Tom O'Brien

There are two schools of American history. Oneconservative, nationalistic, mythmakingcelebrates America as the city on the hill, a land of liberty and escape from European tyranny. The otherradical, iconoclastic, demythologizingviews the United States as the last global empire and laments its oppression of all non-Europeans enslaved or enticed to come here. When founders such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are discussed, the contrast of the two schools becomes stark; they are seen either as great men or hypocrites.

Roger Wilkins has a new take: what if, he asks, they were both? Wilkins, a longtime civil rights and antiapartheid activist and assistant attorney general during the Johnson administration, is a black professor of history at George Mason University. His preference for bothas opposed to either/oris profoundly important in several ways.

First, in its narrow focus, his book is an elegantly written, cogent study of the contrast between principles of American egalitarianism and the sociological limits many of its founding brothers placed on itwhether by belief or necessity.

Wilkins’s book is also personal, in part a meditation on his ancestors and in part an explanation of how he can love a country that enslaved them and teach at a school named after a slaveholder. His explanation is brief, but subtle: if the principles the founders espoused were greater than their defects, Wilkins reasons, their heritage is worth preserving and their names worth honoring, even if in a qualified way. America deserves his loyalty, he says, because its foundational principles proved stronger over time than the slaveholding doctrine that injured his ancestors, many of whom he brings alive in these pages.

All the white Virginians whom Wilkins studies were slaveholders, although none were fiercely in favor of the peculiar institution (as opposed to many in Georgia and South Carolina). Most wanted to modify America’s reliance on slaveholding, or at least international slave trading, during the debates over the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. However, none would risk disunion over it. The main thing on their minds, Wilkins says, was to win the revolutionary war and start a country. Moreover, although in varying degrees they disliked slavery, each was wealthy because of it.

Wilkins focuses not just on the usual suspects like Washington and Jefferson, but also on James Madison and on George Mason, who might be called the grandfather of the country. Older than the others, he mentored them in their love of liberty and limited but growing understanding of human rights. Jefferson was the dreamer whose words set the world on fire, yet whose earliest memory (hence the book’s title and general metaphor for privilege) was being carried as an infant on a soft pillow by a slave. Washington, perhaps the richest man in America in 1776, had a huge plantation filled with workers whom he would not sell out of their families and who were emancipated in his will, but whose labor, during his lifetime, Wilkins says, he stole. Madison, not happily but without loud complaint, accepted Article I, Section III of the original Constitution, which declared a slave three-fifths of a man (one always wonders why this didn’t assure slaves at least three-fifths of their rights, which would have meant a vast improvement in their lives).

There is a great gulf fixed between three-fifths of a man and all men are created equal. To explain this in part, Wilkins uses Mason’s writings to explore the English philosophical context that the colonists inherited and refined. Reaching back to 17th-century Cromwellians, John Locke and others, he illuminates the ideological and socioeconomic conditions that made a Virginian’s love of freedom not just compatible with slavery, but materially and psychologically dependent on it. For Mason the legal reasoner, the concepts of property and citizenship were linked. Citizenship depended on property; people without property had fewer rights; people who were property had none.

Wilkins also shows how, frequently, these formulations troubled Mason and the others; they were, at last, more than legal reasoners. They were men with eyes and ears, and in Jefferson’s case, hormones and maybe even affection; they saw common humanity even as they semantically denied it. Hence, their many signs of guilt; hence their sporadic good deeds to individual slaves; hence their misgivings about the practice of slavery.

The book is short but never boring, and the last chapter soars. There Wilkins shows we have options besides hagiography or damnation of bygone American heroeschoices besides excusing great men’s misdeeds because everyone did it or, on the other hand, condemning them by applying present-day standards. Of Jefferson, 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.

Such synthetic judgments underscore the ultimate value of this book. Wilkins’s approach to historical figures illustrates how the problem in so many of the recent culture or history wars is not a matter of fact or knowledge. We know the virtues of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass now and the vices of the founders. Everybody has the same facts. The issue is not even, exactly, a matter of interpretation. It’s a matter of logic and, so to speak, intellectual syntax. Whatever their command of facts, historiansespecially when shanghaied by academic trendsare just as capable as the mass public of putting complex facts only in simple sentences. The founders were slaveholders! End of story. But what if historywhat if truthinvolves thinking and writing in compound and even complex sentences? What if it isn’t either/or, but both?

Besides his other merits, Wilkins has excellent taste in television, and connects his fascination with Washington to the 1999 A&E film Washington’s Crossingabout the best production of any kind dealing with the Revolution. Washington willed America into winning that war, Wilkins says the film shows; everything collapses without Washington.

On the other hand, without slavery’s pillow, there is no Washington; without slavery, there is no United States. On the third hand, without Americaas the labor radical, early abolitionist and utopian poet William Blake wrotethe earth would have lost something of the infinite. Wilkins’s achievement is to hold all this in balance; he echoes both Let us now praise famous men and there is no one righteous, no, not one. In so arguing, Wilkins goes far beyond the debates about data and factual knowledge that dominate so much current discourse about history. What this book articulates is wisdom.

Tom O'Brien, formerly at the National Endowment for the Humanities, is managing editor of Arts Education Policy Review in Washington, D.C.