Hatred finds its most malignant expression in the rhetoric of demagogues. Journalist Chris Mathews claims that Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann is so ignorant of American history she believes the founders of the American Constitution ended slavery immediately upon its ratification. In fact, Congresswoman Bachmann explained plainly and with moving eloquence the founders’ strategy for the abolition of slavery; and that by their tireless efforts, slavery ultimately would be abolished. Mr. Mathews, however, discovered in an intentional mischaracterization of Congresswoman Bachmann’s presentation the grist that would feed his expectorant malice.
Congresswoman Bachman knows as do we all that Americans engaged in civil war. She is well aware of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the Constitution’s banishment of cruel and unusual punishment, Amendment VIII, the prohibition of slavery, Amendment XIII, the right to due process and equal protection of the laws, Amendment XIV, the prohibition against the racial abridgement of the right to vote, Amendment XV, the repeal of Jim Crow poll taxes, Amendment XXIV, the prohibition of racial discrimination calculated to prevent the exercise of the vote, Amendment XV, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Civil Rights Act of 1966 and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s long years of constitutional advocacy.
Americans share in common the history of our human struggle. Mr. Mathew’s accusation that Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann believes that the founders immediately abolished slavery is as much a libel of her formidable intelligence as it is proof of his implacable malice.
The civil rights history of the United States, though too often written in blood, violence and tragedy, would never have come to pass—as Congresswomen Michelle Bachmann carefully explains—had it not been for “the founders’ tireless efforts” to end the scourge of slavery. That the founders did not live to witness its abolition diminishes not a wit their honor, courage and undaunted will.
Had the founders failed in the ratification of the Constitution there never would have been an Emancipation Proclamation, due process and equal protection of the law. It is Mr. Matthew’s accusation that a United States Congresswoman is unaware of America’s struggle for civil rights. However, were it not for a strategy the founders set in stone the abolition of slavery—not only in word and script but as well in deed—would not have happened.
Congresswoman Bachmann, explains that the founders drafted a constitution dedicated to the proposition that “All men are created equal,” that finally and at last, in the abolition of slavery, the founders by their tireless efforts would conform the reality of American freedom for black Americans to the principles and mandate of a universal, natural law. All human beings, because they are rational, are heir to these core principles of equity and justice. Slavery is a feral aberration; it is the antithesis of natural law.
Mr. Matthews, however, does not restrain his malice to Congresswoman Beckmann: He savages the truth as he defames his country. His contention that the written words of the Constitution imposed a value on black Americans equal to 3/5ths that of a white man demonstrates a harebrained ignorance of its language and principles. Not a word of the Constitution expresses any such outrage. Mr. Mathews, however, speaks out of that that well of American self-hatred, by which a psychotic and shrinking American minority still seek the criminal indictment of America for every evil act ever plagued mankind.
In the cross examination of his guest John Walsh regarding what he believed to be Congresswomen Bachmann’s constitutional ignorance, Mr. Walsh was unable to complete a single sentence as Mathews shut him off with tawdry taunts and bursts of apoplectic anger. Worse still, Mr. Mathews implied none too subtly the shabby, time worn slander that America—alone of all the nations of the earth, perhaps since Babylon— is a racist country.
Matthews like most leftist utopians indicts the founders for their failure to instantly abolish slavery. However, immediate abolition, when America could barely hold its own against Imperial Britain—and a too often predatory France—would have immediately instigated civil war and the disintegration of a newly minted United States. [i]Must we remind Mr. Matthews that in 1812, the president, senators and representatives fled the capital for their lives? There were a few who as they fled looked back to see the British torch the White House and burn it to the ground.
While slavery anywhere and for whatever reason is morally wrong, the notion that the southern United States was the champion of human slavery is a myth. While the South relied on slavery, so too did England, France and Spain. As Europe discovered and became addicted to the consumption of sugar, demand increased. As the harvesting of cane sugar is labor intensive, the demand for slaves increased exponentially. Slavery therefore, was not a provincial southern outrage; it was an international outrage—as it has been an outrage for millenniums, in Greek Athens, Persian Persepolis and Imperial Rome.
Americans may take pride in the fact that the American founders despised slavery. In less than a hundred years the new United States would abolish an institution older than the pyramids. It is a fact as Congresswoman Bachmann so eloquently explains, that the founders worked tirelessly to see slavery destroyed. However, while President John Adams detested slavery, as did his son John Quincy Adams, it was critical, if the Constitution were to be ratified, that the founders have the vote of the southern slave states.
It was also critical to the survival of a fragile union, a fledgling nation the target of French and British imperial ambitions, that the southern states remain in the union. Had the founders conditioned ratification on the abolition of slavery, ratification would have failed. Had they insisted on abolition of slavery following ratification they would have been requited not with abolition but civil war—and a stillborn United States.
While the founders persisted in the strategies of emancipation, their path was fraught with peril. They realized too well that the dire consequence of southern nullification would be national extinction, a vicious civil war or both. The southern threat of nullification was real, potentially devastating and the civil war as it came to pass, for all its years of savage bloodletting, was the first and greatest American tragedy.
The men of the times revealed in their deadly passions the mortal risk and near certainty of fratricidal war. When in 1820 Missouri applied for admission to the Union,
New York congressman James Talmadge proposed an amendment to the Missouri enabling bill: no more slaves were to be brought into Missouri, and provided for the gradual emancipation of children born to slaves already there.
The proposal balanced the Constitution upon the double edge of bloody swords and bellicosity.
[Southerners] “…considered the Tallmadge amendment a portentous menace to sectional balance… Thomas Cobb threatened disunion if Tallmadge did not withdraw the amendment. The New Yorker, said Cobb, was kindling
‘a fire that all the water of the ocean cannot put out which seas of blood can only extinguish.’ Talmadge darkly responded, ’Let it be so! If civil war… must come… let it come!’” [ii]
Still, the founders were relentless in their determination to see excised from a sovereign people and their Constitution the scourge of slavery. Accordingly, the Continental Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, thus prohibiting the extension of slavery into the western territories. The Ordinance, as it did not abolish slavery, was hardly perfect; it was, however an inexorable step to abolition. Article VI provides,
There shall be neither slavery not involuntary servitude in the said territory otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.
The founders’ detestation of slavery is too well documented to be denied. James Madison expressed his opinion in the Federalist Papers, 42 writing,
It ought to be considered as a great point gained in favor of humanity that a period of twenty year may terminate forever, within these States, a traffic which has so long and so loudly unbraided the barbarism of modern policy.
Thomas Paine, a plain man of the people, the author of Common Sense, gave to Americans then and now the searing image of faithless summer soldiers and sunshine patriots. George Washington ordered that Tom Paine’s words be read to his hungry soldiers at Valley Forge. It may be that Paine speaks for all Americans.
To Americans…That same desperate wretches should be willing to steal and enslave men by violence and murder for gain, is rather lamentable than strange. But that many civilized, nay, Christianized people should approve, and be concerned in the savage practice, is surprising and still persist, though it had been so often proved contrary to the light of nature…
But to go to nations with whom there is no war, who have no way provoked, without the design of conquest, purely to catch inoffensive people, like wild beasts, for slaves, is a height of outrage against Humanity and Justice, that seems left by Heathen nations to be practiced by pretend Christians. How shameful are all attempts to color and excuse it… But what singular obligations are we under to these injured people! Theirs are the sentiments of JUSTICE AND HUMANITY. [iii]
America, as it developed a more powerful navy, would join with England in the eradication of the slave trade. Together they stopped slave ships on the high seas, set free black captives and swung from the yardarm human predators seeking profit from the enslavement of their fellow man.
Alas, what more may be said of Mr. Mathews? I think it better that we leave him be. For Americans, in full measure, have had their fill of summer soldiers and sunshine patriots.
[i] In the writing of this column I have relied on the lectures of Daniel N, Robinson, Professor at Oxford University, Adjunct Professor of Psychology, Columbia University, and distinguished Research Professor, Emeritus, Georgetown University. American Ideals, Founding a ‘Republic of Virtue” (The Teaching Company, Chantilly Virginia, 2004).
[ii] David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, Henry Clay, the Essential American, (Random House, 2010), 144. (We are all of us quite proud to note that our authors reside in Colorado Springs. I recommend their excellent history. It is a work of American prose).
[iii] (From Paine’s “African Slavery in American,’ Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser, March 8, 1775).