Michelle Bachmann, History, and Slavery
You can always tell who the mainstream regards as the greatest threat to the Zero: it is who they are going after most vigorously today. For a few days, it was Michelle Bachmann’s mistakes about American history.
I teach U.S. History up to 1877. I have written a number of books about American history. I do cringe a little when I hear some of Rep. Bachmann’s mistakes. In spite of her best efforts to portray John Quincy Adams as a Founding Father, a more accurate description is that he was a Founding Son. His first position in public office was the U.S. diplomat to the Netherlands, starting in 1794.
Some of her other mistakes, however, while they annoy me, are actually not as far off as the mistakes being made by the mainstream media sorts who are “correcting” her. Bachmann has described the Founding Fathers as having worked tirelessly to end slavery. This is wrong, but not as far as wrong as George Stephanopoulos’s response:
For example earlier this year you said that the Founding Fathers who wrote the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence worked tirelessly to end slavery. Now with respect Congresswoman, that’s just not true. Many of them including Jefferson and Washington were actually slave holders and slavery didn’t end until the Civil War.
Unfortunately, this just shows that Stephanopoulos knows a lot less than he thinks he knows. The bad news here is that while Bachmann has exaggerated and scrambled a few facts—she is still closer to the truth than Stephanopoulos!
First of all, many of the Founders were active in the abolition movement. John Jay, for example, one of the three authors of the Federalist Papers, along with a number of New York slave owners, founded the New York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves in 1785—an organization that existed for the purpose of encouraging slave owners to free their slaves—as many did. While governor, Jay signed the 1799 law that provided for the gradual abolition of slavery in New York State.
Alexander Hamilton was another prominent Founder whose abolitionist sentiments were well-known. The man who killed Hamilton—Aaron Burr—was also a member of Jay’s abolitionist society, and was an active advocate in the state legislature for abolishing slavery in New York.
Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner—but also someone who worked (although not “tirelessly”) for the abolition of slavery. Like many slave owners, Jefferson regarded the institution as an evil that needed to be eliminated, but like other slave owners, he was so deeply in debt that he was unable to do much about it. Freeing slaves was not a solution; creditors would, sometimes years later, have the courts drag freedmen back into slavery to cover old debts of their masters.
Robert Carter was one of the Virginia slave owners—and definitely part of the Founding Father’s generation—who was not similarly restricted by debt. Carter freed 500 of his slaves. There are many other examples, less notable, of slave owners freeing their slaves in this time—actions that involved substantial economic sacrifice, with no return except a clear conscience.
What is even more amazing is that Stephanopoulos thinks that slavery did not end until the Civil War! Slavery existed throughout the United States before the American Revolution. During and immediately after the American Revolution, the states north of the Mason-Dixon Line started abolishing slavery, some immediately, some through various gradual emancipation strategies. If Stephanopoulos is going to berate Bachmann for her historical errors, it would help if he knew something about American history.
Similarly, ABC News’ The Note points out:
Many of the founders, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were, in fact, slave owners. And as every middle school history teacher will tell you, the founding fathers virtually ignored the issue of slavery. It was not until the mid 1800s that slavery became a contentious issue in American politics.
Again, I am disappointed but not surprised by the ignorance of these journalists that look down their noses on Bachmann. Ignored the issue of slavery? Why then did the Constitution have a specific provision that allowed Congress to abolish the importation of slaves after 1808? And Congress did pass such a ban: with only five votes against, Congress shut off importation of slaves as of January 1, 1808. In 1820, Congress made it a capital crime for American citizens to be involved in the international slave trade.
Slavery was not a contentious issue in American politics until the mid 1800s? The Missouri Compromise (1820) was the first big fight in Congress over slavery. The Gag Rule, in effect from 1836-1844, prohibited the U.S. House of Representatives from considering any petitions relative to abolishing slavery—and it was precisely because such petitions had been presented to Congress from their first session in 1789.
Would I like Bachmann, Palin, Perry, and the other conservative Republicans running for office to tack sharp on American history? Yes. But I will not take seriously the mainstream media criticizing them for mistakes that are less serious than the ones the journalists doing the criticizing are making.