President Barack Obama at an event in Largo, Md., Thursday referenced the Fugitive Slave Acts while mocking opponents of his health care law — but there’s a lot more to this story.
The president’s remarks were made in response to Bill O’Brien, a Republican representative in New Hampshire’s state legislature and former speaker of the House, who said in August that Obamacare is “as destructive to personal and individual liberty as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.”
“You had a state representative somewhere say that it’s as destructive to personal and individual liberty as the Fugitive Slave Act,” the president said. “Think about that. Affordable health care is worse than a law that lets slave owners get their runaway slaves back [emphasis added].”
“These are quotes! I’m not making this stuff up!” he added. “All this would be funny if it wasn’t so crazy.”
But here’s something: a lot of confusion followed the delivery of the president’s remarks after both a Time reporter and the official pool report failed to give the full context of his speech. Both sources failed to make it clear that the president was referring specifically to the O’Brien quote.
For instance (from the pool report):
Your pooler could see Steny Hoyer’s shoulders bobbing up and down with laughter when Obama took aim at an unnamed Republican lawmaker who, the President said, described the ACA as the most dangerous law ever passed. The president said that meant the lawmaker in question viewed Obamacare as worse than the Fugitive Slave Act. (The president looked over quite a bit at Hoyer, who was sittingin the front row to the left of the podium when looking out to the audience.)
And then there’s this:
But based on what the president actually said, he was merely having fun with what he characterized as “ratcheted up rhetoric” of anti-Obamacare Republicans.
After the confusion cleared, the pool reporter sent this update: “Your pooler mischaracterized the President’s reference to the Fugitive Slave Act. Your pooler regrets the mischaracterization.”
The first Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1793 and it allowed local governments to track down runaways slaves and return them to their “owners.” The 1793 law also imposed a penalty on anyone caught aiding escaped slaves.
The second Fugitive Slave Act, passed in 1850, was designed to impose harsher penalties on anyone caught assisting runaway slaves.
Congress formally repealed the highly controversial laws in 1864.
This article has been updated to more accurately reflect the president’s remarks.
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