Jefferson’s Pillow by Roger Wilkins

I loved this book. Wilkins, an Afro-American historian at Virginia’s George Mason University, looks back at the achievements of four Virginian founding fathers – George Mason, George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson – in light of their inability to divest themselves of slaves or even push for the abolition of slavery, all the while touting the virtues of liberty.

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Rather than adhering to a dry academic approach, Wilkins welcomes you into his own world to share with you his private thoughts and his personal history as well as his insightful analyses. His descriptions of the complexities of the Founders are masterful.

George Mason, he observes, “ruled as a sovereign over an estate that depended, in virtually all respects, upon the perpetual subordination of the people whose freedom, labor, hope, and natural rights he was stealing.” Slaves were even required to kneel when they spoke to him. Yet Mason was a staunch abolitionist.

Washington, who decreed that his slaves should be freed after the death of both him and his wife, “was a disciplined member of the landed gentry. The aristocrat could be haughty and distant and overly fond of pomp. He could also be worshipful of wealth and jealous of his property – including his human property.”

Madison is famous of course for favoring any compromise that would keep the South tied to the North.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Of Jefferson, Wilkins notes: “[he] was a rather dreamy and self-indulgent rural aristocrat…” His slaves “gave him the leisure to study, to reflect, and to write.” …And also, to bear additional children, who, borne by slave Sally Hemings, were among the only slaves Jefferson freed upon his death. At the time Jefferson wrote the Declaration, he owned more than one hundred slaves. Many of Jefferson’s best ideas were rephrasings of Mason’s writing, but Wilkins finds no fault with this: “He didn’t have to be original; it was the elegance of his prose, fueled by his passion, that moved human spirits and made him immortal.” Wilkins writes, “He was a dizzying mixture of searing brilliance and infuriating self-indulgence, of idealism and base racism, of soaring patriotism and myopic self-involvement. He was America writ small.”

The founding generation was obsessed with the possibility of retaliatory violence from the slaves, and for good reason. Wilkins describes the conditions of eighteenth century slaves, including his own relatives, and takes us with him on his journey to reconcile his sorrow and anger with his pride and patriotism. He charges that the myths tying American virtue to American whiteness have wrought profound psychological damage on African-Americans, which Wilkins believes must be rectified.

Wilkins also explores the addiction of privilege, and how it could have easily afflicted the Founders. They themselves were all too aware of human weaknesses, but these do not gainsay the amazing accomplishments of these men.

Evaluation: If you are seeking a better understanding of how our Founding Fathers could be so favored and so flawed, and what our country owes to the contributions of the slaves who helped build it, this book will not disappoint. Highly recommended.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Beacon Press, 2001

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