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Michele Bachman and the founders

She has been getting a lot of flack lately for saying the founders worked tirelessly to end slavery. And then when called on getting that statement completely wrong she cited John Quincy Adams as someone who fought to end slavery. Again, she got that wrong because he was just a kid when his father and the other founders were forming the US.

Bachman is just another Republican in a long line of Republicans who try to rewrite history to make it more favorable to their world view. She says the founders worked tirelessly to end slavery because if she acknowledges the fact that many of them did the opposite (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, probably the majority of founders from the south owned slaves) this bubble they have put around them as the harbingers of the all knowing and all correct in America politics would burst and they would be forced to make an argument besides "this is what the founders wanted" in policy and constitutional debates.

But I wanted to take this instance of Republicans trying to rewrite history to talk about a book I've been reading called "Madison and Jefferson". As you can discern from the title, the book is about those two men and their relationship with one another. The latest chapter I've finished touches on the issue of slavery and the slightly different views the two men had towards the institution and black people.

They both inherited slaves and kept them. Though Madison was prepared to free slaves who served in the Revolution. In Federalist 54, Madison said slaves were of "mixed character" and that only a legal fiction separated slaves from freemen (p. 178). In one letter he wrote to someone overseeing his property he told them to treat his slaves humanely. And the authors point out that while Jefferson thought black people where inherently inferior and couldn't live freely in the US, Madison thought that at least part of the inferiority was due to them being enslaved. And letting them resettle on the coast of Africa would provide a good experiment that might show they weren't so different from them when not enslaved.

Regardless of their differences they both at best tacitly let slavery continue. There is no way anyone could say that these two men, among the most influential of the founders, worked tirelessly to end slavery. At best they sat back and let it continue. Neither as legislators, governors, or presidents did either of them try to enact laws to end slavery (aside from the instance I mentioned above about Madison). And that is important because as Matt Yglesias points out today, John Jay (a fellow writer of the Federalist Papers with Madison) actually signed a law to end slavery while he was governor of New York.

That is the kind of thing Bachman should have cited, and in a much more narrow statement than to say the founders as a whole worked to end slavery. What is important about the founding and history in general is that we understand why they didn't work to end an obviously horrible thing like slavery. We need to understand the thinking that allowed them to justify it and the structures (politically and socially) that allowed it to continue and prevent those who wanted to change it to be able to. We can't learn those lessons and make the right choices today if we just change history to fit our own beliefs.