Representative Michelle Bachman is the national voice of The Tea Party. Recently, in speaking to a group of Iowans, she made some claims about American history that would be laughable if they had not come from someone who likes to style herself an authority of Constitutional matters. She claimed that the glory of our country is that color and language didn’t matter, nor did class or parentage, that once people got here, “we were all the same.”
Wishful thinking at best. Certainly that was the idea behind the Declaration of Independence, with its grand opening phrases, but like all such ambitions, it took reality a long, long time to catch up—and it still hasn’t. The fact is, despite our stated political and social goals, immigrants have always had difficulty upon arriving here, some more than others, and those already here have always resented new arrivals. And even for those who were already living here, equality was simply not a reality. African slaves aside, women did not achieve equality until…well, some would say they’re still trying to achieve it, but just for one metric, they didn’t get the vote until 1921. People who owned no property were barred from the vote for a good portion of the 19th Century and other barriers were put up here and there, time and again, such as literacy tests. Anything to keep certain groups from being able to vote against the self-selected “true” Americans.
She went further, though, and suggested that slavery was an unfortunate holdover from colonial times and that the Founding Fathers “worked tirelessly until slavery was gone from the United States.” She cited John Quincey Adams, who was a staunch campaigner against slavery. The problem, though, is that he was not a Founder. He was the son of one.
The reality is that slavery was a deal breaker at the constitutional convention in Philadelphia. Many of the delegates owned slaves and made it quite clear that any attempt to outlaw it would result in a No vote on any constitution. A compromise was struck, putting the issue off for twenty years, and until then no one was allowed to even mention it on the floor of Congress. (Interestingly, the British and others outlawed slavery and the slave trade in 1807, 56 years before we did.) This was violated by a group of Quakers who tried to force the issue in Congress in 1792 to angry denunciations and threats of secession. The Southern delegates were quite clear that slavery could not be eradicated without severely damaging their happiness and well-being. It was openly remarked that slaves were needed for “work that white men simply won’t do.”
All of which flies in the face of Ms. Bachman’s attempted revision of the Founding Fathers, many of whom were southern slaveholders.
We should be clear about these men who established a political system which has had consequences they could hardly imagine. Some were brilliant, all were intelligent, and most incorporated a mix of heady idealism sparked by Enlightenment thinking and the hard practicality of men determined to get something out of life for themselves and their own. It would be easy to portray some of them as opportunistic adventurers. For instance, George Washington and others were all frustrated and hampered by British colonial policy which tried to keep the colonists from crossing the Appalachian Mountains into territory forbidden to them because of treaties the Crown had negotiated with native tribes. Companies were assembled of American entrepreneurs to claim and sell land in the trans-Appalachian territories, the Ohio Valley, Kentucky, and even south of that—quite illegally per British law. These men had money at stake in this and were going ahead to lay claims and make sales in spite of the British. They stood to lose a great deal if they couldn’t proceed with these land deals. So it could be said as easily as anything else that the Revolutionary War was fought by these men to secure future profits.
This is reality. Not all of it, by any means, but not to be dismissed either in some spiritual reimagining of the purity of purpose and overarching genius of the Founders. In fact, it is no shame to say that everyone who fought against British rule here hoped to gain something, and not just the intangibles of liberty—which is not all that intangible in any case. Taxation was the war cry and what is that? Money. Property.
People came to these shores hoping to find land, which they could neither find nor own in Europe. This is a fact. Here, in the so-called “wilderness”, they thought they could do what their forebears had never had a chance to do—own something. This meant independence. This meant freedom.
But today, when the owning of things has a much changed meaning, freedom has a less concrete aspect. It’s all about principles and ideals and airy things with no material substance. We’re used to it here, you see. Freedom isn’t so connected to things for us because things are ours by birthright. Or so it seems.
Many of the Founders were large estate-holders, plantation owners, businessmen. Everything they had was on the line in the Revolution. This is no small thing. They risked tremendously for their dream.
But we should never forget that they were also men of their time and men of the world. Maintaining institutions that put coin in their pockets was part of who they were and it is idiocy to imagine them otherwise. We risk turning them into Apostles and overwriting the reality of our own history to make that time some sort of Avalon. But things aren’t like they were in the good ol’ days…and they never were.
This urge to hagiography on the part of people like Bachman puzzles me. Collectively, they have no problem dealing underhandedly with political opponents, pushing through legislation that will benefit the propertied at the expense of the poor, treating their enemies as harshly as possible, and yet they assert that the Founding Fathers were somehow not like that. They admire the Founders, and somehow manage to juggle the contradictions in their own actions. Maybe seeing the Founders as they were—people— would make their own actions simply ugly and make them accountable on their own, without the defense that they’re trying to reestablish that Golden Age.
This is a real problem. We cannot go forward unless we know where we’ve been, and we can’t go forward honestly unless we’re honest about where we came from. Yes, this is a free country, but what does that mean in practice? It means that we have set of standards we’re trying to attain without adding constraint to personal actions. But unconstrained, personal actions lead not only to explosions of entrepreneurship and leadership and justice and innovation, but also to brutality and open hypocrisy and bigotry and class strife. You can’t have one without the other, because people are not principles.
I think Michelle Bachman and her colleagues understand this perfectly well. If they can convince people that they have fallen from a state of grace, then all the problems are the fault of the fallen, and all we have to do is put things back as they were. As they were included Robber Barons, slaveholders, political misogynists, racists. If they can convince people that this was the state of grace, then they can carry the nation forward into a future of their conception, which will benefit them. It would be their trans-Appalachian enterprise.
I do not believe it is a coincidence that people like Bachman have also been at the center of the gutting of public education. An ignorant public can be controlled.
She asked rhetorically if this was going to be the last free generation of Americans. The torch of liberty has been passed from generation to generation and we may be the one that fails to pass it on. She could be right. If people don’t start filling their minds with knowledge instead of spin, the Michelle Bachmans may well stop that torch being passed.