Number Fifty-One

Tealiberasophoterianistic Perspectives

Posts Tagged ‘Slavery

The Fight to End American Slavery (Part 1)

By Jake Phillips

With the recent Michelle Bachmann statement that the founding fathers “fought tirelessly” to abolish slavery[1], there has been considerable debate in the political world (but more importantly, on this blog) over whether she was correct, first of all, and how important of a gaffe it was, if indeed it was not true.

First, an evaluation of whether it was true.  She defended herself by pointing to the record of John Quincy Adams.  Adams was indeed a great proponent of abolishing slavery, especially later in life.  Of course, he died over 15 years before slavery was eventually abolished, but nevertheless, it could be rhetorically argued that he “fought tirelessly” to end slavery, although I think, even in his case, this statement would be somewhat misleading and, at the very least, need qualifications.  Adams, after all, is remembered far more for his skill as a diplomat than as an abolitionist.[2]  Regardless, John Quincy Adams was not a founding father.  The founding fathers are those that signed the Deceleration of Independence, framed the Constitution, or contributed in a major way in the Revolutionary War (or, in some limited cases, major players in the pre-Revolutionary era.)[3]  Being a significant political player in early American doesn’t make you a founding father.  Otherwise, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson would all be founding fathers.  So would Daniel Webster.  So would any number of people.  So Bachmann’s defense of her statement, to me, was at least as ridiculous as her original assertion.

So what about her original assertion? Can it be said that the “founding fathers fought tirelessly to abolish slavery”? Clearly, the easy answer is no, they did not.  They certainly did not as a group.  Grouping them into one, whole “founding fathers” unit, and then claiming that as a group they fought tirelessly to abolish slavery, is absolutely ridiculous.  Whatever individual ones of them did and believed personally is irrelevent.  As a “founding fathers” group, they decided that a black person was 3/5ths of a person.[4]  They institutionalized slavery.  They allowed for the slave trade to exist for 20 more years.  As a group, not only did they not fight to abolish slavery, they supported it (in a existential way) and institutionalized it.  The argument that they, as a group, worked tirelessly to abolish slavery has never before been argued, historiographically.  Or at least, as far as I’m aware, it hasn’t been argued.  The most rosy view of the founding fathers, and perhaps the correct one, is that they didn’t think that they could feasibly end it without wrecking the American economy, and so they hoped that it would die a slow and natural, organic death.[5]  Never before, to my knowledge, has it been said that they “fought tirelessly” to abolish slavery.  I cannot fathom why Michelle Bachmann would make that particular argument.

In saying “founding fathers”, could Michelle Bachmann have meant particular founding fathers? Well for one thing, if there’s one thing liberals and conservatives agree on, it’s that Michelle Bachmann is a good rhetorician.  If that’s what she had wanted to communicate, she could have.  But let’s pretend for a second that it is what she wanted to communicate.  It’s still a somewhat ridiculous argument to make.  Keep in mind, she’s not saying that they (and remember, by “they” we are assuming that Bachmann meant particular, nameless founding fathers that fit her description) didn’t like slavery.  She didn’t say that they wanted to abolish slavery (most of them did.)[6]  The fact of the matter is, they institutionalized slavery despite the fact that, as a group, it can be argued that they wanted it to end.  They had any number of reasons to not abolish slavery (namely, forming a union of states, which would have probably been impossible if they had federally disallowed slavery.)[7]  Whatever the reasons, it is the opposite of the truth to say that they “fought tirelessly to abolish slavery.”  They did not.  They fought tirelessly to overthrow a government and form their own, a government that included slavery in its founding document.  There is absolutely no way to intellectually argue that, in doing so, they were fighting tirelessly to end slavery.

So, then, is this an important gaffe, or just a reflection of bad history? Well it is hardly a reflection of bad history.  Bad history teaches you that Abraham Lincoln was a tyrant[8], but it doesn’t teach you that he dissolved the US.  In other words, bad history gives you false impressions, but it doesn’t teach you the opposite of what is true (or, it does so very rarely.)  I think the gaffe ranks somewhere around Moderately Important.  Unlike the “John Wayne” gaffe, which simply reflected a lack of knowledge of her hometown and a willingness to Google facts for her speeches, I think this gaffe actually means something beyond the actual statement.  I think it is yet another example of how Tea Party Conservatives idolize the past in an effort to acquire their goals.  Bachmann is creating a Utopia that her ideals and ideas will lead us back to.  If that Utopia never existed, and doesn’t exist, then her ideals and ideas can’t lead us to that place.  After all, that place doesn’t exist.  To create that Utopia, the founding fathers must be irreproachable.  Their main blight, historically, is the issue of slavery.  Instead of dealing with it and learning from it, and seeing the parallels between racism then and classism now, or any number of important historical lessons, it’s easier to just pretend that, actually, the founding fathers don’t even have that blight of slavery on their record! No, as a matter of fact, they worked tirelessly to end slavery! They were practically an army of Wilberforce’s!! LONG LIVE THE FOUNDING FATHERS!!! Recreating the past is not unique to Michelle Bachmann.  She hardly invented the art of revising history.  However, it’s a poor way to attempt to become the President of the nation whose history she is so unapologetically twisting.

[2] This entire paragraph was influenced John Quincy Adams by Robert Remini.  Only read the latter section of the book, the first section has been historiographically skewered.

[3] This point probably doesn’t need to be argued.  Someone can extend the meaning to include whoever they want (as Bachmann would claim she was doing) but “founding fathers” is a term that has an understood meaning.

[4] I understand that this was not because they had to point out that blacks were less than a person, but was about population.  Duly noted.  No need to point that out in the comments section.

[5] The merits of this argument aren’t rock solid, but, like I said, it’s the rosiest argument.  I’m not here to defend or denounce it, just to point out the fact that the argument exists. See for a pretty good and fair summary of that argument.

[6] An excellent paper by historian Michael Spalding sums up that argument.

[7] Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787.  Wood shows that without slavery, the US never could have existed as we know it.

[8] My Uncle John was influenced by Bad History.


Written by Jake Phillips

July 7, 2011 at 12:02 pm

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