Advanced Search
Roger Wilkins
Roger Wilkins
Jefferson's Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism
ISBN: 0807009563
Jefferson's Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism
A civil rights advocate and historian reconsiders life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

As the recent fervor over the confirmation of Thomas Jefferson's black descendents demonstrates, Americans have yet to reconcile American ideals with the legacy of slavery. In Jefferson's Pillow, noted journalist, educator, and activist Roger Wilkins looks at the lives of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Mason. His admiration and discomfort with these mythic heroes compels him to reexamine his relationship to those who forged a nation in which ostensibly "all men were created equal," but whose property included African women, children, and men.

Wilkins was a determined participant in the civil rights movement, and Assistant Attorney General during the Johnson administration. His public activity emerges from the aspiration to live up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address. Carefully reflecting upon the lives of the founding fathers, Wilkins searches for the individual and institutional responses that enabled them to enjoy the fruits of slavery even as they declared to the world the inalienable rights of man. Rich in both personal and political revelation, Jefferson's Pillow reminds us not only of the long journey toward ideals set forth more than two centuries ago, but of the remarkable unifying power of shared dreams.
—from the jacket of the book

Jefferson's Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism
Program Air Date: August 12, 2001

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Roger Wilkins, where did you get the title "Jefferson's Pillow"?
PROFESSOR ROGER WILKINS, AUTHOR, "JEFFERSON'S PILLOW" The first memory that Jefferson says he ever had was of being carried on a pillow from one of his family's estates to another by a slave riding on horseback, and what I tried to do in this book was to figure out how I could understand--I, as a black human being--could understand the Revolution, considering the fact that it's told usually as something that was done by great white heroes, male heroes, and nobody else, and the--and the blacks are totally excluded--and the fact that so many of the founding heroes owned slaves. What I found in the end was that, in telling the story as it occurred, you had to connect the blacks to the whites, because the whites couldn't have been who they were without the blacks, particularly these Virginia whites. And they lived life cushioned by slavery. And so it seemed to me that "Jefferson's Pillow" was a perfect metaphor for what--the way I understood slavery to have enriched and lifted and made possible the lives of these great founders.
LAMB: When did you decide you wanted to write a book like this?
PROF. WILKINS: I think I'd been deciding it for years. There's recent research that indicates that teen-agers' brains do a lot of active formulation, ages, say, 12 to 14. And I was having a conversation with a friend of mine named Ken--Ken--Ken Krufsky right after that period, and Ken said, `Oh, of course, I'm--I'm convinced that most of what we do afterwards is related to what we're doing when we're 12 and 14.' When I was 12 years old, I was a black kid, a lone black kid in the all-white north end of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I'd just come from Harlem. My mo--my mother had just gotten remarried after having been a widow for three and a half years or so. And I'd lived in Harlem, and before that in segregated Kansas City. So all of a sudden being in a sea of white people, the age of 12 in 1944, 10 years before Brown v. Board, before the World--World War II was over and the country started to shift around as a result of war, and in the all-white north end of the city. Kids threw stones at me, `Go back where you came from,' yelled `Nigger' at me. Nobody would talk to me. They--they'd spit on my bike seat at school.

And soon that stopped, I made some friends and things were pretty good. But the--that was a very traumatic period. And being an adolescent--black adolescent in an all-white setting is also extraordinarily difficult. So I think part of me always has wanted to say, is--ask the question: Is this nation really mine? Can I really have an emotional ownership with it comparable to the kind of emotional ownership that a white kid whose family just got here, say, in 1900 seems to have? And that was the genesis.

Also, there's a--there's--there's a story that I tell in the book. Back in about 1965 when my daughter Amy, who is now quite a distinguished lobbyist for the interests of poor children here in Washington, DC, was about five or so, her mother and I took her to Mt. Vernon on a tour, and in those days there was no mention of slavery at places like Mt. Vernon and Monticello and Gunston Hall and so forth. But we ultimately came to a building called the quarters, and Amy said, `Well, what are the quarters?' And I said, `Well, it's the slave quarters. It's where the slaves lived.' And there followed one of these moments of chance utter silence in which this child's piercing voice broke through and said, `George Washington owned slaves? Well, what's so great about him, then?' So all of these things kind of combined to propel me toward this book.
LAMB: Before we get into the book, let me just ask you the basic questions about your own life. You were born where?
PROF. WILKINS: Kansas City, Missouri.
LAMB: Lived next...
PROF. WILKINS: After my father died when I was eight, we moved from Kansas City to New York, to Harlem, where we lived for three and a half years, and then my mother married my stepfather, who was a physi--physician in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and she's lived in the same house since we moved in in 1944. She still lives there. She's 94 years old.
LAMB: And you went to school where?
PROF. WILKINS: Well, Crispus Attucks Elementary School in segregated Kansas City.
LAMB: By the way, he was...
PROF. WILKINS: He was one of the heroes. He was the first black--he was the first person killed in the Revolution. He was--Crispus Attucks was a former slave, participated in the Boston Massacre and was shot during the Boston Massacre and became the first casualty of our Revolution. Then I went to PS 46 and--the elementary school, and PS 164, a junior high school, in Harlem. Then I moved to Grand Rapids, finished junior high and high school at a school called Crestin High School in north end of Grand Rapids. Then University of Michigan for seven years--seven glorious years.
LAMB: What'd you study?
PROF. WILKINS: For--political science, and then I went to law school and...
LAMB: Did you get a PhD at Michigan?
PROF. WILKINS: No, I got a law degree at Michigan.
LAMB: And then what was your first job?
PROF. WILKINS: Well, the first lawyer who ever paid me to do legal work was Thurgood Marshall in the summer between my junior and senior year in law school. And he offered me a job when I got out of school, but Thurgood was the head of the NAACP and he'd been kind of an uncle to me all my life. And then there was my real uncle, who was head of the NAACP and also on the board of the Legal Defense Fund. I figure in between these two giants I'd never figure out who I was, so I went to a private law firm and did international law and commercial litigation for about five years.
LAMB: Your uncle being Roy Wilkins.
LAMB: Your first government job was...
PROF. WILKINS: I was special assistant to the administrator of the Agency for International Developments. His name was Fowler Hamilton, a Missourian who later became a Wall Street lawyer and a great friend of Senator Stuart Symington. Fowler left the government on December 7th, 1962, and he was replaced by David Bell, who was one of Kennedy's brilliant Harvard appointees who ran AID until 1966. I left in '64, but both Fowler Hamilton and David Bell were wonderful, wonderful mentors to me.
LAMB: What was your job at the Justice Department?
PROF. WILKINS: I was--the truth is, I was the president's riot man. When I got to the Justice Department in--well, when I started doing this job in 1964 right after the Civil Rights Act of '64 was signed, there was the first of the urban eruptions, first wave--New York, both in Harlem and in Brooklyn and Rochester, New York, and a number of other places. The next summer was Watts in Los Angeles, then throughout the summers of the rest of the '60s. And I ran the community relations service, which was supposed to come in and mediate racial disputes of the old style like Birmingham in the early '60s, but we had moved past that. And essentially we became the riot flying squad, so I would visit--I was at virtually every major eruption in this country between '65 and--and those that occurred after Dr. King was murdered.
LAMB: And you were how old then?
PROF. WILKINS: Well, in '64 I was 32 years old, and when I left the government, I was--in '69 I was 37, and I always said that I went to the government when I was 30, I left when I was--I stayed for seven years and I was 50 years old when I left.
LAMB: Well, the interesting thing is, in your book, you keep talking about the ages of people like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson and all--they were not very old--I mean, that same...
PROF. WILKINS: No, that's right. That's right.
LAMB: ...age range when a lot of this--then after you got finished with your government service, what'd you do?
PROF. WILKINS: I went to the Ford Foundation and directed the foundation's largest domestic program. It was the poverty program and the labor program and the innovative city program all rolled into one.
LAMB: What years?
PROF. WILKINS: 1969 to 1972.
LAMB: Then what?
PROF. WILKINS: Then my journalist--my journalism career. My father was a writer, a journalist for a black paper in Kansas City, Missouri. He was Roy Wilkins' younger brother. And Roy also had been a journalist. And had I--had there been any jobs for black people on newspapers of general circulation in 1953 when I finished college, I would have been in journalism then. But 19 years later I wrote a piece for The Washington Post, op-ed piece, and Philly Shayman and Meg Greenfield offered me a job on their editorial page. I thought about it for a little while and, even though it meant a cut in pay, it was kind of the family business and I wanted--I kind of wanted to complete the work that my father, who had died at 35, hadn't been able to do. So I went--I worked at The Post for two years on its editorial board, then I went to The New York--and I did a lot of work on Watergate while I was there--the Watergate editorials in '72, and many of them in--in '73.

Then I went to The New York Times, where I was on the editorial board for three and a half years or so, and then wrote an urban affairs column until I left the paper in 1979. And my journalism career ended when I came back here to be--write for the Washington Star, which was a wonderful afternoon paper. And I thought Washington needed two papers and they asked if I wouldn't come and try to help it live. But it only lasted a year, and my wife and I were at a vacation and--in Aspen, Colorado, and after I'd been there a year, the editor, Murray Gart, called and woke me up and said, `Roger, we lost the paper.' I said, `I didn't leave you any memo. What paper you talking about?' `No, no, I'm saying we lost the paper.' I said, `What paper are you talk'--`The paper. Time Inc. shut us down.' So I thought, `Well, it's saying something to me. I think this is the end of my--this is--this ought to be the end of my journalism career.' So I...
LAMB: When did you start teaching at George Mason?
LAMB: What do you teach?
PROF. WILKINS: Teach history, both race law and cultural history. I also teach 20th-century political history, media and presidential politics. I also--my love is--I teach freshman honors courses where you're teaching--you're just getting young people to think about values and think about life from reading and discussing great books.
LAMB: You teach at George Mason, you write about George Mason. In this book you include him in the four white Virginians. What do you think George Mason would think if he were sitting here today and just heard your resume?
PROF. WILKINS: I think he--Mason, being a fellow who looked through time, would say, `That's a good outcome. I would have hoped that this would have happened to these people, that they could have gotten free and--and taken advantage of the country as--as black peo--as white people have done.'
LAMB: Why did you include him in the big four?
PROF. WILKINS: Because I was looking at the Revolution and the founding four, the things that affect us today, both the negative and the positive: the acquisitiveness, the materialism, the--the--the freedoms, the--the structured government, the idealism, the racism. And it seemed to me that Mason's insistence on the inclusion of a set of rights in the Constitution was--was--was--was central, and his--and his--his leverage on Madison in the--in the Virginia con--ratifying convention which forced Madison to look around for--because Madison didn't think these were needed--solutions, and then Madison, taking Jefferson's suggestion, sent over from France, that Madison promised Mason and Henry and others who were saying, `If you don't have this in--if you don't put this in the Constitution, Virginia won't ratify and that will bring this whole thing down.' Madison said, `Look, OK, I promise you this. In the first Congress we will submit a Bill of Rights. OK?' And Madison--Henry said OK, Mad--and their allies said OK.

Seemed to me that that's--that's central to who we are. The--and the other reason was that I was interested in--deeply interested in Washington, who appears to us as a--an enigma because he's cold, granite, remote. And one of the things I wanted to do was to try to figure out who these guys were before they were up on the pedestals. And one of the things that Washington--well, Washington was--is--was just a very interesting person. He learned how to be the soldier he was in the fields as a surveyor and as a young soldier, sleeping under the stars and on horseback. He didn't go to college. He didn't go to William & Mary or to...
LAMB: Who did go to William & Mary?
PROF. WILKINS: Jefferson. And--and Madison went to College of New Jersey, which is now Princeton. And Mason was self-taught, but he was taught in his uncle's law library, which was probably the most extensive private law li--library in the--in Virginia at the time. Washington was not the first and not the second son. These are important things. And he wasn't even--he was the third son, and not even by the first wife, but by the second wife. So he was not a favored child at all. He was--and looked up to his brother Lawrence, who was a friend of the famous Fairfax family. And they had grand balls and co--cotillions. And that's what young Washington aspired to: wealth and to be a dandy and to be a fancy guy at the balls.

And he started getting rich and--right fast, as fast as he could, acquiring lands, and he acquired a wife who made a--who was a widow and was the wealthiest widow in Virginia and he--acquiring more lands. And so he was well on his way to just being kind of a--a very wealthy fellow who had no other concerns. But because the slave ow--slave owning gentry was expected to take its part in governing--helping to govern the colony, he went to the--he went to the House of Burgesses as--and he was--but--and he--he got there when his older neighbor, who had known him forever, was still in the house to mentor him. So that's one of the reasons--other reasons I view Ma--Mason as--as Washington's mentor in the arts of government. So that's another reason I included him.
LAMB: George Mason's--did you say seven years older than George Washington?
PROF. WILKINS: Seven yea--he was born in 1725; Washington in 1732.
LAMB: And how old then were Madison and Jefferson as they related to George Washington?
PROF. WILKINS: Madison was the baby. He was born in--in 1751 and Jefferson in 1743.
LAMB: Of those four men, how--you say a total of 400 slaves among the four?
PROF. WILKINS: Well, the--it--I suppose if you took the times when the slave populations at their places were greatest, it would be more 'cause there was a time when Washington had at least 200 slaves, and there was a time when Jefferson is said to have had at least 200 slaves. My sense is that--that Mason probably never had more than 100 or so. And it's hard to say about Madison because he didn't--he was the only one who wasn't really a farmer. He didn't run his place. You know, these other people thought of themselves as farmers who went to the government to do these things, but they always wanted to return to be farmers. Madison had older relatives who ran his place and he--what he was, really, was a nation builder, a--a man whose whole career was--was to build the government. So he never--he never ran the plantation and he never--so I never really--Monticello--I mean Montpelier obviously had slaves, but he didn't live there that much, and so it--the number of slaves that his family owned was never in my calculations.
LAMB: We'll come back to all four of these. You spent 10 days with Nelson Mandela in this country. Why?
PROF. WILKINS: Yes. Well, the short answer was that the African National Congress wanted a non-activist host, and they selected--for Mandela's trip, and they selected Harry Belafonte.
LAMB: What year?
PROF. WILKINS: This was 1990. I had been very active in the anti-apartheid movement, one of the leaders of the Free South Africa movement. And Harry knew me from the civil rights movement, and he heard me at a meeting one day when people were discussing the Mandela trip, and there were all kinds of people there. `He's got to come to my city.' `He's got to come to my city.' And it drove me nuts. And I just said, `Look, you--you guys are wrong. This--this man is over 70 years old. He's got a job and his job is not to be our trophy. His job is to raise awareness of the struggle for South--South Africa freedom, to raise the profile of the African National conscience--Congress and to raise money. And our job is to help him do those things, and we would hope to deliver him to the airplane when he leaves in better health than he was when he came here, and that means that we don't wear him out and that we take c--good care of him.'

Well, I just thought I was speaking good sense. I left the meeting and I was called back a couple of hours later, say, `Harry's looking for you desperately,' and I got back and Harry said, `I want you to coordinate the trip.' And I s--he persuaded me to do it.
LAMB: What'd you learn from him?
PROF. WILKINS: I learned from--I learned that the force of--of discipline and character can be far larger than eloquence, than the flashy yearning for fame that we see in so many contemporary politicians, the glibness. This man--this man was--was--was received with such love in this country, I think we'll never see in our lifetimes anything like it. From Boston through the East Coast through the Midwest and the West Coast, it was all the same. Can be epitomized this way: Coming in from John F. Kennedy Airport, I looked up and there was a phalanx of policemen who were supposed to be protecting him. Instead of protecting him by looking outward, they were looking at him in the car. And some of these big, tough, hard New York policemen, who can be pretty racist when let loose, some of them--they were almost all crying. Mandela--every--and everybody, from President George H.W. Bush to the lowliest street person, wanted to see him and touch the hem. Mandela understood this. He knew this.

But he knew he had a job to do and he knew that his job was not to come and get everybody to shower him with love and kisses and cheers. He knew that his job was to do what I said, to gather support for--and that's what he got up every morning and did. And he knew--however big the American publicity machine was making him, he knew that his cause was bigger than he was, so that he maintained a surreal discipline inside this huge persona, and he kept his eye on his cause and used himself as a tool in service for that cause. And it was Mandela, and watching Mandela, that made me understand Washington. I finally said that's exactly what happened during the Revolution, because the army was the Revolution.

Without Washington, there wouldn't have been any army, because it would have melted away. If he had said, `Well, fellows, you fellows stay here at Morristown or at Valley Forge, I'm going home just for a week or so,' no army. If he had been less adroit at handling the Continental Congress, which was fractious and leaderless, in getting resources and wheedling, no army. Hence, no Revolution. Just keeping that army together for those six long years, from Cambridge in 1775 to Yorktown in 1781, was one of the greatest feats. You know, he didn't win many battles, but he kept it alive long enough for the French finally to come and be of critical assistance, and they won it.

I don't think I would ever have understood him nearly as well had I not--and they were similar guys in another sense. Although Mandela is a lawyer, his real training for leadership came on Robben Island, when he was a prisoner, where he forged this steel will of his. And Washington's wasn't a fancy education. His education was, as I said, in the saddle and under the stars. And neither man was a naturally gis--gifted orator, but it was the force of the personality, the discipline and the will to service that galvanized each of their societies. So that's what I learned from him.
LAMB: When did you go back to Ghana--or go to Ghana, and why did you go there?
PROF. WILKINS: I went to Ghana in 1994, I believe. I think I was about 62 years old. And I went as the chair of the board of the Africa-America Institute, which is the oldest and largest American--private American organization that does human resources development with and for Africans. And we had a conference in Accra of leaders from Africa and the United States discussing African problems.
LAMB: Where is Ghana?
PROF. WILKINS: Ghana's on the west coast of Africa, kind of in the Gulf of Guinea, just under that big bulge. And I had--it's important that I say to you that I was 62 years old because it was one of the moments in my life that--where I went through a crucible of identity in two ways. The first was that although I'd been in Africa many times in the past, I'd never been in Ghana before. And I saw a lot of people who looked like me, and I hadn't seen this in other--as a matter of fact, in the Ghana state guest house, I was looking--waiting for lunch one day and I looked at a painting on the wall and there was a particular field scene. I looked up, and to my amazement there was a person in the scene who looked just like my father. And I saw a young woman who looked like my daughter Amy, and another woman who looked like my Aunt Armeda, my father's sister. So I knew that I was at a place where some of my relatives had been shipped out.

And I had had these experiences before I went to the Cape Coast castle, which was one of those slave warehouse/fort/shipping dock places on the west coast of Africa, the Gulf of Guinea, which was one of those places--the big place where slaves were exported. And I had the experience, the just incredible experience of first standing in the--in the rooms where the commandant of the fort lived, big airy rooms looking out on the ocean, and the places where they had dances and balls. And we finally went downstairs to where they showed off the merchandise and hosed them off--splashed them off. And then the dungeon, and the dungeon was--was the place of--of horror because there's a little trough in the dungeon that runs down, and that was for urine. And you could imagine from that the horrors of being in there. Sometimes people were kept there for six weeks or so before a ship came; occasionally taken out and splashed off and then sent back down.

It's a dark place, and you're forced down, when you're finally extruded, through a slim door of no return into bright sunlight. And I was in this dungeon imagining ancestors of mine and other people being forced through that, people who had recently been free and just living their lives and were caught up for no reason other than the slave-gathering networks were in need of new fodder, and then being forced through this door--door of no return, usually naked so they'd be more hope--helpless, onto a stinking slave ship. And they--these places did stink because they were packed with people and human waste and everything just--and they could--it's said that the slaver could be smelled across--you know, before it c--hove into sight.

And so I was--I went through that door understanding that--that--that my--some ancestors of mine had gone through that door and through that. The question for me was then very stark. What is this idea of being an African in America, which some people say, students of mine have said. And I realized that as much as I felt about Africa, as much as I had tried to give to Africa in parts of my life, and as many African friends as I have, and--as I stood there at that door of no return and watched the ocean curve where it curved toward the Americas, that the centuries from between the time that my ancestors had been extruded through that door and taken across that ocean, the centuries have turned me into an American. I was not an African in America.

And s--my African friends didn't receive me in Africa. President Rawlings did not--when he gave me a big hug, did not hug me because I was his African brother. He hugged me 'cause he was a generous host. He knew I was a person who wanted to help and he believed that because I was an American, I had access to American resources which his country needed. So I was being welcomed as an American, not as an African brother. And I had--vaguely had worked that out in my head, but never with both the intellectual and the emotional power that hit me while I was in Accra at that moment.
LAMB: When you read your book, your head snaps throughout it because you go from this quote, "I feel a rising rage that men so distinguished and so powerful could have been so timid about using the power and the cause of freedom for blacks and justice for America," to where you call those four Virginians great men.
LAMB: And--and let me just also ask you: Do you get a lot of reaction when you say these things in your classes?
PROF. WILKINS: Yes. Yeah, I do. I think one of the advantages of writing the book when I did--and as I say in there, I am now writing--as I now write, I'm a few months older than Washington was when he died. And therefore I'm writing not only with the weights of injustice and anger and youthful hope and idealism in me, but the weight of human experience and the knowledge that people don't come in neat packages and that all of us bear, as Philip Roth might say, the human stain. And I've lived in Washington long enough to see very flawed great men. And so I--and I'm also old enough to bear the weight on my own soul of my own flaws, so that I could look at these men and see them shaped by their culture, as they were, a culture which for them to be who they were required slaves; a culture which taught them from childhood that this was their entitlement, that this is how their life was to be, just as our culture gives us certain ideas that we have to grow up with and sometimes shape us all our lives.

So, yeah, I see them as flawed men, men who in some parts of themselves knew that it was wrong to own other human beings but could not bring themselves to live slaveless lives, but who nevertheless overcame those shortcomings to do great things, because it seems to me that this country up to now has--has been a wonder for human beings, including most of us--a number of us who were born black or Native American or long-term Hispanic citizens of this country. All of us have suffered, none more surely than Native Americans, but certainly blacks in a--in--in quite a hideous way. But our op--opportunity to participate as citizens and to change the place makes it an extraordinary place, and it was these founders and their colleagues who left the foundations that made these things possible.
LAMB: At the end of their time on Earth, what did the four--each four do about their slaves? George Washington.
PROF. WILKINS: Washington, in the summer before he died, revised his will. He had come to the conclusion pers--Lafayette, his dearly beloved sort of son, gave him adoration, but he also pushed him on the issue of slavery and said, `This is wrong and you should do something about it.' Washington had no children, Washington and--and Martha, and--but he didn't own all the slaves. The--many of the slaves on--at Mt. Vernon were her slaves, and he couldn't do anything about them. They had come to her in her--when her husband--first husband had died. But he wrote a will that freed his slaves after his death--after her death.

And--and he always said near the end of his life--early on he had been a--just an ordinary, pretty tough slave owner. At the end--near the end, he wouldn't sell any slaves anymore, and he surely wouldn't sell any down to places like the West Indies. That was really a bad thing to do. But it--it made Mt. Vernon unprofitable; too many slaves, too many mouths to feed, not enough work for them. But he wouldn't sell them, because he thought that was cruel. So he really had come a long way. Well, he--he gave--he--he ultimately made provision in his will, as I said. And his wife in her will and--freed her slaves as well.
LAMB: George Mason.
PROF. WILKINS: Mason--Mason made some of those fiery anti-slavery--`I hate slavery. It makes tyrants of men, and it's detestable.' But--in one speech, `It's des--detestable. But as long as we're going to have it, there should be protection for that kind of property in our Constitution.' I mean, he was really schizophrenic about it. But he had a whole bunch of kids. He had eight or nine children, and he just willed them to his children the way he did his furniture, his horses. It was not--some of the things he said were pretty glorious. He didn't want to sign the Constitution because it extended the slave trade for 21 years. He made the most thunderous anti-slavery statement at the Constitutional Convention. `As the--as the--as the punishments of--of a nation can't be--can't be rectified in the hereafter, they must be in this, and they will cause an inevitable chain of calamities,' which--of course, that's exactly what happened.
LAMB: James Madison.
PROF. WILKINS: Madison, I think, probably was the--one of these people who was the most enlightened from the beginning and--clearly enlightened. He had a slave called Billy--named Billy, whom he took to Philadelphia with him. And Billy--Pennsylvania was a free state and Billy wanted his freedom, and Madison freed him. And he wrote his father, `I can't see denying Billy or any of these people the liberties that we have just fought to gain for ourselves.'

(Graphic on screen) For More Information Beacon Press 25 Beacon Street Boston, MA 02108
PROF. WILKINS: He was always a--a milder and a more decent guy. But as I said, his personal life didn't depend on his interaction with--with slaves. But at the end when he was back in--in Montpelier and he was very old, he--he just hated slavery but he dithered, he--he--he didn't, even at--when his young friend Edward Coles suggested to him that he do something, he didn't. And he--at the end he owned--and he--and he tried. He thought about it. But he realized that if he got rid of his slaves, that would have left his widow bankrupt. So he dithered away and the slaves passed on to his wife.
LAMB: You mentioned Edward Coles. What did he do?
PROF. WILKINS: Well, Coles was a wonderful fellow. He was young, the next generation. He was--had been a secretary to both Jefferson and Madison, and he asked--pled with each one of these men in their elderly years to free their slaves, make a statement, do something to end this. `What you say will make a great difference.' And Jefferson in his usual way, `Yeah, yeah, it's the next generation. We've done our part, so it's for you guys.' So Coles said, `OK. I'm going to free my slaves.' `Oh, no, Edward, don't do that, for goodness' sakes, because if you free your slaves in Virginia, that's going to make problems in Virginia.' So Coles said, `OK,' took all his slaves and he moved to Illinois, and he educated his slaves to the point where he was sure that they could be self-sufficient. Then he freed them and then he went on to become governor of Illinois. Edward Coles was a terrific guy.
LAMB: If I think--I remember--I think Coles County is where Thomas Lincoln is buried, the same county...
LAMB: was named after him.
LAMB: All right. Finally, Thomas Jefferson; what did he do with his slaves?
PROF. WILKINS: Well, Jefferson, really--I--I have more trouble with Jefferson than any of these people, and not--and it's not the Sally Hemings problem, although it is--it is that Jefferson was a--essentially a devious--he was brilliant, no question about that. And he really loved liberty, and--but he was--he was devious and he was self-indulgent. Here, the--the country--he asked--here's old Washington. He's done everything the country has asked him to do, including inventing the presidency. So he wants to go home at the end of the first term. He says, `I've done everything. Please, I need to go home.' Jefferson says, `Wait'--Jefferson and others--`you have to take a second term. You really have to take a second term. The nation needs you. You're the unifying force. The country will hang on you.' So he says, `OK. I'll stay.'

A few months later, Jefferson says, `I'm going home. I'm resigning as secretary of State. I'm going home. I don't need to--unlike you, I can only--need only consult my own conscience. And I want to go home and--and enjoy my home.' That was pretty--that was really--and at the same time, he is doing politics. He's--he's--he's now beginning to be the father of the first political party and it's the anti-Federalist, anti-Washington party. And he's encouraging others, and sometimes through others taking shots at Washington. And when he goes away, he really takes shots at the old soldier. And the old soldier was old and he was not doing terribly well in the presidency at the end. I d--and s--so that's a kind of self-indulgence.

And he also--you know, he loved his wine and his French furniture and his French stuff, and his--and his--and his gadgets and all of this stuff. And he--he was a smart guy and he loved all these things, and he--and he--and he loved a fine life. He had no money to pay for it, so he got deep in debt. He would sell slaves in order to pay off his debts, but he just got deeper and deeper in debt, so that in the end even if he had had the inclination to s--save his slaves or do something good with them, he couldn't because he was so indebted. So except for people named Hemings, largely, his slaves went to the winds.
LAMB: What book is this for you?
PROF. WILKINS: Second. I've edited a--I've also edited a book with former Senator Fred Harris, but this is my second book.
LAMB: The first one was...
PROF. WILKINS: "A Man's Life," which was published when I was about 50, which tried to tell what it felt like to be raised as a black person but in a very integrated world and to try to negotiate that world, both as an adolescent and then as a young person in Washington at the time of the civil rights movement, when opportunities for black people--young black people like me who were well-educated before the movement started abounded but when resistance to authority, even the authority of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, just pushed them farther. These were the tensions. Are you going to push--are you going to use your position of--of power and privilege to feather your own nest and to get ahead and to be a very successful person, wealthy, or are you going to use it to champion the causes of the poorest people?

Well, I think I pretty much came down on the side of trying to champion the cause of the poorest people, but that is not to say that the siren songs of seduction of--for--that corporate America can give you--didn't--didn't tempt me and it didn't--that they didn't really cause a very searing psychic time for me. So all of that I try to tell in the first book.
LAMB: You talk about the white biographers...
LAMB: ...of all the Founding Fathers over the years. I want to ask you about history. H--how much did you trust what you read of the--Dumas Malone and all the historians about these Founding Fathers?
PROF. WILKINS: We had to read them with a grain of salt. Black people were really written out of history, and blacks were there every step of the way. You cou--the--the country would have been a far poorer country at the time of the Revolution had it not been for the blacks. It would have been a smaller population by 20 percent. It would have been a lot less wealthy. Many--much of the financing of the Revolution rested on the promise of slave labor. Then, of course, slaves were in every battle from Lexington and Concord on--all the way to Yorktown. And as I say, none of the--these four founders would have had the time to think, to reason, to do politics, to communicate, to write their great treatises without lives that were cushioned by slavery in which they had the leisure to do these things.

Well, once you start looking at it that way and you understand the dynamics of their daily lives and that this was the way it was, then you go back and read these other guys, well, you know that you're only getting half the story. And part of the reason I wrote the book was to correct that. Now--then when you get to Jefferson and Sally Hemings, it is just disgraceful. I do not know--I can't tell you as we sit here definitively that Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings' children. The DNA evidence suggests that it was some Jefferson, some male Jefferson then alive. Could have been his brother; could have been his uncle.

The most likely person was Thomas Jefferson himself, because even Dumas Malone, who wouldn't countenance this--this--this--countenance this idea, did note that Jefferson was present around Sally Hemings nine months before she gave birth to each of the children. So the DNA evidence plus that, plus the evidence of testimony from Madison Hemings, one of Sally's children, that his mother told him that Jefferson was their father, makes a pretty strong case.

Well, these--these historians just wouldn't--they just couldn't believe it. They wouldn't do it. So they took this silly story that it was the--one of Jefferson's nephews, Samuel or Peter Carr. Well, that's just not credible if you put it together with the fact that Jefferson was around nine months before each of these kids was born because you'd say, well, these fellas only went to see Sally when uncle was there? I mean, what does--that doesn't make any sense.
LAMB: Around the time we're taping this, there's a controversy about a Jefferson historian, Joseph Ellis, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning "American Sphinx," and I want to ask you because you're a student of all this: What impact does that have where he was shown to be telling his students that he had fought in the Vietnam War and a lot of other things that he hadn't done? What was your take when you saw that? Does that do any damage to historians?
PROF. WILKINS: No. It does--I--I admired "American Sphinx" very much, and I read it with great admiration as I was working on this book. And I have--I--and I have "Founding Brothers" at home and--and I full--and I fully intend to read it. And I also want to go back and read his Adams book before I read McCullough's book because I think probably he is--Ellis is probably the best Adams biographer there is, although I certainly like David very much. But I think that--I think the Ellis business is not about history, it's about Joe Ellis.

I think it's a--I think it's a horrible tragedy because here is a man of great intellectual and artistic gifts and he puts them together, and his scholarship and his writing is just--just wonderful. And he has ascended the peak of his profession. He is--his--just his writing--just leave alone his teaching. My editor on this book was one of his students, and I haven't talked to her about--about this. But she reveres him as a teacher. But his writing has enriched everybody who cares about understanding how our country started. So this strange, driving, personal need of his to get something more from the world than he's earned is just a terrible personal tragedy. It--it--it makes me unspeakably sad. And I haven't--I've never met him. I've just admired his work. So...
LAMB: How do you know when to trust a historian?
PROF. WILKINS: You read and you--you weigh and you--you look at other materials. You--and--and usually it's not a question of--of trust. I don't--I don't believe people sit down to write lying books, but we all see the world through our own lens. We only got--we don't--nobody's tabula rasa, you know? We all have parents, we were all born someplace. Somebody spit in our cake one day. You know, all of this we bring to the table. And we're all interpreters. We're all filling in blanks. This fact, and this fact, and this fact, and this fact and this fact. So what do you make of it? So you--it's not so much trusting; it's sifting and evaluating. And it's--it's evaluating inferences that people have made and trying to understand whether they have made a very hard effort to give you everything you need to draw your own inferences and--and not just forcing you to drink this water right here.
LAMB: Well, what then--how much do you trust the story that--that Thomas Jefferson had that he really--his first memory really was riding around on a--What is it?--the back of a horse on a pillow?
PROF. WILKINS: No, he was--the--the--the slave was holding the pillow. Do I believe it? Do I believe he remembered that?
LAMB: How old do you think he would have been?
PROF. WILKINS: Well, that's the other problem, you know. You--you would think that he would have been pretty small to be on a pillow. And so--and he was given to exaggeration and hyperbole, you know: `The tree of liberty needs to be nourished every generation or so.' I mean, that's--you know, the guy said some wild things. So do I believe it? No. Do I have to believe it in order to use his words as my metaphor? No. He said it. He gave it to us as part of--'cause it is part of him. Whether it was true or not, there is something that made him decide to tell us that this was his earliest memory. Now that's real. That decision that Thomas Jefferson made, that's real. And it seems to me that the metaphor is therefore not only authentic but, in my judgment, pretty powerful.
LAMB: In David McCullough's book on John Adams, the only thing he could find that John Adams had done when it came to slavery, that--I don't know what--how he defined it, but he defended as a lawyer people who owned slaves. Other than that, no slaves. He seemed to deplore it. His wife deplored it. What--what was it about that family that didn't have an interest in slaves and all these Virginians that did?
PROF. WILKINS: Well, I--there were some Virginians who didn't own slaves. I mean, there were plenty of Virginians who didn't own slaves because they were poor--too poor to have slaves. There were a few other Virginians who didn't. There was one Virginian who used--about 1787--used Mason's words in the introduction to the Virginian Declaration of Rights, saying `I believe that all men are by nature free and equal and therefore I don't believe in slavery and I am hereby manumitting my slaves.' He gave up--I don't know--if--12, 16 slaves.

But Massachusetts society--and--and I don't say that--I--I'm not denigrating Adams' character at all. Adams was an enormous human being with great integrity. But Massachusetts did not depend for its economy on an industry that needed slaves. Virginia existed on tobacco; that was its economy and you couldn't--you--well, they figured out in--back in the 17th century that you couldn't do tobacco without slaves. Now that may have been a wrong judgment; maybe they could have done tobacco without slaves. But that's not the culture that these men inherited. That was in place. They were born in it to an--as babies. They learned it. Whereas Adams--they were just farmers who farmed their own small farms and they were farms that families could farm themselves. They were far more in that sense self-sufficient, and I guess that's why Yankees were flinty and Virginians were cavalier.
LAMB: Here's the book, "Jefferson's Pillow." Our author has been Roger Wilkins. Thank you very much.
PROF. WILKINS: Thanks, Brian.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2004. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.