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June 28, 2011 12:35 PM Not all of history is open to interpretation

By Steve Benen

Earlier this month, former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin (R) offered her amusing-but-wrong take on Paul Revere, arguing that he “warned the British that they weren’t gonna be takin’ away our arms,” and by “ringin’ those bells” and making “warning shots,” Revere made clear “we were gonna be secure.”

Obviously, none of this was true. But conservative activists weren’t quite satisfied with history as it was, so they strenuously argued that Palin’s recollection was kinda sorta true if you tilt your head, read every other word, and looked between the lines. It was a sad display, and a reminder that much of the political world has entered a post-truth era.

This dynamic was apparent again this morning. Michele Bachmann was asked to explain her contention that the Founding Fathers “worked tirelessly to end slavery,” which didn’t happen. Bachmann responded her observation is “absolutely true” if you “look at one of our Founding Fathers, John Quincy Adams.” She added that Adams “most certainly was a part of the Revolutionary War era. He was a young boy but he was actively involved.”

I noted that John Quincy Adams was a nine-year-old boy when the Declaration of Independence was signed, making Bachmann’s argument foolish.

This, of course, led the right to do just as it did with Palin and Paul Revere — make an effort to spin falsehoods into reality.

One conservative told me Bachmann’s comments were “100% accurate,” and pointed to Adams’ work as a diplomatic envoy as teenager. Another made a similar case:

Does Steve Benen know that 1783 found John Quincy Adams on a US diplomatic mission to Russia? Doesn’t look like it.

As much as I appreciate this review of Adams history — I’ve always been a John Quincy Adams fan; he was something of a liberal — the effort to defend Bachmann this way is terribly silly.

She argued the Founding Fathers “worked tirelessly to end slavery.” This is plainly false. Bachmann argued that John Quincy Adams was a Founding Father. This is plainly false, too. Pointing to Adams’ accomplishments as a youngster doesn’t change the fact that Bachmann keeps saying things that aren’t true.

Her defenders can argue that Bachmann merely misspoke. They can also argue these errors aren’t especially important, and that the candidate’s beliefs on public policy (which also happen to be wrong) are far more relevant than her historical errors. Both of these are reasonable responses.

But changing history to suit a partisan worldview is always a mistake. Conservatives used to understand this, and I hope they can do so again someday.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

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  • Bruce Anderson on June 28, 2011 12:40 PM:

    Cognitive dissonance can explain the behavior but not the actions.

  • Archon on June 28, 2011 12:40 PM:

    Maybe it's me but I'm gonna give credit to those hundreds of thousands of Union troop that, DIED ON THE BATTLEFIELD!!!, for helping to end slavery over the Founding Fathers who might have been conflicted about slavery but surely didn't end it.

  • Gummitch on June 28, 2011 12:40 PM:

    She can't claim that she "misspoke" while spinning nonsense to prove she was correct.

  • blondie on June 28, 2011 12:44 PM:

    I would also point out that Bachmann's fixation on the Founding Fathers always manages to ignore that they were RADICALS. Just as JQA was a radical on the issue of slavery (in the 19th century, Michelle, not the 18th).

  • Mike D on June 28, 2011 12:45 PM:

    JQA was a Founding Father the same way Sasha Obama is a key member of the Obama Administration.

  • T2 on June 28, 2011 12:46 PM:

    While it's true that everyone can't be a historical scholar, Bachmann is proving she is more like a hysterical scholar. Sure she made some relatively harmless goof-ups, but it is her maniacal dedication to some seriously dangerous political and societal beliefs that in any other time in our history would make her a candidate for a mental hospital, not the presidency.
    I think we need a little closer look at her law degree and education.

  • Raenelle on June 28, 2011 12:48 PM:

    Marion Mitchell Morrison was, too, born in Waterloo, Idaho. That Kenyan altered his birth certificate, as well, just to embarrass Michelle.

  • kd bart on June 28, 2011 12:48 PM:

    Historical dates are a known liberal bias.

  • Ron Byers on June 28, 2011 12:48 PM:

    "But changing history to suit a partisan worldview is always a mistake. Conservatives used to understand this, and I hope they can do so again someday."

    Steve,William F. Buckley is dead. Bachmann and her fans never heard of him.

    Michelle Bachmann and her fans aren't old time conservatives. They are something different. They are radical revolutionaries.

  • TR on June 28, 2011 12:50 PM:

    I think we need a little closer look at her law degree and education.

    Are you saying the Oral Roberts law school that had its ABA accreditation withdrawn a few years before she arrived and then folded the year she got her "degree" didn't educate her well? Heaven forbid.

  • Mustang Bobby on June 28, 2011 12:50 PM:

    I can see it now: the newest series of books for kids to replace Harry Potter: Young John Quincy Adams -- Boy Diplomat. Maybe he'll have a girlfriend and a goofy sidekick who's always getting into trouble with those darn Russians.

  • kevo on June 28, 2011 12:51 PM:

    Yes, as improbable as it may seem to be, here, in the early 21st century, but, we are witnessing just how myth and misnomer control the intellects of our "conservative" brethren here in our good ol'USA!

    Yes, myth and misnomer, the campaign strategy for Republicans in the 2012 election cycle!

    Question of the moment - Will Middle Class voters be hoodwinked yet again? -Kevo

  • Brian R. on June 28, 2011 12:52 PM:

    Is Josh Trevino implying that a teenaged JQA worked aggressively to end slavery while he was on a diplomatic mission to czarist Russia which, you know, had its own version of slavery in effect at the time?

    If so, he's even dumber than he looks.

  • Bob on June 28, 2011 12:56 PM:

    A lie told often enough becomes the truth.
    - Vladimir Lenin

  • c u n d gulag on June 28, 2011 12:57 PM:

    And, after all, his Daddy did start "Sam Adams" beer, so he both an entrepreneur and a job creater.

    SO THERE!!!

  • Marc on June 28, 2011 12:59 PM:

    I love that some dolt named "Baseball Crank" from RedState.com is trying to lecture James Joyner -- who has a Ph.D. and is an actual political science professor -- about the facts of John Quincy Adams' life.

    Because clearly, the political scientist knows nothing, and the guy who once read David McCullough's biography of John Adams knows everything.

    These people really are beyond mocking, aren't they?

  • jdog on June 28, 2011 1:04 PM:

    The better example might be Hamilton. Hamilton was a member of the New York Manumission Society, which argued for freedom (so was John Jay, who owned 5 slaves at the time). But even admitting this does not make Bachmann's statement correct -- it is absolutely absurd.

    Obviously, many of the founders were avid slave owners. Monticello, after all, was built with slave labor.

    See Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin, 2004), 210-214.

  • Tuttle on June 28, 2011 1:04 PM:

    Gulag, Samuel Adams was the 1st cousin of President John Adams, the father of President John Quincy Adams.

  • kevo on June 28, 2011 1:11 PM:

    Tuttle - I don't wish to speak for anyone here, but I think c u n d gulag wasn't trying to be historically accurate, but rather wished to represent where Bachmann's misnomer could easily lead the unassuming mind! -Kevo

  • DAY on June 28, 2011 1:18 PM:

    We're all having a hoot with these dolts currently "running" for president, but the larger issue is the American public is woefully ignorant of even the basic Three R's (watch any TV quiz show for examples- Jeopardy excepted, even if much of the material is about "pop" culture).

    In J. Q. Adam's day an educated man read Latin and Greek, and even the lowest tavern patron- often illiterate- had a depth of knowledge about current events that would shame today's candidates.

    So abysmal are the voters today, that even someone as ill informed as Sarah Palin qualifies for "In the Land of the Blind, the One Eyed man is King."

  • Trollhattan on June 28, 2011 1:19 PM:

    Let's not forget the tireless work of founding father Gomez Addams in freeing the vampires and zombies, also, too. Michele's on a factoid roll this week, and it's only Tuesday.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/post/fact-checking-michele-bachmanns-announcement-speech-and-sunday-interviews/2011/06/27/AGMfj4nH_blog.html?hpid=z2

  • Grumpy on June 28, 2011 1:33 PM:

    There are varying definitions of "Founding Fathers" (a term which, according to the Wikipedia page as of Saturday, was coined by Warren Harding less than 100 years ago). The Signers of the Declaration and the Framers of the Constitution, certainly. But what about the others? Was Thomas Paine a "Founding Father"? Perhaps Bachmann simply includes everyone alive during that generation as a "Founding Father," and since some, like JQA, fought to end slavery, ergo "the Founding Fathers" fought to end slavery. (As of today, the Wikipedia page does not include JQA in the list of "Other Founders.")

    By the same logic, of course, the Founding Fathers fought to preserve slavery.

  • Danp on June 28, 2011 1:49 PM:

    THinkprogress.org is already reporting that people are attempting to change Wikipedia. Interesting they are changing it to read that John Adams, a founding father, was the 6th president.

  • mudwall jackson on June 28, 2011 1:52 PM:

    actually the founding fathers worked tirelessly to punt the issue, hence the three-fifths clause in the constitution, which set the pattern for the country until the election of lincoln.

  • Shadow on June 28, 2011 1:53 PM:

    Does Steve Benen know that 1783 found John Quincy Adams on a US diplomatic mission to Russia? Doesn’t look like it.

    And that has WHAT to do with slavery??

  • c u n d gulag on June 28, 2011 1:54 PM:

    Tuttle,
    YOU know that.
    I know that.
    But Bachmann doesn't.

    THAT was the gag! :-)

  • c u n d gulag on June 28, 2011 1:56 PM:

    Kevo,
    Thanks for defending me. :-)

  • Anonymous on June 28, 2011 2:00 PM:

    Bachmann responded her observation is “absolutely true” if you “look at one of our Founding Fathers, John Quincy Adams.” She added that Adams “most certainly was a part of the Revolutionary War era. He was a young boy but he was actively involved.”

    And she wonders why people think she's a flake.

  • SYSPROG on June 28, 2011 2:02 PM:

    Gosh darn it...that's what homeschooling that passle of kids will get you, Michelle! Sorry but JQA was not a founding father...he was a young boy, son of a tireless fighter for the republic would went on a diplomatic mission as a French-language interpreter. You know those kids back then! They could read, and UNDERSTAND history ALL THE WAY BACK to those pesky Greeks. They could probably also REMEMBER what they read. The guy that is defending Bachmann is probably on the TEXAS textbook board...no facts there.

  • JW on June 28, 2011 2:15 PM:

    "I fear for my country when I reflect that God is just"... and that Michelle Bachman has a bona fide shot at winning the 2012 GOP nomination.

  • zandru on June 28, 2011 2:39 PM:

    "Conservatives used to understand this"

    There, you've slipped up again, Mr. Benen. The folks we're talking about are not "conservatives", they're REACTIONARIES.

    Always refer to "the reactionary right", not "conservatives". Tea baggers are not "ultra-conservatives", they're "confused reactionaries." The whole Republican party, at least at the national level, has a REACTIONARY agenda, not "conservative".

    In this game, words are everything.

    That said, "Hicks, dintord"

  • Todd for VT House on June 28, 2011 2:44 PM:

    I knew JQA. JQA was a friend...nevermind.

    BTW, I was alive during the Vietnam Era. Didn't mean I served in Vietnam. They didn't take Quaker toddlers in the Army...

  • Todd for VT House on June 28, 2011 2:45 PM:

    FWIW, the HBO series John Adams was pretty good, if more than a bit ahistorical at times. Not a bad adaptation of the book...

  • tamiasmin on June 28, 2011 2:46 PM:

    John Quincy Adams was a Founding Son.

  • Jon on June 28, 2011 3:07 PM:

    To paraphrase Founding Father James Brown: Say it loud, I'm ignorant and I'm proud!

  • Tony J on June 28, 2011 3:09 PM:


    JW,

    - "I fear for my country when I reflect that God is just"... and that Michelle Bachman has a bona fide shot at winning the 2012 GOP nomination." -

    Look at it this way. Given the options, who would you rather Obama faced in 2012? A superficially 'moderate' representative of the GOP's Establishment wing, or Bachmann, who embodies all the unattractive qualities of modern 'populist' conservatism?

    Why not have the fight out in the open? Obama's America vs the Tea-Party version of what the country should be about and for? There's only so much the MSM can do to carry water for Republicans.

    Who do you think would win - that - fight?

  • karen marie on June 28, 2011 3:09 PM:

    To say that John Q, when he was 14 years old, was "on a diplomatic mission to Russia" gives the impression that he had some authority and was a deciderer. He didn't and he wasn't. He was secretary to a friend of his father's and was taken along because he was proficient in several European languages and Francis Dana, the American minister to Russia, was not.

    John Q was30 years old when he was appointed American minister to Prussia and 42 years old when he was appointed American minister to Russia.

    Someone ought to make a present to Bachmann of David McCullough's "John Adams." She might learn something.

  • JW on June 28, 2011 3:23 PM:

    "Who do you think would win - that - fight"?

    First things first. I consider that Bachman the ideal candidate to represent the GOP in 2012, insofar as she epitomizes the party's twisted heart and forked tongue. It is the party of Rule or Ruin, and she is the personification of everything it stands for, and stands against.

    Secondly, I'm in accord with Howard "Kicked To The Curb" Dean. Whomsoever gains that nomination can definitely win the general election.

  • Zorro on June 28, 2011 3:33 PM:

    In fairness to Bachmann, she may well have been confusing John Quincy Adams w/his cousin John Adams who was both truly a Founding Father of our beloved country *and* opposed to slavery. He did, however, speak out against a bill introduced in Massachusetts in 1777 which would have emancipated all slaves in the state, saying that the issue was too divisive.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Adams

    -Z

  • fafner1 on June 28, 2011 3:36 PM:

    You gotta like J.Q.'s dad, who signed the treaty of Tripoly which starts out: As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion. . . The treaty was ratified by the senate, which at the time contained numerous founding fathers. So much for the wing nut myth of the U.S. as a holy republic.

  • Todd for VT House on June 28, 2011 3:48 PM:

    In fairness to Bachmann, she may well have been confusing John Quincy Adams w/his cousin John Adams

    Uh...JA was JQA's *dad*, not cousin.

    And no need to be fair. This wasn't an isolated mistake, and her doubling down obviates any need to explain away what could've been slight confusion.

    And I wish she would ride to Boston to warn the British they are more than welcome to take our CAPTCHA away.

  • biggerbox on June 28, 2011 4:01 PM:

    By a similar line of reasoning, Barack Obama is a rocket scientist, by virtue of his being nine years old at the time of the Apollo moon landing.

  • Anonymous on June 28, 2011 4:14 PM:

    actually the founding fathers worked tirelessly to punt the issue

    It made a certain amount of sense to punt on slavery at the time--the institution was going broke, as world tobacco prices were falling and using slaves to farm cotton was uneconomical. The Founder's generation thought slavery would die off in short order. Unfortunately, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, and slavery became proftable again.

  • D BROWN on June 28, 2011 4:20 PM:

    The slavers are why we have the Electoral Collage. They they wanted to vote their slaves. Almost all the Founding Father would not let them. They did not like slavery. After months they agreed to the compromise of the Electoral Collage with the slaver voting their slaves at 3/5 the vote of a free white man. It was the only way to get Slave States to join the union.

  • Jeff Meredith on June 28, 2011 4:42 PM:

    Here's the difference between a conservative who misspeaks and our current president: Barack Obama knows damn well that there are not 57 states. He said on the campaign trail that he would make mistakes -- he's humble enough to acknowledge them.

    But when Michele Bachmann says that the Founding Fathers worked tirelessly to end slavery and that John Quincy Adams was one of the Founding Fathers (he was 8 years old when the Declaration of Independence was signed, as many have pointed out), she's not willing to concede that any mistake has been made. It's true because she says it's true ... evidence be damned.

    This is like Palin & Paul Revere all over again. Instead of saying, "Hey, I had it wrong because I'm a ____ing moron," these people always double down and attempt to rewrite history. And enough Americans go along with it because they believe in this mythical "liberal bias" ... as if liberal bias or "gotcha journalism" has anything to do with the fact that John Quincy Adams was NOT a Founding Father and the fact that slavery didn't end in this country till 1865. It�s absolutely appropriate for an interviewer like George Stephanopoulous to say, �Sorry Michele, that�s simply not true.�

    If the Founding Fathers were so committed to ending slavery, how to explain these simple facts?
    http://www.factcheck.org/2007/12/presidents-who-owned-slaves/

    Of the first five presidents (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe -- all considered Founding Fathers, no?), FOUR owned slaves -- all four owned these slaves while they were in office. Tirelessly working to end slavery, eh? So tirelessly that they owned slaves themselves.

    Of the next five presidents, four owned slaves. Only two owned slaves while in office.

    The last president to own slaves while in office was Zachary Taylor (1849-1850). This is about 75 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence and over 60 years after the Constitution had been ratified, long after these Founding Fathers were dead. And we still had slavery in this country and it was commonplace enough that our own President owned slaves while in office.

    So when I read all of these a-holes claiming that Washington and Jefferson were really committed to ending slavery, this is like claiming that I'm committed to short message board posts.

    You can cherry pick quotes from them saying otherwise and I'll then ask you why Washington had 316 slaves at his estate at the time of his death in 1799.

    Washington did choose to free his slaves (He owned 123, the rest were via his wife's estate) upon his death, but few of the slaveholding presidents who followed him manumitted their slaves. Jefferson did not manumit all his slaves in his will; Madison didn't either. Jefferson reportedly owned over 600 slaves over the course of his life and only 10 were manumitted or allowed to escape from bondage.

    Reference material reg. Madison:
    http://www.montpelier.org/explore/community/slavery_and_madison.php

    �Slaves cared for Madison while he was sick and Paul Jennings was at his side when he died. Despite these ties and his own reservations about slavery, Madison did not manumit his slaves in his will as did George Washington.�

    Reg. Jefferson, read Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson by Paul Finkelman� the book covers much of this ground:
    http://books.google.com/books?id=ZdK4weTixusC&pg=PA190&lpg=PA190&dq=Jefferson+did+not+manumit+slaves+will&source=bl&ots=jBQL3wh2bK&sig=pWINoeVCP4beieqMQGgeZ2t2H0A&hl=en&ei=CSkKTr_IOorr0gHezqVp&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CCMQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=Jefferson%20did%20not%20manumit%20slaves%20will&f=false

    Howard Bodenhorn notes that �Jefferson manumitted just eight of the approximately 200 slaves that worked his plantation during his lifetime�:
    http://www.nber.org/papers/w15704.pdf

    Furthermore, John Quincy Adams is not a Founding Father by any conventional definition. He was 8 when the Declaration of Independence was signed, not even 20 years old when the Constitutional Convention began in 1787 ... which he wasn't a delegate to (I double checked just to be sure). The accepted definition of a Founding Father is someone who either signed the Declaration, contributed on the battlefield in the Revolutionary War or served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. He was none of these things. His first major responsibility in government (on his own) was serving as an ambassador to the Netherlands in 1794.

    Young John Quincy Adams was overseas accompanying his father, John Adams, from 1778-1782 ... I say that just in case a Tea Partier tries to claim that John Quincy Adams took up arms and killed 3,000 Brits by uttering the words "Ronald Reagan" (Say the words and your sonic beam weapon will unleash a potent blast a la "Dune").

    Summary: Just because you say it doesn't mean it's true. We can't allow people like Michele Bachmann to get away with this or have their supporters make every ridiculous argument imaginable so that the public sees this as a "controversy" (with legitimate opposing views) rather than a simple case of Bachmann being flat out wrong. It's not a matter of Bachmann having a different viewpoint -- she's simply wrong. As wrong as the people who claim the Earth is only 6,000 years old when scientists have found rocks that are 4.28 billion years old.

    If everything is going to be left open to interpretation and there is no objective reality, what does this mean for the future of public education? When the teacher says the freezing point of water is 32 degrees Fahrenheit, some junior Republican in the room will say, "No, it's 45" ... and the Republican parents will say, "Well, he has a different viewpoint." No, he doesn't -- he's wrong. The teacher�s right and the pupil is wrong. The end.

  • BetweenTheLines on June 28, 2011 6:46 PM:

    @ Jeff Meredith

    Well said.

  • smike on June 28, 2011 9:30 PM:

    If one were pro-revolution, it would seem that anyone alive in America during the general time frame of the revolution could be considered a "Founding Father".

    I did not know that. I wonder what the cutoff dates are?

  • John on June 28, 2011 10:04 PM:

    what does this mean for the future of public education? When the teacher says the freezing point of water is 32 degrees Fahrenheit, some junior Republican in the room will say, "No, it's 45" ... and the Republican parents will say, "Well, he has a different viewpoint." No, he doesn't -- he's wrong. The teacher's right and the pupil is wrong. The end.

    You have just accurately described what our entire "educational" system will look like in about 5 years if Republican radicals continue to hold power. Of course, the Republican parents would then scream that the teacher, in teaching actual established, provable facts, was a "liberal" trying to "indoctrinate" their child. The school administration would then promptly fire the teacher with no pushback whatsoever (even if the teacher had decades of experience and all the other children believed and trusted him/her).

  • Texas Aggie on June 29, 2011 9:48 AM:

    Maybe we can give Bachmann credit for having heard of John Quincy Adams in the first place. Given her past performances, it isn't something I would have taken as a given.

  • Swellsman on June 29, 2011 1:46 PM:

    Okay. First, Michele Bachmann is a loon. Second, I understand the term "Founding Fathers" usually refers to those people who were around to sign the Declaration of Independence and launch the Revolutionary War. And John Quincy Adams certainly was not one of those people.

    But simple consistency requires that I reiterate a point I have made many times before: our country was not founded with the Declaration of Independence, or with the Revolutionary War. Our Country - the way it exists today - was founded with the adoption of the Constitution back in 1787. The Declaration is nice, of course -- lovely language. But it has absolutely no legal bearing on who we are as a country. That would be the Constitution. (Why do we look to the language of the Declaration, and not to the Articles of Confederacy, which the Constitution replaced? Because of the poetry, but that's it. The Declaration presents no operative controls over our nation -- that is the role of the Constitution).

    Which means that it isn't impossible for JQA to be considered a "Founding Father" (I don't know if he is or not, I have no idea what his role - if any - was w/r/t the adoption of the Constitution) if by "Founding Father" you mean the people who debated and then adopted our Constitution.

    And, yes . . . you know and I know that this isn't how Bachmann meant her remarks, but I think the point still stands.

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