Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
January 21, 2022

A history lesson for politicians and pundits

By Peter Sicher | February 3, 2011

At a January event organized by Iowans for Tax Relief, Tea Party leader Michele Bachmann (R-MN) made an interesting claim about American history. “We know there was slavery that was still tolerated when the nation began. We know that it was an evil, and a scourge, and a blot, and a stain upon our history,” she said, truthfully. But she continued, “But we also know that the very founders who wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States and I think it is high time we recognize the contribution of our forebearers who worked tirelessly; men like John Quincy Adams who would not rest until slavery was extinguished in the country.”

John Quincy Adams was a genuine antislavery activist though he did rest before slavery was extinguished, by dying of old age. However, he was not a Founding Father, as Bachmann implies. When the United States declared independence, he was a week shy of his ninth birthday.

He was a precocious fellow, but not quite precocious enough to be involved in the creation of the United States at nine years old.

The factual problems with Bachmann’s claim, however, go deeper. Some of the founders did have genuine antislavery leanings. Abolition was enacted by Northern states in the decades after the War for Independence. Outside of New England, however, this was a gradual process taking half a century. In Pennsylvania, there were still a few blacks legally enslaved sixty years after the state passed a gradual emancipation law.

In the South, little was done to attack slavery. In fact, with the development of the cotton gin, slavery saw a period of unprecedented expansion after the American Revolution. By the time of the Civil War, slavery was the dominant force in the American economy. Of the great Virginian Founders, only George Washington freed all his slaves in his will. Jefferson freed only a few and despite early antislavery efforts, he opposed those who sought to block the institution’s expansion later in life. Worst of all, it is now clear that he fathered at least one child with Sally Hemmings.

Considering the power of a master over his slaves, it was impossible for her to consent to their relationship. Therefore, it is impossible not to conclude that Thomas Jefferson was a rapist. When commentators ridiculed Bachmann for her ignorance, Tea Party icon Glenn Beck sprang to her defense. Beck pointed to an 1852 statement by Frederick Douglass: “I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in the constitution, interpreted as it ought to be interpreted the constitution is a glorious liberty document.”

Beck says that to disagree with that statement means believing that Douglass was stupid. Beck makes an absurd claim that Douglass was convinced of this view by Abraham Lincoln, who did not meet Douglass until the summer of 1863. (Considering the fact that the Douglass quote is genuine, suggesting that Beck or his staff did do some “research,” it seems clear that Beck was not confused, but lying about the Lincoln story.)

While the quote is accurate, Beck oversimplifies Douglass’s views on the founding of the United States and ignores the fact that Douglass was a political actor, not a historian or a philosopher. The quote Beck refers to came from Douglass’s famous Fourth of July Speech in which he told whites “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine.”

While Douglass sometimes claimed that the founders did intend for the Constitution to be an antislavery document, at other times he argued that their intent was irrelevant. He argued that the Constitution was an antislavery document because what mattered was the language in the document itself, especially the preamble, which states that the Constitution was created to “secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.”

In other words, Douglass sometimes argued that the Constitution was a “living document,” a concept Beck despises.

In choosing to accept the Constitution as an antislavery document, Douglass was more concerned with the future than what actually happened in the past. He had concluded by the 1850s that the pacifist moral suasion tactics of the Garrisonian abolitionists were a failure and he committed to direct antislavery action, which meant either violent revolution or political activism. Douglass preferred the latter but he knew that to involve himself in politics he would have to embrace the Constitution and that he would need to persuade the public that antislavery politics did not violate its spirit or its text. He was looking for a “usable past.” I disagree with Douglass’s view that the Founders meant to destroy slavery but I don’t think he was stupid. I know that he was politically savvy.

Abraham Lincoln did not see the Constitution as either an antislavery document or a pro-slavery document, but rather as a compromise.

Lincoln believed that the Constitution did not prohibit Congress from blocking the expansion of slavery, the issue he was primarily concerned with in the 1850s. Yet Lincoln knew that through the three-fifths clause, which contrary to Beck’s claims did exist to strengthen Southern political power, and the fugitive slave clause did protect slavery. Privately, he hated that slavery was protected. He wrote his close friend Joshua Speed, a slaveholder, that he “Ought. . .to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the Constitution and the Union.”

Lincoln knew that the founders compromised on slavery in order to cement the Union.

Yet he also admired the founders, knowing that the spirit of the founding stood opposed to slavery, even if the founders themselves had not always consistently upheld that spirit. When the Civil War upset the normal constitutional order, Lincoln used the opportunity to destroy slavery.

Our founders were great men. They created the first free government in the modern world. Their words inspired and continue to inspire those who love freedom around the world. Yet the Tea Party wants to return us to a golden era that never existed. The founding era they so love to invoke was marred by a compromise with mortal sin. We should love America not because it was perfect from its beginning. It wasn’t.

We should love America because of the magnificent principles upon which it was founded. The true heroes of the American story are not the founders, but the men and women who have sacrificed much, often even their lives, to force the United States to live up to its own values. These include men and women like Lincoln and Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr. and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

As usual, Lincoln put it best when he said that the founding “set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and, even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”

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