Ryan Lizza: How Michelle Bachmann Really Sees Slavery
Ryan Lizza is The New Yorker’s Washington correspondent. He covers the 2012 Presidential campaign and national politics.
...Back on her campaign plane—Bachmann dubbed it her “Barbie jet,” in homage to Barbie’s pink Glam Vacation Jet, sold by Mattel—on June 28th, as we headed from New Hampshire to South Carolina, Bachmann was celebrating the P.R. victory over Chris Wallace. The “flaky” comment made him look mean, even sexist, and her refusal to accept his non-apology made her look tough. He finally called Bachmann personally and offered a clearer apology, which she accepted.
Bachmann marvelled at how the controversy “seems like it happened years ago.”
“There you go, exaggerating again!” an aide joked. Everyone laughed. But, on the plane’s television, Sean Hannity, of Fox News, was discussing the latest Bachmann controversy: an interview with George Stephanopoulos, in which she defended an earlier statement that the Founders worked tirelessly to end slavery. Even though Hannity reliably supported Bachmann, David Polyansky, the deputy campaign manager, groaned. “I wish he wouldn’t replay it,” he said. O’Donnell, the speech coach, nodded. The campaign veterans did not see the benefits of their candidate chatting about American slavery. But Bachmann was still not convinced that she was wrong. Someone had sent her research to back up her claim. “Did you get that e-mail saying that there’s more of them that we can talk about?” she asked, from the front of the plane. Polyansky and O’Donnell glanced at each other, but neither of them responded.
Bachmann’s comment about slavery was not a gaffe. It is, as she would say, a world view. In “Christianity and the Constitution,” the book she worked on with Eidsmoe, her law-school mentor, he argues that John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams “expressed their abhorrence for the institution” and explains that “many Christians opposed slavery even though they owned slaves.” They didn’t free their slaves, he writes, because of their benevolence. “It might be very difficult for a freed slave to make a living in that economy; under such circumstances setting slaves free was both inhumane and irresponsible.”
While looking over Bachmann’s State Senate campaign Web site, I stumbled upon a list of book recommendations. The third book on the list, which appeared just before the Declaration of Independence and George Washington’s Farewell Address, is a 1997 biography of Robert E. Lee by J. Steven Wilkins.
Wilkins is the leading proponent of the theory that the South was an orthodox Christian nation unjustly attacked by the godless North. This revisionist take on the Civil War, known as the “theological war” thesis, had little resonance outside a small group of Southern historians until the mid-twentieth century, when Rushdoony and others began to popularize it in evangelical circles. In the book, Wilkins condemns “the radical abolitionists of New England” and writes that “most southerners strove to treat their slaves with respect and provide them with a sufficiency of goods for a comfortable, though—by modern standards—spare existence.”
African slaves brought to America, he argues, were essentially lucky: “Africa, like any other pagan country, was permeated by the cruelty and barbarism typical of unbelieving cultures.” Echoing Eidsmoe, Wilkins also approvingly cites Lee’s insistence that abolition could not come until “the sanctifying effects of Christianity” had time “to work in the black race and fit its people for freedom.”
In his chapter on race relations in the antebellum South, Wilkins writes:
Slavery, as it operated in the pervasively Christian society which was the old South, was not an adversarial relationship founded upon racial animosity. In fact, it bred on the whole, not contempt, but, over time, mutual respect. This produced a mutual esteem of the sort that always results when men give themselves to a common cause. The credit for this startling reality must go to the Christian faith. . . . The unity and companionship that existed between the races in the South prior to the war was the fruit of a common faith.
For several years, the book, which Bachmann’s campaign declined to discuss with me, was listed on her Web site, under the heading “Michele’s Must Read List.”
“If there was one word on a motivation or world view, that one word would be ‘liberty,’ ” Bachmann told me in early August, when I asked about her world view. “That’s what inspires me and motivates me more than anything—just the concept of freedom, liberty, what it means. Whether it’s economic liberty, religious liberty, liberty in our finances, liberty in being able to choose the profession we have. That’s what inspired my relatives to come here back in the eighteen-fifties. It was the concept of liberty. That’s what motivates me today as well....
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