Rep. Michele Bachmann's "Founding Fathers dilemma" started back in January when she claimed that the nation's first leaders had "worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States." In response, ABC News wrote the following:
Many of the founders, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were, in fact, slave owners. And as every middle school history teacher will tell you, the founding fathers virtually ignored the issue of slavery. It was not until the mid 1800s that slavery became a contentious issue in American politics.
Interestingly, numerous sources cite some of the Founders, indeed, speaking out against slavery (as every middle school history teacher should be able to tell you). In a letter written to Robert Evans on June 8, 1819, John Adams wrote, "Every measure of prudence, therefore, ought to be assumed for the eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States ... I have, throughout my whole life, held the practice of slavery in ... abhorrence."
Even George Washington, the nation's first president, stood firmly planted against the institution of slavery. PBS has more:
In 1786, Washington wrote to two Americans expressing his desire to see the lawful end to slavery. In a letter to Robert Morris he wrote, "I hope it will not be conceived from these observations, that it is my wish to hold the unhappy people, who are the subject of this letter, in slavery. 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; but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, and that is by Legislative authority…"
To John Francis Mercer he wrote that it was among his “…first wishes to see some plan adopted, by the legislature by which slavery in this country may be abolished by slow, sure, and imperceptible degrees.”
And these are only two examples. James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and others also made their views clear on the issue. So with this in mind, one wonders: Was Bachmann absolutely incorrect in her assertions? Many liberals would say "yes," but reality paints a much more complicated picture. Yesterday, ABC's George Stephanopoulos took the presidential candidate to task over her statement about the Founding Fathers. He said:
"...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."
Bachmann's response is intriguing. She stands by her previous statement and claims that Founding Father John Quincy Adams worked throughout his life to free the slaves. Stephanopoulos, somewhat flabbergasted, flatly rejects the notion that Adams was a Founder. Bachmann's complete response is condensed below:
"Well if you look at one of our Founding Fathers, John Quincy Adams, that’s absolutely true. He was a very young boy when he was with his father serving essentially as his father’s secretary. He tirelessly worked throughout his life to make sure that we did in fact one day eradicate slavery….Well, John Quincy Adams most certainly was a part of the Revolutionary War era. He was a young boy but he was actively involved."
Here, Bachmann is very clear in describing who she is referring to. John Quincy Adams, being John Adams' (a founding father) son, was indeed alive during the nation's founding. In her statements, Bachmann did not confuse the historical characters, nor did she insinuate that the latter Adams was an adult at the time.
Her use of the words "Founding Fathers" is likely a more general reference to all of those individuals who were a part of the nation's founding. Perhaps one could accuse her of exaggerating the boy's role, but calling her "stupid, "insane" and "misinformed" is a bit of a stretch.
Throughout John Quincy Adams' life he was a staunch opponent of slavery. His views, no doubt, were shaped in part by his father who, as is quoted above, hoped for the "total extirpation of slavery."
You can watch the dialogue between Stephanopoulos and Bachmann below:
Business Insider's Henry Blodget also decided to explore whether Bachmann's statements had some validity. He writes:
Based on this article in Encyclopedia Brittanica, it seems fair to say that some of the founding fathers opposed slavery, and that some of them worked to limit it on the state level. But as a group they certainly didn't work tirelessly to end it...
The commitment to the status quo (legalized slavery) among the "southern founders" was particularly strong, and the "northern founders" didn't challenge this. Slavery remained legal in the northern states, even though few people owned slaves. And only one of the slave-owning "southern founders" actually freed his slaves after the nation was founded.
So did Michele Bachmann completely revise history when she said the founders worked tirelessly to end slavery? No.
But was Michele Bachmann correct? No.
Blodget is right that the Founders did not "work tirelessly" to end slavery, but it is possible that the elder Adams' views inspired his sons. As historical documentation shows, these leaders may not have put their words into action, but many of them did, indeed, have serious qualms about slavery.
In the end, historical evidence seems to corroborate a basis for what Bachmann was saying. Embellishing is one thing and being flat out wrong is another. In this instance, the congressman barely scratches the surface of the former and certainly is nowhere near the latter.
Below, watch Jimmy Kimmel's "Michele Bachmann's Story of America," in which she is, once again (though it is admittedly comical), maligned: