Monday, July 4, 2011

Michele Bachmann and the Frozen Founders

MONDAY, JULY 4, 2011

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Michele Bachmann's insistence that John Quincy Adams was one of the Founders produced a lot of sniggering last week.  As many people have pointed out, the younger Adams was all of eight years old when the Declaration was signed 235 years ago.

The George Stephanopoulus interview was not the first time.  Speaking in Iowa back in January, Bachmann said

we know there was slavery that was still tolerated when the nation began, we know that was an evil, and it was a scourge and a blot and a stain on our history. 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 forbearers [sic] who worked tirelessly, men like John Quincy Adams, who would not rest until slavery was extinguished in the country.
Whenever a political figure insists on defending such a self-evidently wrong statement, it makes me wonder what lies beneath it. This isn't just ignorance. There is an ideological imperative she's obeying.

First, let's give Bachmann her due. John Quincy Adams was indeed an opponent of slavery. The problem is that his truly "tireless" activity on the subject came during his post-presidential career in Congress in the 1830s and 1840s. He was a figure of the second generation of American political leadership, not the first. 

The irony is that there are many examples of people during the founding generation working against slavery.  As Matt Yglesias has noted, actual Founders such as John Jay did fight slavery. The era of the revolution did see real progress on slavery--all of the northern states passed legislation for the gradual end to slavery within those states. So why not cite that actual history?

Because it is complicated, and Bachmann is looking for simplicity. To talk about the movement to end slavery in the northern states inevitably draws attention to the reality that the southern states not only did not follow, but over time grew more committed to maintaining slavery. The reason later generations had to work so "tirelessly" against slavery is that other Americans were working so tirelessly for it.

The reason the Founders did not end slavery in their new republic, one born with the phrase "all men are created equal," is that to insist on an end to slavery would have insured an end to the United States. As Robert Middlekauff writes in The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789, "white people in the North and South decided that for the time being at least the union that protected republican government was more important than a full-scale dedication to equality."

A truthful account of the Founders and slavery has to acknowledge this fact. They were something today's Tea Partiers say they abhor: compromisers. In the Constitutional Convention, they compromised on everything, most notably on slavery.

Another reason those later generations had to work so tirelessly to end slavery is that the Constitution so well ensconced slavery in the United States. Arguably the Constitution was the largest impediment to ending slavery. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison denounced the Constitution as a "covenant with death and an agreement with hell." He burned a copy of the Constitution in protest.

So to speak honestly and accurately of "the Founders" is to confront that messy reality.

Bachmann prefers her Founders simple, god-like, and unchanging. Since the Tea Party ideology deems the Constitution a sacred document, inspired by God (remember, it was Bachmann who enlisted the fraud David Barton to teach Constitution classes to Congress), those who wrote it must be responsible for all that is good. Thus she cannot be accurate. She cannot say some of the founders worked tirelessly against slavery while others defended it.

And since all good things must come from the Founders, she cannot note later Americans like Garrison who denounced the Constitution's compromises on slavery. No, abolition must trace back to "the Founders." All of them. She does not want real, fallible human beings. She wants icons, created in her own image and then frozen in time.

The alternative is simply not acceptable: she cannot admit that the Declaration, with its statement of great principles, was onlyimperfectly embodied in the Constitution. Because if we accept that the principles of the Founders expressed in the Declaration are renewed and reinterpreted by later generations, that the institutions we adopt to implement them change over time and are made "more perfect" in application, then the foundational idea of the Tea Party is nonsense.

Which, of course, it is. We cannot reflexively ask what "the Founders" would do or say, as if there is one objective answer to that question. The Declaration, whose adoption we celebrate today, is not only a gift to future generations. It is a burden. "The Founders" did not give us all the answers. They showed us the important questions, and challenged us to work out the answers for ourselves.

On this Independence Day, to truly honor their work, we should stop pretending we can lazily rely on them to tell us what to do, and instead take up the challenge of finding what it means in our times to strive for what "of Right ought to be."

Happy Fourth.

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