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Bachmann’s History Lessons

Michele Bachmann needs to understand that along with her new mainstream contender status will come not only increased scrutiny from the press but a willingness of many in the Fourth Estate to directly challenge her on even minor details of her statements. Today on Good Morning America, George Stephanopoulos attempted to draw blood from the Republican presidential candidate when he asked her whether she was standing by a previous statement in which she claimed America’s founding fathers had “worked tirelessly to end slavery.”

In response, Bachmann cited the career of John Quincy Adams. Stephanopoulos replied that he wasn’t a founding father but the son of one, but Bachmann didn’t back down.

The question of whether J.Q. Adams should be considered a “founding father” is something of a hair-splitter. He was the son of one of our undoubted founding fathers, John Adams, but belongs more to the second generation of American leaders rather than the first. To her credit, Bachmann knew enough history to cite the fact the younger Adams was his father’s secretary during his diplomatic missions in Europe during the Revolutionary War and even struck out on his own while still a teenager as a key member of a U.S. delegation to Russia during that conflict.  And he was a life-long opponent of slavery.

However, if the point of this exchange is to try and nail Bachmann on a gaffe, the debate about Adams is beside the point. Certainly many of the people we would all agree are founders were not against slavery, let alone worked to end it. Some, like Jefferson, acknowledged that slavery was evil but, to their everlasting shame, did nothing to eradicate it in large part because their own livelihoods were dependent on their “human property.”

But, though the examples of Washington, Jefferson, Madison and others stand as rebuke to Bachmann’s attempt to pretty up our history, there were some undoubted founders who do fit into her definition. The two most prominent were Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton, both of whom helped found anti-slavery groups.

If you’re keeping score here, give Bachmann a minus for implying all founders were anti-slavery. Give her pass for her citation of John Quincy Adams, an early opponent of slavery but not really a founder and a plus for actually knowing all about his career. And give her a minus for failing to mention the actual founders who were against slavery. Give Stephanopoulos a plus for knowing all founders were not anti-slavery and for being knowledgeable about J.Q. Adams but a minus for implying none of the founders were against slavery.

Now that we’ve cleared this up, here are a few points more germane to the 2012 presidential election.

First, Michele Bachmann has to understand minor mistakes like this one will always be blown out of proportion because she is a) a presidential candidate; b) a Republican; and c) a female Republican. While she has generally handled the fallout from these clunkers with humor and grace, at some point she has to stop making them if she’s going to win the GOP nomination.

Second, those Republicans as well as those in media who hope these stories help reinforce Bachmann’s image as, to use Chris Wallace’s phrase, a “flake” and will ultimately sink her candidacy, are whistling into the wind. Bachmann may be gaffe-prone, but voters are unlikely to hold it too much against an otherwise personable, smart and articulate woman. Neither the John Wayne nor the John Quincy Adams comments are going to kill her candidacy. Like it or not, she’s here to stay in this race.


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