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Book Review - Jefferson's Pillow by Roger Wilkins (2001)

By Edited Jun 20, 2015 0 0

 I have read several books about Thomas Jefferson, but Roger Wilkins gives us a new perspective - that of a black man who has researched his subject thoroughly. The curious title refers to the fact that Jefferson's earliest memory is that of a black slave carrying him on a pillow. The idea behind this title demonstrates that the man who crafted the words "All Men Are Created Equal" lived a life of ease which depended significantly on the free labor he derived from his slaves. Roger Wilkins, without whining, effectively establishes that our founding fathers, particularly George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison all owned slaves and were reluctant to part with them, even as their words defining our nation's philosophy must have told them that the practice was immoral.


Thomas Jefferson

                                                                      Thomas Jefferson

In addition to these three great men, Wilkins includes George Mason, who authored the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776 on which the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, are patterned. George Mason was also a slave owner.

Because slavery was inherent in the mores of the day, even these great men did not consider the rights of slaves when defining the laws of the nation. Their main thrust was to protect the white population of Americans against the possibility of slavery to the British monarchy.

In 1857, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Roger Taney, in writing the majority opinion for the Supreme Court of the United States, stated that "it is too clear for dispute that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration." This statement is a clear denunciation of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and James Madison, among others who signed the Declaration of Independence.

Roger Wilkins relates many a tale of his own forefathers and mothers who were slaves. He heard first-hand of the cruelty and humiliation which was heaped upon the slaves by their owners. He tells of a recent trip which he took to Ghana, the land in Africa from which so many Africans had been shipped to the United States. He was shocked to see a man who looked much like his father, and a woman in a market who resembled one of his aunts. He realized that he had found the place of his family's origin and that he had undoubtedly found his distant cousins.


Declaration of Independence

                                                            Declaration of Independence

Roger Wilkins gives no excuses for the beliefs of our early Presidents. As a black man, it is difficult for him to countenance the derogation of the Negro. He recognizes, however, that a man's reputation and his acceptance in the community depended upon his wealth and property, which included the number of slaves he owned. While Jefferson's words bespoke one opinion, the life he led forced him into an hypocrisy, for he was unable to renounce the high life he led. To his credit though, he did free his slaves upon his death.

I enjoyed this extraordinary expose of our founding fathers and the courage of Roger Wilkins in bringing his views to light. As a Pulitzer Prize winner for his Watergate editorials, he deserves our ear when he gives his opinion on a subject that is close to his heart.

Jefferson's Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism
Amazon Price: $18.00 $3.28 Buy Now
(price as of Jun 20, 2015)
A Treatise that is relevant in our day.


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