Dominion of New York


August 9, 2011

Why Michele Bachmann Revises Slavery’s History

Photo Courtesy of Flickr/Okinawa Soba


fter polishing off the New Yorker’s profile of Republican Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann last night and learning from it that some of her favorite books belong in the slavery apologia section of David Duke’s personal library, I spent some time reflecting on how someone so far right about race could ascend so high in national politics. And then I remembered that for most of the country’s political history, people with Michele Bachman’s views were the norm. For a brief period in the ’90s, when I was coming of age politically, it seemed like racists were dressing up their views, cloaking them in anti-welfare, pro-small government tirades. These days, those tirades march out the door stark naked.

According to the New Yorker, Bachmann’s mischaracterization of the nation’s founders as people who worked tirelessly to end slavery, was not a gaffe. It’s what she would call a worldview. When she was studying law at Oral Roberts University — in a law school whose curriculum is guided not by the constitution or conventional jurisprudence, but by the Bible — she helped law professor John Eidsmoe research a book, Christianity and the Constitution. According to the New Yorker, the book explains that:

“many Christians opposed slavery even though they owned slaves.” They didn’t free their slaves, [the author] 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.”

And several years ago, when she was running for State Senate in Minnesota, she posted a list of book recommendations that included the 1997 biography of Robert E. Lee by J. Stephen Wilkins. The New Yorker notes:

Wilkins is the leading proponent of the theory that the South was an orthodox Christian nation unjustly attacked by the godless North … African slaves brought to America, he argues, were essentially lucky. “Africa, like any other pagan country [sic], was permeated by the cruelty and barbarism typical of unbelieving cultures.” … 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.”

(How the author, his peer editors and professional editor mislabeled the earth’s second largest continent a country, I’ll never know.)

Obviously, Wilkins’ ideas aren’t original. Yawn. He belongs to one of a dozens or so schools of American thought that sprang up and mutated in the 18th and 19th centuries to justify the nation’s oppression of blacks. But what’s interesting is seeing Bachmann’s willingness to grasp at such ideas, in all their moral and political bankruptcy.

Ryan Lizza, the New Yorker reporter who wrote the story, didn’t get to ask her that question, because she shut off his interview access soon after he began probing her about her intellectual influences. But I speculate that with her Manichean worldview, she needs these kinds of beliefs to make sense of life.

She believes deeply that an all good, all powerful, and all wise God is guiding America, the land where for centuries the evils of slavery persisted. To reconcile the dissonance between those two ideas, she might just tell herself that slavery wasn’t really suffering.

The failure of so many churches to acknowledge and atone for their role in slavery has created a moral vacuum in which such nonsense proliferates. And now we have a politician eager to exploit that vaccuum for political gain. If Bachmann could get enough Americans to believe her, they could perhaps free themselves of the guilt that she probably believes made them vote for a black man for President.

I’m pretty cynical about race relations, but even I believe she’s sorely miscalculated her fellow Americans. Guilt may have impelled some of them to vote for Barack Obama, but slavery apologia will only deepen that guilt.



About the Author

Kelly Virella
Kelly Virella lives in an East Harlem walk-up with her husband, her bicycle and her books. She's worked as a journalist for 11 years and started this website during the summer of 2011. She fell in love with New York City during her first visit here as a 16-year-old and finally made good on her promise to move here in April 2010.