Michele Bachmann, slavery, and forgotten feats of Founding Fathers

Michele Bachmann has received much criticism for claiming the Founding Fathers worked against slavery.  Better examples would have exhibited a complicated truth. Photo: Associated Press

SAN DIEGO, July 9, 2011 —What began as a seemingly ordinary interview on ABC’s Good Morning America has spawned a national discussion that could properly be called, “Wake Up America!” The time has come for a more balanced and productive dialogue on the subject of slavery and its relationship to our Founding Fathers.

Symbolic incarnations of the debate were represented by television journalist, George Stephanopoulos and the congresswoman he sharply challenged, GOP presidential hopeful, Michele Bachmann.

“For example,” Stephanopoulos reminded her, “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 slaveholders and slavery didn’t end until the Civil War” (ABC, Good Morning America, June 28, 2011).

George Stephanopoulos, and Senator Michele Bachmann

George Stephanopoulos and Senator Michele Bachmann

In response to Bachmann’s example of John Quincy Adams, who did work against slavery (albeit many years later) Stephanopoulos quickly retorted; “He wasn’t one of the Founding Fathers …”

Bachmann went on to insist, “John Quincy Adams most certainly was a part of the Revolutionary War era. He was a young boy but he was actively involved.”

Instead of arguing over what age a person must reach before posterity transforms him from a youthful assistant to a “Founding Father,” our time might be better served to agree that Bachmann could have chosen better examples. Had she done so, George’s “gotcha moment” would have backfired, creating far more discussions about a “Stephanopoulos gaffe.”

In fairness to the ABC host, he may have merely intended to convey that neither the final drafts of  the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution provided for emancipation. True enough, but the life deeds of our Founding Fathers do not live in those documents alone. Researching their personal histories should be an objective process. All too often our emotions get in the way.

The very word, slavery at once produces images of shame and pride. We can be proud of the many Americans who either dedicated their lives or sacrificed their lives to eventually end this horrific institution. We also shudder to think that a wicked, inexcusable mistreatment of people could ever have been embraced by our country at all. American history is a paradox and can only be viewed honestly as a dual truth.

On one hand, the word hypocrisy seems almost too obvious a description for our nation forged upon premises of freedom, all the while embracing the most opposite idea to freedom ever witnessed. In the mind of any decent thinker, nothing could be more abhorrent than human beings actually buying, selling and owning other human beings.

On the other hand, much as idealistic individuals hate to admit it, life can often be a series of contradictions and ethical dilemmas. 21st century citizens with their 20/20 hindsight find 18th century moral paradoxes difficult to fathom. As a result, they dive into conversations of conscience with simplistic thinking. But the legacy left behind by our Founding Fathers is simplistic only in its ideals.

The accomplishment of these ideals came into being like a long three-act play, one where the protagonist had to deal with a few demons of his own, unable to quickly slay dragons with his shining armor. American history is both wonderful and horrible at the same time. People often embrace the record they were exposed to first, forgetting to play its flip side.

We have the luxury of living at a time when verbal condemnation of slavery was one of the first lessons taught by grade school teachers. Earlier generations were offered a strikingly different presentation of this peculiar institution. That any people at all in those days rose above such brainwashing to fight the practice is to be admired even if they moved more slowly than molasses.

Men like John Adams were quite vocal against slavery and said with passion, “Never in my life did I own a slave” (The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States Boston, Little, Brown, and Company, 1854), vol IX pp. 92-93. In a letter to George Churchman and Jacob Lindley on January 24, 1801).

Between the years 1777-1804, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island New Hampshire, Vermont, New York and New Jersey either abolished slavery or passed laws setting into motion its eventual demise. These decisions were not made in a vacuum and were partially influenced by our Founding Fathers.

The new states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin joined the Union slave free as a result of standards put in place earlier for the Northwest Territory during  the Ordinance of 1787 inspired by Rufus King, one of the Constitution signers.

Founding Fathers  involved with societies for ending slavery included Richard Bassett, James Madison, James Monroe, John Marshal and many more.

Nevertheless, skeptics love to remind us of Founders who spoke against slavery yet owned slaves themselves, some their entire lives. Indeed, the much-admired Ben Franklin owned servants but changed his views on slavery as he grew older and helped to establish the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.

Thomas Jefferson tried unsuccessfully through the Continental Congress to pass a law ending slavery and also penned some famous words, “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free”(Ford, Paul Leicester, ed. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, New York: G.P.Putnam’s Sons, 1892-99. 10 vols. pg 44).

Unfortunately, Jefferson found himself unable to personally break from the practice, in part because of its financial trappings. Personal writings reveal that the man was tortured over his own inconsistencies. (See notes after article.)

Similarly conflicted, George Washington remained a slave owner his entire life but also worked against the importing of new slaves into American colonies and eventually vowed to never again buy or sell a slave. Finally, Washington arranged for the release of all personal slaves at the time of his death and of his wife’s death.

This leaf is an 1861 illustration by Thomas Nast. The piece was created at a time when slavery was still practiced and served to show our similarities more than our differences (click to enlarge)

This leaf is an 1861 illustration by Thomas Nast. The piece was created at a time when slavery was still practiced and served to show our similarities more than our differences (click to enlarge)


Such self-reflection and growth cannot be overestimated. Our human conscience tends to hide on the mind’s back shelf when bombarded by popular, accepted practices of society. A typical ancient Roman, if  asked how he felt about murder, would have condemned it without hesitation. But if asked about the gladiator games, this very same citizen might have offered a completely different answer and a puzzled expression, since in his mind, the gladiator fights were mere sporting events.

America today, having long since settled its position on slavery, remains sharply divided over other matters of conscience. The jury is still out on how future generations will look back at us. One such issue, the red-hot topic of abortion, serves as an interesting analogy. You may currently ascribe to a Pro-Choice position. If so, I respect your view provided you sincerely believe the unborn fetus is something less than a life. Meanwhile, many who once defended a woman’s right to abortion are now leading activists in Pro-Life organizations, having concluded that the unborn child, even at an early state, is in fact a living person, not mere tissue, or the property of another human being to be kept or disposed of at will simply because it resides inside the mother’s body. As a matter of fact, countless testimonies of key women who take on such causes reveal how they once had abortions themselves. Does such personal history make them hypocrites or instead people who rethought a moral situation based upon their own experience?

Our joint pilgrimage as human beings includes the marvelous ability to learn, grow and eventually change. This is also true for countries. Slowly but surely, the high ideals of our Founding Fathers have been put into more consistent operation. If some historians made the mistake of painting these men as saints, just as many are mistaken to paint them as devils. They were in fact, human beings, nothing more, and nothing less.


AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article was written as a companion piece to last week’s column concentrating on politicians and gaffes: Defending Michele Bachmann (in a manner of speaking)

Bob Siegel is a weekend radio talk show host on KCBQ and columnist. Details of his show can be found at www.bobsiegel.net. Comments to posts are discussed by Bob over the air where anyone is free to call in and respond/debate. Call in toll free number: 1-888-344-1170. Read more Forbidden Table Talk in The Washington Times Communities.


ADDITIONAL NOTES: Not wanting to weigh down my article, some further quotations from Washington and Jefferson are instead offered below.


George Washington:” I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it [slavery]; but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, and that is by Legislative authority; and this, as far as my suffrage [vote and support] will go, shall never be wanting [lacking]. The Writings of George Washington, John C. Fitzpatrick, editor (Washington, D. C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1936), Vol. 38, p. 408, to Robert Morris on April 12, 1786).

 Act from a committee Washington chaired on July 18, 1774 in Fairfax County:

“Resolved, that it is the opinion of this meeting that during our present difficulties and distress, no slaves ought to be imported into any of the British colonies on this continent; and we take this opportunity of declaring our most earnest wishes to see an entire stop for ever put to such a wicked, cruel, and unnatural trade” (The Writings of George Washington, Jared Sparks (Boston: American Stationers’ Company, 1837, Vol. 11, p. 494).

George Washington: “I never mean … to possess another slave by purchase; it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by which slavery in this country may be abolished by slow, sure, and imperceptible degrees.” (Washington, Writings 1939, Vol. 29, p. 5, to John Francis Mercer on September 9, 1786).

George Washington: Upon the decease of my wife, it is my will and desire that all the slaves which I hold in my own right shall receive their freedom”  (The Last Will and Testament of George Washington and Schedule of his Property to Which is Appended the Last Will and Testament of Martha Washington, John C. Fitzpatrick, editor, Washington, D. C.: The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, 1939), pp. 2-4).

George Washington: “To sell the overplus I cannot, because I am principled against this kind of traffic in the human species. To hire them out is almost as bad because they could not be disposed of in families to any advantage, and to disperse [break up] the families I have an aversion” Washington, Writings 1940, Vol. 37, p. 338, to Robert Lewis on August 18, 1799).

Thomas Jefferson: “But it was found the public mind would not yet bear the proposition [emancipation bill, in Virginia legislature, late 1770s], nor will it bear it even at this day. Yet the day is not distant when it must bear and adopt it, or worse will follow. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free”( Ford, Paul Leicester, ed.  The Writings of Thomas Jefferson,New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1892-99. 10 vols. pg 44).

Thomas Jefferson: “At the age of 82 with one foot in the grave, and the other uplifted to follow it, I do not permit myself to take part in any new enterprises, even for bettering the condition of man, not even in the great one which is the subject of your letter, and which has been thro’ life that of my greatest anxieties. The march of events has not been such as to render it’s completion practicable within the limits of time allotted to me; and I leave it’s accomplishment as the work of another generation….The abolition of the evil is not impossible: it ought never therefore to be despaired of. Every plan should be adopted, every experiment tried, which may do something towards the ultimate object” (Jefferson, Writings (1904), Vol. XVI, pp. 119-120, to Miss Frances Wright on August 7, 1825).

Jefferson’s Attempted Law: That after the year 1800 of the Christian era, there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the said States, otherwise than in punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted to have been personally guilty (Journals of the Continental Congress, Volume XXVI, pp. 118-119, Monday, March 1, 1784).




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Bob Siegel

A graduate of Denver Seminary and San Jose State University, Bob Siegel is a radio talk show host and popular guest speaker at churches and college campuses across the country, using a variety of media including, seminars, formal debates, outdoor open forums, and one man drama presentations.

In addition to his own weekly radio show (KCBQ 1170, San Diego) Bob has been a guest on many other programs, including The 700 Club, Washington Times Radio's Inside the Story, The Rick Amato Show, KUSI Television's Good Morning San Diego, and the world popular Jonathan Park radio drama series, for which Bob guest starred in two episodes and wrote one episode, The Clue From Ninevah.

Bob is a regular contributor for San Diego Newsroom and San Diego Rostra. Bob does a good deal of playwriting as well (14 plays & 5 collaborations), including the award winning, Eternal Reach.  Bob has also published two books;  A Call To Radical Discipleship, and I'd Like to Believe In Jesus, But...

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