Monday, August 15, 2011

Another Article I Couldn't Sell

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.

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.

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.
Clayton E. Cramer is a software engineer in Idaho; he also teaches history at a community college, and writes history books.  His web page is 


  1. That comment about Jefferson being so deeply in debt that he could not free his slaves is the very first I've ever heard such a thing.

    It's also the first thing I've ever heard that made sense of him keeping slaves at all. I don't know why I haven't heard it before; a Google for "jefferson slaves debt" turns up plenty of articles mentioning it.

    Somehow, though, the numerous accounts I've read in textbooks, news reports, and the like failed to mention it.

  2. @djmooretx: Well, it doesn't support The Narrative, any more than the fact that George Washington freed all of his slaves in his will--a common tactic, as they could not then be re-enslaved to cover debts.

  3. I'd never heard that about Jefferson, either. It does make things make more sense.

    Also, don't forget the Three-Fifths Compromise. While it wasn't directly about abolishing slavery, it certainly illustrates the split between the free states and slave states, and shows that it was an issue for the founders. If I recall correctly, that issue by itself nearly tanked the whole Constitution.

  4. Unfortunately, Washington's slaves were not freed because the heirs filed suit. In some cases, persons who had been free for many years were re-enslaved to settle a master's debts.

  5. Re: the 3/5th Compromise, it was actually the South that was pushing to have slaves count as a whole person (so they'd get more representatives in the House) and the North that was trying not to count them.

  6. The history of the 3/5th compromise is really embarrassing. Southerners wanted slaves counted for representation, but not for taxation; Northerners wanted slaves counted for taxation, but not representation. There are no particularly noble parts of this deal.

  7. Clayton- Two great points that I've not read elsewhere, that freed slaves could be re-enslaved years later and that the North wanted slaves counted for taxation not representation. If you have them handy, do you have sources for either piece of information?

  8. I would have to spend some time digging to find both of those. The re-enslavement item I found by looking through Virginia case law about slavery that I found some years ago. See Digest of the Laws of Virginia 1:861 at, which provides that "all slaves emancipated shall be liable to be taken by execution, to satisfy any debt contracted by the person emancipating them, before such emancipation is made." The footnote on that section indicates that "One indebted before the act of 1792, could not emancipate his slaves to the prejudice of his creditors. Woodley et ux. et al. v. Abby et al. 5 Call, 336."

    The slaves counted for taxation but not representation appears in most of the standard accounts of the slavery battle about the Constitution. See and .