Last January Michele Bachmann said that "the very founders that wrote those documents," referring to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, "worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States."
By the time the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in 1865 even the youngest signers of the Declaration and the Constitution -- whether they owned slaves, ignored slavery in the former document or sanctioned it in the latter -- had been dead for decades. Everyone is making fun of Bachmann for saying this facile thing.
Of course a key part of being a Republican is never admitting you were wrong (especially to yourself), so Bachmann is still standing by her statement, using the same rationalization she used in January -- John Quincy Adams, the son of founding father John Adams, was himself a founding father. So everybody is making fun of her for that, too.
Just for the record, while John Quincy Adams fought against slavery, he could not have "worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States" because he died 17 years before slavery was abolished.
Well, right-wing historical inaccuracy is fairly routine. Conservatives mixing up their facts isn't nearly as disturbing as their grand historical narrative built on a denial of truth and a rejection of objective reality itself. More on that in my CityLife column later this week.
Meantime, Bachmann's appeal to John Quincy Adams is particularly odd and incongruous -- or at least it would be if one believed she knew what she was talking about.
Adams kicked off his single term as president in 1825 by proposing a sweeping program of aggressive government activism. He advocated federal spending on canals, roads and the like (or "public improvements" as such things were called back in the day), government support for education and the establishment of a national university, scientific research, including the construction of an astronomical observatory, support for the arts, exploration of the continent and its coastlines and more. He also proposed more rigorous patent laws and the national standardization of weights and measures (or government-run weights and measures, as Bachmann might call it). All of this would be paid for primarily by higher tariffs on imported goods, the chief source of federal revenue at the time.
"The great object of civil government," Adams told Congress, "is the improvement of the condition of those who are parties to the social compact, and no government, in whatever form constituted, can accomplish the lawful ends of its institution but in proportion as it improves the condition of those over whom it is established."
Historian Robert Remini, assessing the Adams program, declared that the "challenge to advance the nation's intellectual and material strength never had a more courageous advocate."
Alas, as Remini and others have explained, however courageous Adams may have been, he was also out of step with the age. Constitutional strict constructionists in Congress and elsewhere were appalled by what they viewed as Adams's extra-constitutional government agenda. The quirky four-way 1824 election that was ultimately settled in a backroom deal had rendered Adams politically damaged goods before he was even inaugurated in any case, and his program was mostly DOA.
America's long heritage of persistent anti-intellectualism planted deep roots in the 1820s. The common man and "common sense" were exalted and glorified while learning and expertise were distrusted and mocked. The election of 1828 pitting Adams against Andrew Jackson was among America's most scurrilous, with each side brutally slandering the other. But the most effective tactic, one that captured a rapidly broadening electorate's preference for folkish wisdom over sophistication and formal learning, was the derisive dismissal of Adams as an over-educated aristocrat. The erudite Adams had studied all over Europe and at Harvard, where he served briefly as a professor of rhetoric and oratory. As Monroe's secretary of state Adams had written a treatise on weights and measures. He wrote poetry.
Jackson, by contrast, was the rugged rustic from the frontier, the war hero and "man of the people" who had pulled himself up by his bootstraps. His supporters, quoted in Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, described Jackson as "the unlettered man of the West" who had "escaped the training ... of the schools." They meant it in a nice way.
Jefferson, John Adams, Hamilton, Madison, Franklin -- all to lesser or greater degrees cherished literature, the arts, science, philosophy and history and were recognized as some of the era's leading intellects not only in America but abroad. The election of 1828, won handily by Jackson, signaled a shift away from the tradition of the American statesman as a man of intellect. As Hofstadter put it, "their type became obsolete in American politics," displaced by politicians who appealed to America's anti-intellectual "bumptious nationalism." John Quincy Adams "was the last nineteenth century occupant of the White House who had a knowledgeable sympathy with the aims and aspirations of science or who believed that fostering the arts might properly be a function of the federal government." The election of 1828, wrote Hofstadter, marked the difference between "what America had been and what it would become."
What America has now become is illustrated by a leading (for the moment) presidential candidate's witless affinity for a man whose presidency and principles she would abhor -- if she knew anything about them. Alas, hostile to "elitist" scholarship (i.e., scholarship that meets academic standards of credibility) and wallowing in cheap "patriotism" masquerading as star-spangled moral superiority, there's no threat that Bachmann or the Tea Party will develop an honest, informed appreciation of John Quincy Adams -- or any other historical figure, event or movement -- any time soon.