Thomas Fleming: What Michele Bachmann Should Have Said About Slavery

Roundup: Historians' Take

Mr. Fleming, author of "Liberty! The American Revolution" (Viking, 1997), among many other books, is a past president of the Society of American Historians.

Congresswoman and presidential candidate Michele Bachmann created a stir recently by insisting on television that America's Founding Fathers "worked day and night" to abolish slavery. When asked to identify one of them and say what he did on behalf of this noble cause, the only name she produced was John Quincy Adams. He was all of 9 years old when his father, John Adams, persuaded the Continental Congress to vote for independence in 1776.

Ms. Bachmann's historical gaffe notwithstanding, there is surely a legitimate question here: Was slavery a day and night preoccupation of America's top leaders during the founding era—1775 to 1800? Dismaying as it may be to many admirers of our revolutionary past, the correct response is: no.

Survival was the issue that preoccupied the Founders and their followers during the eight-year struggle against imperial Britain's mighty fleet and army. When victory dawned in the 1780s, a new worry became paramount. Gen. George Washington summed it up in a terse sentence in a letter to another Virginian: "I see one head gradually turning into thirteen."

The divisions and quarrels between the 13 former colonies were making the future of the new nation a very dubious proposition. The cost of the Revolutionary War had reduced the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation to an often derisive joke. Without the power to tax, its paper money deteriorated into worthlessness. A bankrupt Congress could not persuade, much less coerce, any state to do anything it regarded as not in its best interest....

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