J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, February 06, 2011

Bachmann, Burr, and Balderdash

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R.-Minn.) really likes the Founders. So much that late in college she changed political parties because she didn’t like the portrayal of those men in Gore Vidal’s novel Burr.

“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.”

“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."
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.

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.

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."
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.

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.


Jen said...

I find the fetishism surrounding the US founding politicians to be very strange. Certainly many of these men were ambitious, smart and dedicated people. As a historian (albeit of Early Modern European history) I am interested in the social, economic and intellectual movements that these men were are part of and how they individually impacted early American events. But why this recent need for today's politicians to speak of them in language bordering on hagiography? How does it prop up their own ambitions or the planks of their own party? I'm trying to move beyond being creeped out by all of this and finding some kind of analysis to explain it, and can't.

Timoteo said...

I suppose, despite all their faults (an/or myths), it is much better to emulate our founding fathers than what the left does with emulating Marx and Lenin.

Anonymous said...

it is frightening now how "rewriting" history is taking shape amongst the conservatives. as an enthusiast and reenactor of the American Revolution, i do own a don't tread on me shirt. i can no longer wear it with people commenting about my affiliations to the tea party. I am in no way shape or form part of the tea party, nor to i wish to be, but because i like the shirt and the war that gained us our indepence, i am associated with a psychotic radical movement to plunge our nation into hell

Jen said...

Emulation doesn't seem to figure into current American politics when it comes to mid 18th century American radicalism or late 19th early 20th century European populism.

J. L. Bell said...

I find many members of the founding generation very admirable myself, Jen, but don’t understand why some Americans wish to believe they had all the answers. Almost every nation has its founding myth, of course, and politicians have tried to link their causes to Washington (and, to a lesser extent, Jefferson) since the start. But why such a craze for the “Founding Fathers” now? Why is it based on so many false beliefs, quotations, and stereotypes?

One possibility is that some people falsely see that founding generation as more libertarian; they were so in some areas, not in most others. Another is that paleo-conservatives think the further back in the past, the better. Some folks probably see more recent admired Presidents, like Lincoln and the Roosevelts, as too committed to equal rights for blacks. Others might savor the idea of resistance against the government, but want an example more unifying than the secessionism of the 1800s. All in all, I think the appeal is far more emotional than rational.

Timoteo, your comment is ludicrous. Where are the politicians of “the left” in America aggrandizing Marx and Lenin? Where are actual Marxist-Leninist policies? Suggesting such a comparison makes you look clownish and even worse than out of touch.

I know how you feel, Anonymous. Since starting this blog in 2006, I’ve found links to it from a lot of websites that don’t reflect (a) my politics, which is fine; and (b) my standards for historical accuracy, which is more worrisome. Simply because I find the Revolutionary period fascinating, some folks think I must share their political beliefs.

Jen said...


Huh? I'm not sure what spectrum you're viewing, but even far left sympathizers that I know (in Boston, no less) aren't on board with Marx or Lenin. Turn off Beck. Really.

Jen said...

Bell, you might be interested in the ongoing commentary at his blog about what historians should do about "revisionist history." Personally, I think that we should stay out of the popular discourse where it interferes with our scholarship. But, hey, blogs are wide open :) Feel free to cross posts to Little Green Footballs.

Vegan Dad said...

Bachmann is not the first to extol the Founders as anti-slavery. Consider this passage from James McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom" (page 127).

"The founding fathers, said Lincoln, had opposed slavery. They adopted a Declaration of Independence that pronounced all men created equal. They enacted the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 banning slavery from the vast Northwest Territory. To be sure, many of the founders owned slaves. But they asserted their hostility to slavery in principle while tolerating it temporarily (as they hoped) in practice. That was why they did not mention the words "slave" or "slavery" in the Constitution, but referred only to "persons held in service." "Thus, the thing is hid away, in the Constitution," said Lincoln, “just as an afflicted man hides away a wen or a cancer, which he dares not to cut out at once, lest he bleed to death; with the promise, nevertheless, that the cutting may begin at the end of a given time."

So, as much as it pains me to say it, Bachmann is not totally wrong (and is *gasp* channelling Lincoln on some level), but also not totally right. There are elements of truth mixed with myth and fabrication. What drives historians crazy is the complete lack of nuance, but "it's complicated" is a terrible sound bite.

J. L. Bell said...

I think that saying in a political speech that the Founders were deeply uncomfortable with slavery, and took some steps against it, would have passed without comment. That may not acknowledge the depth of support for slavery in the late 1700s, but it’s an arguable, broad-strokes interpretation.

Bachmann tripped up by claiming “the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more.”

Most American politicians have invoked the country’s founding to support their programs. Lincoln made his argument that the Founders were anti-slavery; his opponents just as easily made the argument that they weren’t. Lincoln’s side won the war, and as a result his interpretation proved itself.

Timoteo said...

You said: "Where are actual Marxist-Leninist policies?"

Hmmm...trying to (or actually) taking over health care, insurance, banking, car manufacturing etc.

Patriots were outraged when a far off central government tried to force them to buy a product that the government gave a monopoly to.

This was the straw on the camel's back after all the other things that Great Britain did to curb the business entreprises of the colonies.

What do we have now? The same situation: an uncaring, bloated bureaucracy who gives favors to some and punishes others.

If I am a clown, you are a ringmaster of propaganda for a three ring circus comprising of liberalism, socialism and communism...

Bachmann might not have all her ducks lined up in a row historically with your nit-picking, but she certainly has a better feel for the situation of these times than you do.

You are a Tory who will defend the status quo.

J. L. Bell said...

Timoteo, your examples of “Marxist-Leninist policies” show a deep lack of understanding of both communism and current events.

The health-insurance reform bill was written to preserve private insurers and health-care providers; it didn’t even create a “public option” to offer competition.

The federal government took on General Motors and Chrysler stock in order to keep those big companies in business. Among the big losers in those bankruptcies were workers and retirees. Far from keeping ownership of those companies, the government has been trying to sell off the stock. Meanwhile, the majority of the auto industry in the U.S. of A. was untouched.

The Bush-Cheney administration’s bank-bailout bill put few restrictions on banks in exchange for the billions of dollars it provided. Even after the finance industry brought on the recession at the end of the Bush-Cheney terms, Congress enacted a moderate regulation law—and the industry’s friends in the new Congress are trying to weaken it.

You’re correct that there’s a parallel between how the last few U.S. administrations have protected businesses with public funds and lenient laws, and the way the Parliament in 1773 propped up the East India Company. But that’s because of the crushing influence of big money in American politics, based on the Supreme Court’s equation of money and speech. To call the resulting policies “Marxist-Leninist” is ludicrous.

It’s equally inaccurate to say I ”defend the status quo” simply because I don’t respect your political notions. You offer no evidence for that prejudice, and you won’t find any. I think the status quo needs a lot of reform, but you’re deluding yourself to think that Michele Bachmann and her far-right colleagues in the House actually offer any.

Timoteo said...

Say what you will Mr.Bell. It doesn't matter. Keep on your liberal attacks...it only empowers the people that you hate...women.

The more you liberals attack non-liberal women...the more powerful that regular and conservative women become.

Sarah Pailn or Michele Bachmann for president? Probably not. But what these women have done is to give a heads up to women that are running for school board, selectman, city council, state legislature etc.

An attack on Sarah or Michele is an attack on them.

Why do you hate women?

J. L. Bell said...

A clownish attempt at feminism, Timoteo. You have to mean it to be convincing.