cover image "NEGRO PRESIDENT": Jefferson and the Slave Power

"NEGRO PRESIDENT": Jefferson and the Slave Power

Garry Wills, . . Houghton Mifflin, $25 (274pp) ISBN 978-0-618-34398-0

While Pulitzer-winner Wills (Lincoln at Gettysburg, etc.) rarely writes a book without a distinctive take on its subject, in this shaggy work he's off his game. Originally a set of lectures, this book is only loosely stitched together. Its author is typically combative, but he doesn't stay on subject long, writing instead about what suddenly strikes him. Not that the work doesn't show Wills's characteristic keen intelligence. He bears down hard, for example, on the permeating consequences of the Constitution's three-fifths clause for pre–Civil War history and raises tough questions about conventional accounts of Jefferson's election in 1800 (which depended partly on the "slave vote") and the selection of a site for the capital in slave-holding country. But he never lingers long on what the book purports to be about—Jefferson's determination to preserve slavery and the South's power in the U.S.—nor does it add much to what we already know and think about Jefferson's agonizing, often hypocritical, struggle with race and slavery. Much of what Wills writes about the hold of slave power on the nation has been written before and more extensively by others. What's freshest is his effort to rehabilitate one of Jefferson's arch-opponents, Federalist Timothy Pickering, an attractive if flawed second-rank character of the early nation. Pickering hated slavery and helped lay the groundwork for later abolitionism. But Wills uses him tendentiously as a foil to Jefferson and never brings him fully to life. So what's the book about? About many fascinating issues surrounding the influence of slavery in the U.S. between 1790 and 1848. But don't look here for coherence and sustained history. Agent, Andrew Wylie. (Nov. 1)