The Negro President

Garry Wills has a fascinating article in The New York Review of Books on “the protection and extension of slavery through the three-fifths clause in the Constitution.”

Though aware of the clause of course, I had never really thought about how it skewed elections. If you owned slaves, you had your vote and three more for every five slaves you owned. As Wills states, “It was with the help of that clause that Jefferson won the presidential election in 1800.” Wills quotes the historian Leonard Richards:

In the sixty-two years between Washington’s election and the Compromise of 1850, for example, slaveholders controlled the presidency for fifty years, the Speaker’s chair for forty-one years, and the chairmanship of House Ways and Means [the most important committee] for forty-two years. The only men to be reelected president —Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Jackson—were all slaveholders. The men who sat in the Speaker’s chair the longest—Henry Clay, Andrew Stevenson, and Nathaniel Macon—were slaveholders. Eighteen out of thirty-one Supreme Court justices were slaveholders.

In all, an engrossing analysis typical of Wills.