The unsettling thing about Michele Bachmann’s failed discussion of the founders and slavery is not that the Tea Party “Patriot” knew so little about the birth of the American experiment that she made John Quincy Adams—the son of a somewhat disappointing founder (John) and the cousin of one of the true revolutionaries (Sam)—into something he was not.
Bachmann has for some time peddled the notion that the nation’s founding fathers worked “tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States.” She is simply wrong about this. The last of the revolutionaries generally recognized by historians as the founders—signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and their chief political and military comrades—passed in 1836, with the death of James Madison. That was twenty-seven years before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, and twenty-nine years before the finish of the Civil War.
But Bachmann has never been bothered by the facts. Until now.
As she has moved from the fringe of the House Republican Caucus—which earlier this year dismissed her candidacy for a minor leadership role—into serious contention for the Republican presidential nomination, she has finally begun to be called out on some of her more outlandish statements.
Noting that many of the founders were slaveholders, George Stephanopoulos asked Bachmann the other day on ABC News’s Good Morning America to explain how she came to her distinctive view of the nation’s founding. “Well, if you look at one of our founding fathers, John Quincy Adams, that’s absolutely true,” the Minnesota congresswoman chirped. “He was a very young boy when he was with his father serving essentially as his father’s secretary. He tirelessly worked throughout his life to make sure that we did in fact one day eradicate slavery…”
In fact, John Quincy Adams was just 8 when the Declaration of Independence was signed and just 20 when the Constitution was being cobbled together at a convention that agreed to a “compromise” that identified a slave as three-fifths of a human being. He did not sign either document. Nor did he participate in any significant manner in the debates regarding those documents—or the compromises contained in them—until the last years of his life.
John Quincy Adams was, like his father, a critic of slavery. But as a diplomat, Cabinet member and president, he was relatively cautious in his approach to the issue — fearing the divisions that an honest and thorough debate would stir. Only when he was in his mid-60s, after finishing his one term as president, did Adams emerge as an outspoken critic of human bondage. When he did so, his was a radical act of departure from the corrupt political consensus that allowed slavery to be maintained. Adams’s courageous stance in opposition to states rights and in favor of a strong federal government with a commitment to liberty and justice for all is surely worthy of note.