Did the Founding Fathers really work 'tirelessly' to end slavery?
Michele Bachmann's insistence that America's slave-owning Founding Fathers fought slavery has been met with ridicule — and a concerted push to prove she's right
Earlier this week, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) defended her assertion that America's Founding Fathers "worked tirelessly" to end slavery, citing John Quincy Adams, who was a child when the nation was founded, as an example. Very quickly, "much of the country howled with laughter," says Henry Blodget at Business Insider. But a group of the 2012 presidential candidate's defenders has also sprung up, arguing that she is right, and the gotcha-oriented media — especially ABC's George Stephanopoulos, who asked her about her original assertion — don't know their history. Someone even tried to change Adams' Wikipedia page to make him a Founding Father. So, who's the historical illiterate? Here, a brief guide:
What's Bachmann's argument?At an Iowa event in January, Bachmann said we "know that the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States." She specifically mentioned Adams as a forbearer "who would not rest until slavery was extinguished." On Tuesday, Bachmann told Stephanopoulos that her assertion was "absolutely true," especially "if you look at one of our Founding Fathers, John Quincy Adams.... Adams most certainly was a part of the Revolutionary War era. He was a young boy but he was actively involved."
What do her critics say?"I hate to be a stickler for reality," says Steve Benen at Washington Monthly, "but when the Declaration of Independence was signed, John Quincy Adams was a 9-year-old boy." And to use his personal beliefs "as evidence that the Founding Fathers 'worked tirelessly to end slavery' is simply absurd on its face." Even if there were a few "anti-slavery advocates" among the Founders, says Steven Taylor at Outside the Beltway, it's "a gross distortion" to pretend they collectively made any concerted effort to end the practice. "For goodness’ sake, three of the most significant Founders, Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, were all slave owners."
What's the pro-Bachmann case?Adams, who became the sixth president of the United States, may not have signed our "founding documents," says Donald Douglas at American Power. But Bachmann's clearly right that he was a bona fide "member of the Founding generation." And more than a few other Founders worked to either end slavery or undermine it, says Jeffrey Lord at The American Spectator: George Mason and Alexander Hamilton, for example. Also, while Jefferson's anti-slavery paragraph was struck from the Declaration of Independence, says Mark Levin on Facebook, that document's "crucial recognition of God-given unalienable rights that belonged to all human beings," plus hard-won compromises in the Constitution, "unleashed a process that would eventually destroy the institution of slavery."
Is there a middle ground here?Bachmann didn't "completely revise history," says Business Insider's Blodget, but she wasn't correct, either. "The fairest characterization of the Founding Fathers' view on slavery seems to be that they tolerated it." More accurately, they kicked the problem to the next generation, says Taylor at Outside the Beltway. What they obviously did not do is work "tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States." Even John Quincy Adams was dead by the time that happened.
Why are we even having this fight?Because it matters, says Taylor. Bachmann tends to "treat the Constitution as though Madison came down from the mountain with the document inscribed on stone tablets by the finger of God," and quote it "as though it is holy writ," with the Founders playing the role of "prophets." That has huge social and policy consequences. Slavery obviously stains "the immaculate conception of America" preached by Bachmann and other Constitutional originalists, says Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Beast. "So if your vision is to return the U.S. to the 1770s, you have to find a way to argue that slavery was not inherent in the Founding."