“He was kind of mocking the Founding Fathers and I just thought, ‘What a snot,’” she said. “I just remember reading the book, putting it in my lap, looking out the window and thinking, ‘You know what? I don’t think I am a Democrat. I must be a Republican.’”That quotation comes from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s 2007 profile of Bachmann. In December she repeated the anecdote to a group of Republicans in Michigan (she’s exploring a presidential run), and that got more attention.
Of course, Burr is fiction. Furthermore, much of it is in the voice of Aaron Burr, designated black sheep of the founding generation, alienated from the American political establishment for not stepping aside during the 1800 Electoral College debacle, shooting dead great Hamilton, and allegedly trying to found an empire in the west. (The novel’s other narrator is one of the book’s few totally fictional characters.) What should we expect Burr to say? In fact, most of the critical remarks Vidal put in his fictional version’s mouth came from political attacks of the early republic—i.e., what the Founders really said about each other.
It’s not clear why Bachmann equated disliking criticism of Burr’s contemporaries with not being a Democrat. Burr himself had helped to found what became the Democratic Party, but (as shown in the novel) Jefferson pushed him aside. And Vidal by the mid-1970s had also broken with the Democrats for the People’s Party, and was writing such things as “There is only one party in the United States, the Property party…and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat.” Around the time Bachmann read Vidal’s book, Americans of both main parties were celebrating the Bicentennial together.
Whatever her thinking, Burr made Bachmann a Republican. Within a few years she was studying law at Oral Roberts University, and now she’s one of the most conservative members of Congress.
Bachmann’s feeling for the Founders also surfaced in a speech she gave to Iowans for Tax Relief on 21 January. That speech was broadcast on C-SPAN, and Talking Points Memo reported it this way:
“How unique in all of the world, that one nation that was the resting point from people groups all across the world,” she said. “It didn’t matter the color of their skin, it didn’t matter their language, it didn’t matter their economic status.”Bachmann reeled off a remarkable jumble of historical misunderstandings. The U.S. of A. is not the only country formed from “people groups all across the world”; apparently she’s never gone north from Minnesota to Canada, nor visited Brazil, Australia, or even modern London.
“Once you got here, we were all the same. Isn’t that remarkable?” she asked.
Speaking at an Iowans For Tax Relief event, Bachmann (R-MN) also noted how slavery was a “scourge” on American history, but added that “we also know that the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States.”
"And," she continued, "I think it is high time that 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."
Any student of American history should know that at its founding and for much of its first two centuries the country didn’t treat people equally no “matter the color of their skin.” People weren’t “all the same” once they arrived in the U.S.; for decades, laws kept some as slaves or second-class citizens, barred others from citizenship, and kept women out of formal politics. Bachmann acknowledges such facts, but apparently believes that even though the Founders actually set up some of those laws, they didn’t really mean them.
Instead, Bachmann offers the wishful fantasy that “the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States.” Some of the men involved in writing the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, Constitution, and Bill of Rights (usually considered our founding documents) were anti-slavery. A few, such as Benjamin Franklin, were even politically active abolitionists. But most owned slaves and maintained the institution of slavery, even in those documents themselves.
As many critics noted, the one anti-slavery statesman Bachmann named—John Quincy Adams—was neither involved in writing any founding document, nor survived “until slavery was extinguished in the country” in 1865. (I count young Adams among the Founders because he worked as a young diplomatic aide in 1780-83. But my definition of that group is very broad.)
Bachmann’s factual inaccuracy was no surprise. Last month Minnesota Public Radio reported that PolitiFact has found this sort of commentary to be normal for her:
"We have checked her 13 times, and seven of her claims to be false and six have been found to be ridiculously false," PolitiFact editor Bill Adair said.Since then, however, Bachmann’s “Tea Party” response to the two main parties’ State of the Union addresses added two “Barely True” and two “Half True” rankings to her Politifact record.
Adair said no politician has been checked as often as Bachmann without saying at least something that's true.
"I don't know anyone else that we have checked, more than a couple times, that has never earned anything above a false," he said. "She is unusual in that regard that she has never gotten a rating higher than false."
Bachmann’s speech shows how her understanding of American history begins with certain tenets, to which the facts must bow. America has not just been a model and inspiration for other nations, she believes, but is still unique and exceptional among them. The “Founding Fathers” must be beyond criticism, in either a satirical novel or a stump speech.
Nevertheless, I find it interesting that Bachmann felt she had to acknowledge slavery in U.S. history—she couldn’t just let that part of history pass unremarked, as other politicians have tried. She also felt the need to speak well of equality and diversity, which some other modern political figures have criticized. And because we most of us believe that freedom for all, equality, and diversity are good things, Bachmann had to describe the “Founding Fathers” as tireless crusaders for those values as well.