Social & Domestic Issues

Playing Hardball with Bachmann

Chris Matthews would eliminate much needless confusion if he changed the name of his television program to The Michele Bachmann Report. Such diversions as a State of the Union address, the teetering Egyptian government, and Rahm Emanuel’s Second City soap opera didn’t prevent the Hardball host from fixating last week upon an obscure speech by a not-so obscure Congresswoman on three of his five broadcasts.

“We know there was slavery that was still tolerated when the nation began,” Michele Bachmann declared in a speech oft-quoted on MSNBC. “We know that was an evil, and it was a scourge, and a blot, and a stain upon history. But we also know that the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States.”

Though Bachmann supporters may justifiably argue that of course she knows that slavery didn’t end during the Founding era, they must admit that her wording left much to be desired. Slavery clearly persisted after the last Founder had passed. Worse still, she talked as though the Founders spoke univocally. Some worked to end slavery; others worked to maintain it.

Just when Bachmann’s fondness for talking appeared to have gotten the best of her, along comes Chris Matthews, peerless in loquacity, to her rescue. In the course of correcting the Congresswoman, Matthews himself made numerous errors of fact.

The former Carter speechwriter reported 1860 as the start date to the Civil War; Fort Sumter’s first shots were fired the following year. He informed viewers, “We know that slavery continued right through until we had the Civil War and we had the Emancipation Proclamation.” We know that? The Emancipation Proclamation declared slaves free in rebelling areas outside of Lincoln’s control and kept them in bondage where Lincoln presided. Full emancipation would have to wait for the 13th Amendment.

It’s nitpicky, but so is the cable yakker. Matthews isn’t stupid. It’s probable that, like Bachmann, he simply misspoke. That tends to happen to people who talk too much. But he commits worse offenses to history than plain errors of facts.

Matthews actually took the slaveholders’ position, presumably inadvertently, on the three-fifths compromise. “And here’s this woman waving the Constitution around, palling around with Scalia, and she doesn’t even know what the Constitution had in it. They never got to the part that said that African Americans were three-fifths human beings.” Here, he either cynically distorts history to make a cheap rhetorical point or advertises his superficial understanding of the Constitution. After all, Southerners sought to fully count slaves to inflate the political representation of slaveholders; Northerners wished not to count slaves.

On Wednesday, Matthews announced: “Michele Bachmann took the stage last night to offer the Tea Party rebuttal to the State of the Union just a few days after she spoke in Iowa and said—get this—the Founding Fathers worked tirelessly to get rid of slavery in the United States.”

Get what?

Is Matthews not familiar with fellow Pennsylvanian Dr. Benjamin Rush? He signed the Declaration of Independence and served as president of the American Society for the Abolition of Slavery.

What about the man whose name graces the city from where Hardball broadcasts? George Washington willed freedom for his slaves upon his wife’s death and decreed that those unable to support themselves “shall be comfortably cloathed and fed by my heirs while they live.” Though not particularly vocal on slavery, slaveholder Washington wrote Robert Morris: “There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it.”

The House of Hardball is certainly ignorant of the House of Adams. Matthews mocks Bachmann thusly: “She said the Adams family got rid of slavery.” She didn’t say that, but what if she did? In my neck of the woods John Adams did indeed get rid of slavery. He wrote the Massachusetts Constitution, the world’s oldest governing document still in operation, which a judge, in the very county where Matthews went to college, ruled had outlawed slavery in the Bay State.

This Founding period witnessed the Declaration of Independence setting an ideal for America to aspire to, the Constitution eliminating the importation of slaves, the Northwest Ordinance forbidding slavery in the area that became Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and the abolition of slavery in all of New England, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. They did all that and founded a nation.  

Chris Matthews repeatedly called Michele Bachmann “balloon head” for the inflated role she gave the Founders in ending slavery. What do his errors make him?