J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Wills takes on Pickering taking on Jefferson

Garry Wills is one of my favorite writers on American history, though I can't keep possibly up with his output. The latest I've read is Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power, which focuses on arguments in the early republic over the effects of the "three-fifths compromise" in the Constitution. The "slave power" of the title is the disproportionate influence in the House and the Electoral College for voters from slaveholding areas, created by that constitutional provision.

Wills wrote about Jefferson before in Inventing America, a phrase-by-phrase parsing of the Virginian's draft of the Declaration of Independence against the background of the Scottish Englightenment. (Never heard of Francis Hutcheson? You will have by the end of this book.) Inventing America also took a swipe at Fawn M. Brodie's biography of Thomas Jefferson, drawing on Wills's critical review in the New York Review of Books. Brodie had made the first historical attempt to amass and judge evidence that Jefferson fathered children with his enslaved servant Sally Hemings; although she relied too much on psychoanalytical arguments, her basic conclusions have been borne out by new evidence and fairer examination of the old. Early criticism (including Wills's) now looks like knee-jerk dismissals resting on double standards. In some ways Negro President, with its emphasis on slavery in Jefferson's thought, appears to be penance for that earlier misjudgment.

Negro President isn't really about Jefferson, however, despite his picture on the cover and his name in the subtitle. Jefferson did succeed through and defend the "slave power," and he did usually compromise his beliefs in liberty when enslaved blacks were concerned. But Jefferson worked in too much in secrecy or denial on that issue for his words to drive this inquiry.

Instead, the main "protagonist" of this history, the man whom Wills follows as he expresses his ideas and tries to change the status quo, is a vocal opponent of the "slave power," Timothy Pickering. Some historians reviewing the book thought this was a weakness. For over a century historians have treated Pickering as intemperate, conspiratorial, and unlikable—which makes one wonder how he ever got to be Secretary of State when that was the second most powerful position in America.

But the book also makes one wonder how many Americans Pickering spoke for on the slavery issue. Wills devotes pages to explaining the arguments of Pickering and his Congressional allies, only to reveal that they lost votes by huge margins. It's also unclear how much he supported Abolitionism for its own sake and how much because it was an argument against the Jeffersonians. Does Pickering deserve more respect that historians have given him (like the long-dismissed Madison Hemings)? Or did he just happen to be right on one issue (by our modern standards), which is the one issue Wills wants to discuss?

I know Pickering primarily as head of the Essex County militia at the outbreak of the Revolution, squabbling with the Derby brothers of Salem over how strongly they should defy the royal governor. Pickering's account of their arguments on 19 April 1775 is in his papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Based on what I've read before, my prejudice has been to see him as unreliable. But Wills's treatment, even if it's not fully convincing, has made me give Pickering's view of the world a second thought.


Joshua said...

I just read this book myself. I had a number of quarrels with it, but over all I enjoyed Wills's not-entirely successful attempt to rejuvenate interest in Pickering. By I couldn't help but pull out Elkins and McKitrick's "The Age of Federalism" and see what they had to say about the man. Their character sketch ends with, "The famous portrait of Pickering by Charles Wilson Peale is . . . somewhat Puritan-like. But the one by Gilbert Stuart . . . makes him look almost Satanic."

More interestingly though, apropos your post, is the issue of how Pickering ended up Secretary of State. Even Wills, who admires him, would have to admit he was never born to be a diplomat. Elkins and McKitrick tell it this way: Washington (who well knew Pickering's limits) gave the job to Pickering only on a temporary basis, until a more suitable Secretary could be found. Unfortunately, everyone Washington asked to take the job said no and Pickering was able to keep control over State until Adams finally dismissed him.

J. L. Bell said...

I haven't read a lot of Pickering, but it looks like he was a good administrator: as a prewar official and militia officer, as an organizational officer in the Continental Army, as an organizer of the Society of the Cincinnati, and so on. So it makes sense for Washington to turn to him to run part of the federal government under guidance.

Pickering seems to have been much less successful in convincing other people to do what he thought was right, and in making policy that took other people's desires into account. As you say, not a born diplomat.