Bachmann more right than Stephanolpoulos

I’m not a huge fan of Michele Bachmann. I don’t dislike her and if she’s the GOP candidate in 2012 I’ll support her, but she’s doesn’t excite me the way she excites much of the Tea Party constituency. That being said, I’m also not a fan of journalists misrepresenting history in a “Gotcha!” game with candidates.

George Stephanopolous interviewed Congresswoman Bachmann after Politifact rated several statements by her to be false (partial video in linked article). Primary on Stephanolopolous’ mind was her statement that the Founding Fathers worked “tirelessly” to end slavery. Stephanolpolous, like any historically ill-informed liberal, assumed that because the United States ended up with legal slavery after the ratification of the Constitution that this statement must be false.

For what it’s worth, I couldn’t even find an assessment of this particular statement from Bachmann on slaveryby Politifact, which has rated many statements by Bachmann as false.  Though her association of John Quincy Adams with the Foundational period doesn’t hold muster, Stephanolpolous is showing his greater ignorance of history.

In the full interview, Stephanopolous cited the instances of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as being slave holders. He’s right that they were and so were many others, but he seems to be thinking that because these two Founders were slave holders, it summarily damns the rest of the founding group and that it means slavery wasn’t a contentious, hard-fought issue among the Founders.

The problem with this concept is that it assumes that the Founders came together at the Constitutional Convention as a singular, amorphous group with the same goals and ideals driving their actions. It suggests that the actions of the Founders were largely pre-ordained and that the Constitutional Convention was merely puppet theater.

In reality, the founders had diverse views and goals on many issues, and far from a puppet theater the Convention was held largely in secret with negotiations that were both contentious and heated. Thomas Jefferson wasn’t even in attendance at the Constitutional Convention, largely because he would have opposed it. Alexander Hamilton wanted a strong central government with a great deal of power. Others merely intended to amend the Articles of Confederation, with power distributed to the states and only fixing some glaring errors in the Articles. Representatives from large states wanted representation by population (at the time, a large state meant a large population, and so more power for that state’s residents), while smaller states wanted even representation among the states. The resulting compromise gave us our bicameral legislature, where the House of Represenatatives is divided up by population and the Senate is divided by the States.

The same is true with slavery. Many founders from the North wanted nothing to do with slavery. Some founders from even the southern colonies (where slavery was legal and most common) wanted to use the opportunity to end slavery. Thomas Jefferson, who was not at the Constitutional Convention and has been long ballyhooed as a slave-holding hypocrite, before attending the Continental Congress in 1774 wrote:

“For the most trifling reasons, and sometimes for no conceivable reason at all, his majesty has rejected laws of the most salutary tendency. The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those colonies where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state. But previous to the infranchisement of the slaves we have, it is necessary to exclude all further importations from Africa. Yet our repeated attempts to effect this by prohibitions, and by imposing duties which might amount to a prohibition, have been hitherto defeated by his majesty’s negative: thus preferring the immediate advantages of a few British corsairs to the lasting interests of the American states, and to the rights of human nature deeply wounded by this infamous practice.”

- – Thomas Jefferson, A Summary View of the Rights of British America , July 1774 [emphass added]

At the Constitutional Convention, the many in the northern colonies wanted to force the southern colonies to give up their slaves. Certainly none of the northern delegates wanted the southern colonies to have additional representation in the new legislature (and the Electoral College) based upon the population of slaves (who couldn’t vote) living in those colonies. The southern colonies, of course, wanted all of those slaves counted toward their populations so that their representation in Congress and in Presidential elections would be greater. Both sides of the issue were at loggerheads on slavery during the foundational period of the United States. Some northern states threatened to walk out of the negotiations if slaves were counted. So did some southern delegations if they weren’t.

This opposition wasn’t entirely altruistic. The northern delegations used the issue of slavery to forward a political goal (imagine that, using an unreleated issue to obtain a political goal!). Their goal was ensuring greater representation for their colonies, which were generally smaller than the southern colonies and so, they feared, had a limited maximum population. Despite these self-serving goals, many were happy to let the issue of slavery decide the fate of the new nation.

In the end, both sides reluctantly agreed that having the thirteen colonies together was more important than making a final decision on slavery, and developed the “Three Fifths Compromise”. This established that 3/5 of the population of slaves in a state would be counted toward represenation in Congress. While it obviously didn’t end slavery, it does represent that the issue of slavery was being contentiously fought over during the foundational period of this nation.

(As an aside, when you hear pundits talk about “African slaves being counted as only 3/5 of a person” in the Constitution, you now know these people to be uneducated to the realities of history.)

Michele Bachmann made the mistake of defending her position using John Quincy Adams as her reference. John Q. Adams was the son of John Adams, who was a founder, but he was a young boy with little or no influence on matters of state while the Declaration (he wasn’t quite 9) and Constitution (he was barely 20) were being written. Had Bachmann referenced John Jay, Alexander Hamilton or Benjamin Franklin, or had she known the details of Jefferson’s disgust with his own failings regarding slavery, she may have made a better account for herself to George Stephanopolous.

The Founding Fathers were great men, but they were men, not gods. Their development of a balanced system of government and belief in the idea of individual liberty is laudable and should be remembered as the breakthrough that it was. Being men, they did not always live up to the ideals in which they so fervently believed. Political and economic realities often hampered their ultimate goals. They were flawed. Their flaws and their final decisions, however, do not change history. Many Founders did work tirelessly to end slavery for varied reasons ranging from altruistic to malevolent, and Michele Bachmann should not be damned by the media for her slightly-better-than-average understanding of history.

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