My Wisconsin ancestors embraced an opposition to slavery that was best expressed by Joseph Goodrich and the Milton Seventh Day Baptists. In addition to maintaining a stop on the Underground Railroad, these small-town abolitionists resolved in 1852 “that we enter our solemn protest against the system of American slavery, as a sin against God, and a libel upon our national declaration, that all men are created equal, that we regard the fugitive slave law as an atrocious violation of the rights of humanity…and that to aid in its execution would be treason to Jesus Christ.”
Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes echoed that historical viewpoint last August during a forum at the public library in Portage, Wis., when he spoke about the legacy of slavery in America. His words were not considered controversial at the time. Yet Barnes is now being attacked by Republican politicians and conservative commentators, who are circulating carefully edited clips of the speech and claiming to be outraged at the lieutenant governor’s honest reflection on US history.
What the reactionaries find offensive is nothing more than Barnes’s echoing the language of Wisconsinites who have long recognized the violent arrangements upon which this country was founded.
Reflecting on the failure of the founders to bar human bondage, and in so doing to permit the forced servitude, dispossession, dislocation, and family separation of millions of Americans in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Barnes said, “Things were bad. Things were terrible. The founding of this nation? Awful. But we are here now, and we should commit ourselves to doing everything we can do to repair the harm because [the legacy of slavery and segregation] still exists today.”
Barnes described the legacy of chattel slavery, from the brutal compromises of the founding moment to the Civil War to the era of Jim Crow segregation that followed. He explained that “the impacts are felt today and they’re going to continue to be felt unless we address it in a meaningful way.”
The Senate candidate’s nuanced commentary demonstrated that he is a political figure who has faith in the healing power of knowledge. That faith is compelling, and it argues for viewing his comments in their entirety, which readers can check out here.
There was nothing more radical in what Barnes said in Portage that day than in the lessons I learned as a child from family members and friends in the small towns of southern Wisconsin. The lessons of the Civil War and its aftermath were imparted by the grandchildren of the Wisconsin soldiers who fought and died to make real the founding promise that all human beings were created equal.
Yet Barnes’s use of the word “awful” has now been attacked by cynical Republican politicians, such as Missouri Senator Josh Hawley and Wisconsin gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Kleefisch. Kleefisch has demanded that Democratic Governor Tony Evers rebuke the lieutenant governor “for these awful comments about our great nation.” Fox News picked up on the manufactured “controversy,” as did the remainder of the right-wing echo chamber—even after the Barnes campaign noted in a statement that the Senate candidate’s remarks reflected the visionary role Wisconsinites played in opposing the Fugitive Slave Act and advancing the cause of human rights.
Throughout his political career, Mandela Barnes has spoken thoughtfully and appreciatively about the heroism of the Wisconsin abolitionists who sustained the Underground Railroad and who during the Civil War formed an “Iron Brigade” that marched to the front lines of the fighting at South Mountain, Second Manassas, Antietam, and Gettysburg.
This is an honorable history that should be commemorated, as Barnes does when he visits Wisconsin county seats where memorials to the fight for freedom still stand on courthouse lawns.
In particular, this history should be recalled by partisan critics who seem to have forgotten that the militant abolitionists who gathered in Ripon, Wis., in 1854 to launch a new political movement named their party “Republican.”