Bachmann and Slavery

There is a lot of gnashing of teeth over Rep. Michele Bachmann’s strange shorthand on the subject of the Founding Fathers and slavery. Witness (Bachmann’s relevant comments appear at the 3:25 minute mark):

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In Iowa last weekend, Bachmann said, “The Founding Fathers worked tirelessly to get rid of slavery.” She specifically referenced John Quincy Adams.

When I first heard the description–before seeing the clip–it seemed a matter of no consequence. Adams indeed did represent Cinque and other Africans in the Armistad case. In his court argument, he famously quoted ancient Institutes of Justinian to declare that justice is “the constant and perpetual will to secure to every one his own right.” So, sure, Adams did his bit. He wasn’t a “founder,” but the son of a founder. Still, why quibble?

Bachmann also says that Adams “would not rest” until slavery was abolished. That he died in 1848, 15 years before the Emancipation Proclamation actually declared some slaves free, well, OK. He was doing some resting by then–the eternal kind. But again, why make a big deal out of it?

But the clip bears out the point Chris Matthews has made lately, that she is apparently trying to alter history.

Though she doesn’t specifically so say, she does seem to indicate that the Founding Fathers did not ratify slavery and constitutionally declare slaves three-fifths of a person for the purpose of determining levels of federal representation in slave states. No, George Washington and the gang altruistically ended the evil on their African brothers and sisters, an evil that they had merely inherited. They abolished slavery.

So no Missouri Compromise. No Nat Turner. No William Lloyd Garrison. No Free Soil Party. No Theodore Parker. No John Brown. No Dred Scott. No “four score and seven years ago.” No Civil War.

My reaction isn’t alarm so much as perplexity. Unlike Chris Matthews, I’m not going to call Bachmann a “bubblehead”–her thinking is certainly unlike mine, but the woman has a law degree, she is no congenital idiot. And I believe she knows what she is saying is not true.

So what is Rep. Bachmann trying to communicate to the Tea Party flock?

My only guess is that she is trying to slather a layer of whitewash over the country’s most egregious sin, slavery, in an effort to boost the ideal of American exceptionalism, and its place as the shining city on a hill.

But if this is her opening gambit for the presidency, it is a weird one. Fully 87 percent of Americans have graduated high school. And 56 percent have attended college.

In other words, a critical mass of Americans know that this stuff is plain wrong. So what is the object of the exercise?



  1. Dave LaFontaine 02/02/2011 at 11:54 am

    I think you overestimate the number of Americans who are cognizant of the actual details of our history. Remember back at UWEC – the students who watched “Guadalcanal Diary” in shock … “The U.S. and Japan fought a war?” they asked. “Who won?”

    This has more to do with the desperate need to cling to “American Exceptionalism” in the face of the erosion we’re all feeling in our global position as Top Dog, and the inferiority/anxiety generated by the successful War on the Middle/Working Class that has been waged these past 30 years. Americans are suckers for the whole “positive thinking” meme (viz the success of trip like “The Secret”), and there is a strong psycho-religious need in the U.S. to think that by repeating something often enough, it becomes The Truth. So if Bachman & the Tea Partiers just keep ascribing to these shadowy, but hallowed figures from our past all that is good (and incidentally, happens to agree with whatever ideological hobbyhorse they intend to ride around for the next election cycle), they will achieve their goals. Has nothing to do with facts, really. Just the cynical goal of claiming that this country was always all about a Christian, conservative ideology, one that just happens to give legitimacy to their latest oligarchical screed.

    We have always been at war with EastAsia. Move along. Nothing to see here.

  2. I’m afraid you are perhaps correct. I had a frustrating conversation with a guy last night who defended Bachmann, saying that the 3/5th compromise was a step along the way to abolishing slavery. It did no good to point out to him that it was the opponents of slavery who wanted to do away with the Southern states’ demands to include slaves in their population count, because it was a transparent bid to increase slave states’ power, both in terms of the numbers of representatives they could seat and in terms of their clout in the Electoral College. Never mind that the 3/5th clause was a compromise between the two positions, with anti-slavery forces demanding slaves not be counted because they had no rights as citizens, and with pro-slavery forces demanding that slaves be counted as whole persons because, well, then they got more goodies out of the deal without having to extend messy rights to the black man. Never mind that that compromise was probably the primary reason that slavery resulted in the Civil War. Nope. The 3/5th compromise was another example of the Founding Fathers not resting until they did away with slavery.

  3. Dave LaFontaine 02/02/2011 at 12:21 pm


    Reminds me of the “We don’t do nuance” quote of the previous administration.

    Anything more complicated than a phrase on a yellow ribbon that can be stuck to the bumper of a Hummer is too much to process.

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