Bachmann on slavery and the national debt
"It didn't matter the color of their skin, it didn't matter their language, it didn't matter their economic status, it didn't matter whether they descended from known royalty or whether they were of a higher class or a lower class, it made no difference. Once you got here [to the United States] you were all the same. Isn't that remarkable?...That is the greatness and essence of this nation. We know we were not perfect. We know there was slavery that was still tolerated when the nation began. We know that was an evil and it was scourge and a blot and a stain upon our history. But we also know that the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States. And I think it is high time that we recognize the contribution of our forebears, who worked tirelessly, men like John Quincy Adams, who would not rest until slavery was extinguished in the country."
"From the time when George Washington took the presidency on his first day to the day George W. Bush left as president of the United States, all 43 presidents, if you take all of the debt combined of all of those 43 presidents, do you know that all of that debt is less than the debt that was accumulated by Barack Obama in one year? That is the level of debt and spending that we have engaged in. So this isn't hyperbole. This is facts."
--Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Jan. 21, 2011
The Fact Checker had to take a snow day yesterday--the power was out--so we are a day late in addressing Michele Bachmann's comments before the Iowans for Tax Relief. Others have weighed in, notably my colleague Jonathan Capehart, but given the controversy, it seems her comments are significant enough that they should be noted and evaluated. We will also take a look at a less-noticed assertion she made about the growth of the national debt under President Obama.
Bachmann likes to talk about slavery. If you listen to Bachmann's full 55-minute speech, rather than just snippets of the first quote that have popped up all over the Internet, you will see that much of it is an argument against the "slavery" of the national debt, which she calls "a slavery to a bondage of decline." She paints a picture of an American society, always moving forward, generation-by-generation, but now in a period in which the next generation faces the prospect of doing much worse than the generation before it. All in all, her speech--given as part of testing the waters for a presidential run--is a call to action for ordinary people to battle "elites" and to rid the nation of its debts.
But two aspects of her comments have drawn attention--that "once you got here you were all the same" and that "the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States." Both of those comments appear to indicate ignorance about the situation in colonial America. Certainly, the black men and women brought in chains on slave ships were not treated the same as colonialists once they landed on U.S. shores. As for the "founding fathers"--generally defined as someone who signed the Declaration of Independence or was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention--many prominent ones (such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington) were slave-owners. The U.S. constitution, until it was amended after the Civil War, defined African-Americans as 3/5 of a person for the purposes of counting population.
In between those remarks, however, Bachmann noted slavery "was an evil and it was scourge and a blot and a stain upon our history" that "was still tolerated when the nation began." Though some have criticized her for suggesting John Quincy Adams was a founding father (he was not), she simply calls him a "forebear." His biography on the White House website describes him as working "tirelessly" as a House member against the gag rule that prevented slavery from being discussed on the House floor.
Bachman's spokesman, asked for comment, replied: "There were a number of Founding Fathers like Benjamin Franklin who actively sought an end to slavery. In addition, if you watch the whole speech, it's very clear that she spoke of the Emancipation Proclamation and is well aware of our nation's tragic history regarding slavery."
While Bachmann mentions the Emancipation Proclamation, she does so nearly five minutes after the remarks that have spawned so much controversy; the two statements are not related at all. Benjamin Franklin did sign the Declaration of Independence and though originally a slave owner he did become an outspoken abolitionist. Still, Bachmann's comments greatly diminishes the many bargains made by the founding fathers in the early days of the Republic that allowed the institution of slavery to flourish for nearly a century after the War of Independence. In that context, her suggestion that "it didn't matter the color of the skin...once you got here you were all the same" is particularly objectionable--even if she did acknowledge the "scourge" of slavery. Many other ethnic and religious groups had to contend discrimination once they got here too, or years later, such as the Japanese-Americans interned during World War II.
Meanwhile, Bachmann's accusation on the growth of debt under Obama is mathematically impossible. The White House website lists the historical tables by fiscal year, so as of Oct. 1, 2008--a few months before Bush left office--the nation's debt stood at almost $10 trillion ($9.986 trillion, to be exact.) A year later, nine months in Obama's term, the debt stood at $11.875 trillion. That's substantial increase, nearly $1.9 trillion, but nowhere near all of the debt piled up by all of the presidents preceding Obama. The debt ceiling is $14.3 trillion, and the United States will soon hit that more than two years into Obama's term, but that still won't make Bachmann right. (Her spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.)
The Pinocchio Test
Bachmann appears to like to give history lessons in her evolving stump speech but she needs to be careful with her language, or else she runs the risk of misleading listeners about the past. Political figures especially should be held to a high standard for giving an accurate account of U.S. history, which is why her acknowledgement of the evils of slavery does not mitigate her broader errors. Her math on the national debt needs a lot of work also. She was off by a factor of five on a statistic she claimed was not hyperbole.
UPDATE, JANUARY 29:
To readers who wondered why I credited fiscal year 2009 to Obama: It is a fair point that this was Bush's last budget, but substantial changes were made after Obama took office, including the stimulus bill, so I think it is okay to say this is the first year of Obama. But normally this would be considered Bush's last budget. (Fiscal year 2000, with its surplus, belongs to Clinton, not Bush, for example.) And certainly a good chunk of the deficit in 2009 is a result of the recession, not government policy.
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