Garry Wills: I Am Astounded!

Roundup: Talking About History

Garry Wills, in a letter to the NYT (Dec. 27, 2003):

I am astounded that Gordon Wood, reviewing my '' 'Negro President' '' (Dec. 14), can defend slavery -- which is what defending the three-fifths clause in the Constitution amounts to. Wood says that the fact that slaves were counted but could not vote is ''irrelevant'' because free women and children were also counted but could not vote. This is like saying that the fact that trains carried Jews to death camps is irrelevant because trains carried passengers to other destinations as well. The different goals determine our evaluation of the trips.

In the same way, the different aims in counting slaves and in counting white families are the test of their ''relevance.'' In the sexist 18th century, men voted for their wives, but they consulted the interests of their wives. They used the slave count, on the contrary, against slaves in bill after bill. A Northerner had one vote for the House of Representatives, for himself and his family. Pierce Butler in South Carolina had one vote for himself and his family, and added 600 votes to his district because he owned a thousand slaves. Extra votes like his -- giving the South a third more representatives in Congress than its white population merited -- were the margin of difference in passing laws that extended slavery into new districts, in passing the gag laws that prevented Congress from even discussing abolition, and in determining the caucus nomination of candidates friendly to slavery. That was hardly ''irrelevant.''

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Van L. Hayhow - 1/3/2004

I really enjoyed Lincoln at Gettysburg, but this short note by Wills doesn't make a lot of sense to me. I agree he completely mistates Woods position.

Robert Entenmann - 1/3/2004

Although I greatly admire Garry Wills' work, this response disappoints me. Wood understates the importance of the three fifths clause, to be sure, but he certainly doesn't defend it. And it's absolutely absurd to say that he defends slavery. Wills should be more gracious in responding to reviewers, even when they may be wrong.