced the argument that it was slavery itself that made the ideology of the Revolution possible. In England, the restless white working class so frightened their rulers that they clung even harder to the idea of innate social hierarchies. Only an elite presiding over a thoroughly subjected population of laborers, Morgan maintains, could have felt secure enough to develop a doctrine of human rights.

Nevertheless, some American slaveholders did dare to dream of emancipation. Wiencek describes the efforts of John Laurens, scion of a family of South Carolina slave traders, to refresh the understaffed Continental Army with slave soldiers who would earn their freedom by fighting the British. (The Loyalists themselves were offering freedom to escaped slaves who fought on their side.) He had little success; even slaveholders troubled by the institution (Jefferson and Washington, for two) feared angering powerful Southern plantation owners whose wealth depended on slave labor, and everyone knew that allowing communities of free blacks to flourish in the vicinity of slaves would inspire escapes and possibly revolt.

Yet one of the Founding Fathers did eventually act on his desire to "liberate a certain species of property which I possess, very repugnantly to my own feelings": Washington. Although adored in his own time, Washington doesn't stir the contemporary imagination the way the brilliant, mercurial, complicated and multitalented Jefferson does. Even his military abilities have lost much of their luster, and his successes are attributed more to his peculiar charisma. In his latest insouciant historical riff, "Inventing a Nation," Gore Vidal writes that the Revolutionary War was fought so poorly that "in the end, only Washington's majestic presence held the Army together."

Although Washington resisted Laurens' scheme for manumission through military service, he does seem to have arrived at a plan for freeing his own slaves during his lifetime, perhaps even during his presidency, when he would have set a great example. Wiencek believes that Washington held back from doing so because of his family, specifically his wife, Martha. In one of the low points of his presidential career, when Martha's personal maid, Ona Judge, escaped to New England, Washington tried to secure her discreet return. Wiencek believes that a vindictive Martha insisted on this, "enraged at the disloyalty of the young woman" and seemingly indifferent to the damage that would be done to her husband's reputation if he were known to be offering a reward for the capture of a slave.

Martha, astonishingly enough, considered runaways like Judge to be examples of the "ungratatude" of blacks in general. If she was typical of his family, Wiencek's idea that Washington refrained from freeing his slaves to avoid his relatives' wrath seems reasonable. Martha clearly did not feel her husband's repugnance toward slavery and seems to have bought into several myths of the institution, too. "She expected her slaves to love her," Wiencek writes, "an illusion her husband did not share."

Washington owned outright only 123 of Mount Vernon's 316 slaves. The others were inherited by Martha from her first husband and entailed on her heirs, Washington's stepchildren. But the slaves had intermarried and created families together, entangling the two groups. To free Washington's 123 and set them up as tenant farmers (his initial plan) while keeping the rest in bondage was a recipe for domestic trouble for which Washington had no stomach. He left it to his (strongly worded) will to force the change. (Washington stipulated that they be freed after Martha's death, but she emancipated them early, fearing they would kill her to speed up the process.)

Wiencek's attempt to trace just how Washington reached the point of contemplating such a radical act runs into some obstacles: Unlike Jefferson, the first president left very little record of his inner life. Jefferson captures our imagination today because surviving documents give us more access to his interior. He could believe in both the dignity of man and the inferiority of blacks, and on top of that very likely fathered children in an interracial relationship whose true nature we will never know. We can conceive of him as a great character, racked by his own contradictions: a writer, an artist, a philosopher.

Washington was, by temperament and his own account, a farmer. He didn't especially like being president and fled to Mount Vernon whenever possible. "I think," he wrote in a rare effusion of emotion, "that the life of a Husbandman of all others is the most delectable. It is honorable -- It is amusing -- and with Judicious management, it is profitable ... The more I am acquainted with agricultural affairs the better I am pleased with them. I can nowhere find so great satisfaction as in those innocent and useful pursuits. In indulging these feelings, I am led to reflect how ... delightful to an undebauched mind is the task of making improvements on the earth."

Furthermore, Washington was a man of discipline and deliberation, who patterned himself, like many patriots of the Revolution, after the Roman statesman Cato, as depicted in Addison's eponymous play. Today, the neoclassical ideal of self-control that Cato embodies might seem unromantic and even cold-blooded compared with Jefferson's stormy wrestlings with his conscience. Even Vidal, who loves Washington, describes him as "slow." His genius, if he even had one, did not come in flashes.

But if Washington's reason ground slow like the proverbial mill of God, it ground exceedingly fine. Wiencek collects a series of experiences -- the lottery, an auction or two, the presence of Martha's half-sister among the slaves she brought to Mount Vernon -- and floats them as elements that contributed to Washington's change of heart and mind. It's also possible that the man thought long and hard about his beliefs and morality, all the principles for which he risked his life in leading the Revolution, and in the end determined that slavery could not be accommodated among them. It did not fit, it could not be made to fit, and so it would have to go. Consistency has been called the hobgoblin of small minds but in this case it was the spur of a great one.

It would take the rest of the nation another 50 years to realize that Washington was right, that slavery could not be made to fit into any version of the American dream. Then we spent another 100 years pretending it was no more than a transitory blemish on that dream, one that had been entirely wiped away. A new generation of historians is showing us that the evil was deep-rooted and not so easily removed. Sometimes the patience, thoroughness and long view of a master farmer is required for "the task of making improvements on the earth."

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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