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Posted at 4:45 PM ET, 01/28/2011

Bachmann on slavery and the national debt

By Glenn Kessler

"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.

The Facts

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.

Four Pinocchios

(About our rating scale).

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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By Glenn Kessler  | January 28, 2011; 4:45 PM ET
Categories:  4 Pinocchios, Michele Bachmann  
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Next: Obama and Mubarak and democracy--an accounting


I didn't listen to her speech but why are you using the debt one year into Obama's term? It is almost $14T now, which is a 40% increase in a little over two years. Perhaps the implication was that by using the actual debt growth for the past two years plus what the CBO projects for the next two, the debt under Obama will approach close to $18T (hard to argue against) by the end of his term. That $8T increase would come close to the increase in national debt by all of the previous 43 presidents. For that, I give FactChecker 3 Pinocchios. A little more fact checking please.

Posted by: mmourges | January 28, 2011 5:21 PM | Report abuse

One of the things that seems to get lost in the debt discussions is that the budget for the last fiscal year of any administration (in this case 10/1/2008 to 9/30/2009) gets included as the incoming administration's budget. In fact, a great deal of that 'incoming year' budget really should be attributed to the outgoing administration.

There are at least two arguments for this. First, much of the budget action for the fiscal year happens prior to the new administration being in office. Second, as the budget is quite dependent on the economic conditions, those conditions which an incoming administration faces, are already in situ when the administration comes into office.

I have seen VERY little recognition of this. (You see this in the current discussions, as well as the 'credit' that the incoming Bush administration takes for the budget surplus in 2000/2001.

Posted by: Barry8 | January 28, 2011 5:43 PM | Report abuse

mmourges: here are the facts...republicans ran up every cent of the dept load that crashed the system in 2008. that's george bush and the more than six years of republican influence. end of story. any money spent to resuscitate the brutalized economy left at Obama's doorstep when he took office can be laid at the feet of conservatives and their sycophant electorate.

nice try, but we will never forget . . . and you know where to stick your pinocchios.


Posted by: silverfish1 | January 28, 2011 5:49 PM | Report abuse

Dumb as a brick...totally hot. Reminds me of my HS GF from the val.

Posted by: dorklord | January 28, 2011 6:15 PM | Report abuse

Anyone with half a brain in Minnesota is aware of Bachmann's lack of interest in the facts. And when she gets caught, she just lies her way out of it. She also likes to talk about her family's business, but the fact of the matter is that she has received her income from one form of government or another all of her life. I guess she has hers now and to heck with the rest of Americans.

Posted by: MNUSA | January 28, 2011 6:18 PM | Report abuse

mmourges: here are the facts...republicans ran up every cent of the dept load that crashed the system in 2008. that's george bush and the more than six years of republican influence. end of story. any money spent to resuscitate the brutalized economy left at Obama's doorstep when he took office can be laid at the feet of conservatives and their sycophant electorate.

nice try, but we will never forget . . . and you know where to stick your pinocchios.


Posted by: silverfish1 | January 28, 2011 5:49 PM | Report abuse


Here Here !!!! Well and concisely said !

Posted by: Baccuss | January 28, 2011 7:03 PM | Report abuse

This is nothing new. Bachmann has a long (and I can only imagine "proud") history of saying the most outrageous things that turn out to be not true. She will quite literally say anything.

Perhaps that's what her Republican colleagues were thinking of when they reacted to her appointment to the House intelligence committee:

Posted by: B2O2 | January 28, 2011 7:05 PM | Report abuse

Obama has increased the national debt more than all the Presidents from Washington to REAGAN combined.

From Washington to Reagan the national debt was $2.19 trillion.

From Jan 20, 2009 to Aug 2010 (19 months) Obama increased the debt $2.52 trillion.

But the National Debt when Obama took the Oath of Office was at $10 trillion and is now as I type this $14.14 trillion.

And that's with Obama only being in Office 2 years.

And he wants to spend more to "grow" the economy, only now he calls it "investments."

I give Obama 4 Pinocchio's.

Remember Obama talking about all those shovel ready jobs and then admitting to Milbank LAST year that there weren't any.

But Obama still kept talking about those shovel ready jobs.

Maybe I should give him 10 Pinocchio's

Posted by: janet8 | January 28, 2011 7:34 PM | Report abuse

Does anyone remember when President Clinton left office? Not only had he balanced the budget, but there was a rather sizeable surplus.

One of the first things Geo. W. Bush did was to return the surplus to the taxpayers. Then he proceeded to take us into Iraq to finish his daddy's war and ran our nation debt to over $10 trillion to pay for the war.

Exactly how is an increase from $13 trilion to a little over $14 trillion a 40 percent increase?

Posted by: agayley1 | January 28, 2011 7:48 PM | Report abuse

Typical mainstream news source not telling the whole truth.

If you did, you'd call her an airhead and an idiot.

I'm not sure which is more remarkable--Bachmann or the people who keep electing her.

Posted by: RickyGibson | January 28, 2011 8:01 PM | Report abuse

"she needs to be careful with her language, or else she runs the risk of misleading listeners about the past."

Um, I think that's her intent. And the present and future, too.

Posted by: Samson151 | January 28, 2011 8:42 PM | Report abuse

What about all of those people we used to call "Indians"? Where do they fit into this discussion? They were not enslaved, of course, not after some initial experiments with enslaving them showed that they wouldn't make useful slaves. Still, they weren't welcomed into the new white man's world either.

I guess Bachmann just forgot about them. With Bachmann, I guess if you or your ancestors didn't come over on a boat, walking about freely on deck, you don't count, and if your ancestors came over on a boat, chained below deck, well, maybe you count at about 3/5s of a real American. And that's about it.

Bachmann is an idiot, of course, as is Palin, as are so many of the Teabats now polluting our politics. They know nothing, don't care to learn anything, and make it up as they go along. Those whom they claim to revere--Jefferson, Madison, Washington, etc.--would laugh at them.

Posted by: klakey1 | January 28, 2011 8:53 PM | Report abuse

Glenn: At the end of the second paragraph under "The Facts," I believe you meant African-Americans, not American-Americans.

Thanks for the work you do to "keep 'em honest."

Posted by: freckleface412 | January 28, 2011 10:37 PM | Report abuse

Some straight talk is in order. This young woman is a pathological liar. She is unfit for any public office.

Posted by: BBear1 | January 28, 2011 11:01 PM | Report abuse

Bachmann, Palin, Beck, et al seem intent on rewriting history. Sputnik brought down the Soviets. Nazis were liberals. Everyone was equal regardless of social status in colonial America.

What a wonderful of bendable history these TPers and GOPers live in. I'm going to rewrite some history too, and pretend none of them were ever born.

Posted by: arancia12 | January 28, 2011 11:37 PM | Report abuse

I didn't listen to her speech but why are you using the debt one year into Obama's term?
Posted by: mmourges

Because Bachmann said Obama had piled up more debt in ONE YEAR than in all previous administrations combined. One year. So even if you use the debt accumulated in just his second year, it would not equal the debt accumulated between Washington's first day and Bush's last. Geez.

Posted by: arancia12 | January 28, 2011 11:39 PM | Report abuse

One of the things that Ms. Bachmann also forgets is that President Obama put the cost of two wars in the budget rather than fund them through emergency spending measures as George W. Bush did.

The deficit looked a lot smaller without that $1 trillion dollars in it.

Posted by: arancia12 | January 28, 2011 11:45 PM | Report abuse

I'd love to get a job as a fact checker for Michelle Bachmann's speeches. That's like catching fish in a barrel.

Posted by: dparks2 | January 28, 2011 11:58 PM | Report abuse

Whoops, I was fact-checking my comment and found I misspelled her first name. I'm fired.

Posted by: dparks2 | January 29, 2011 12:01 AM | Report abuse

Michelle has a habit of twisting facts and making up history. However, that does not seem to bother her tea party supporters. I didn't listen to her speech but talked to Republicans who didn't have strong feelings about her one way or the other, and they were very turned off by her after that speech. Apparently she made a fool of herself.

Posted by: sharronkm | January 29, 2011 12:33 AM | Report abuse

I see all my left leaning friends continue to do what they always do, blame George Bush (been out of office for 2 plus years) and disregard the facts ($14t debt, $4t increase in 2 years). Gotta love that wonderful stimulus package, huh? And need I remind you all that Congress, which is in charge of the country's budget, was run by the Dems from 2006 until 2010. Dodd and Frank playng a huge part in setting and providing oversight of Freddie and Fannie Mae policy, which played a huge part in the financial meltdown. But why let facts get in the way? So trying to put all the blame on the Reps for the economic crash is worth 4 noses and I am sure some of you have more than enough room left in your tuchi to absorb them.

Posted by: mmourges | January 29, 2011 11:04 AM | Report abuse

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