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A few years ago, some friends and I were discussing whom we’d choose to be confined with in a space capsule for a year. When I suggested Thomas Jefferson, the response was politically correct and unanimous: “He owned slaves!” “That’s one of the first things I’d want to talk to him about,” I said. I think historian Roger Wilkins would, as well. In his new book, Jefferson’s Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism, Wilkins tries to reconcile his admiration for the founding fathers as the authors of liberty with his abhorrence of them as owners of slaves. In focusing on four men integral to the defining of American democracyGeorge Washington, George Mason, James Madison, and JeffersonWilkins tries to address the shades of gray between those extremes. “The four founders might have freed all their slaves in their lifetimes and thereby lost enough status, wealth, and leisure to be rendered anonymous,” he writes. “But financiallyand probably psychically as wellthey were incapable of such sacrifices.” Yet under the Bill of Rights, Wilkins, a descendant of slaves, acknowledges that he was fully protected from persecution while protesting apartheid in front of the South African embassy in the mid-’80s. In establishing these rights, he writes, “[T]he role played by four white Virginians, and their contributions to our capacity to be active citizens, were…enormous.” Wilkins will read and sign copies of Jefferson’s Pillow at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 5, at Politics and Prose,
5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Free. (202) 364-1919. (Janet Hopf)