For years, conservatives have rightly decried the distortion, misrepresentation and downright ignorance of American history that has sometimes infected left-wing rhetoric. We've complained that public schools do a poor job of teaching our history and an even worse job of transmitting American values. History matters; as the philosopher George Santayana famously said: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
But what happens when a conservative gets it wrong? Last week, Rep. Michele Bachmann gave a speech to Iowans for Tax Relief in which she said that the Founders "worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States." MSNBC host Chris Matthews called Bachmann a "balloon head" for her remarks, and others in the media and on the left were no less scathing. But some conservatives defended Bachmann's remarks -- even though she mangled her history.
There is no question that a double standard exists -- the media is much quicker to draw attention to conservatives' faux pas than to liberals'. There's not a great deal we can do about that, so conservatives have to be especially careful when we speak -- especially on race. What's more, because conservatives care so much about history and tradition, we must be sure we have the facts right, and Bachmann didn't. And it wasn't just her specific reference to the Founders' efforts to end slavery but her understanding of the struggle for equal rights that went awry.
As every schoolchild should know, slavery was not abolished until the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865. President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, issued in the third year of the Civil War, freed only those slaves living in states that had seceded from the Union. And, of course, some of our Founders -- most notably George Washington and Thomas Jefferson -- not only did not "work tirelessly until slavery was no more" but owned slaves.
Washington's attitude toward slavery evolved during his lifetime and he asked in his will that the slaves he owned be emancipated after the death of his wife, Martha. Jefferson wrote eloquently about the abomination of slavery but freed only seven of the hundreds of slaves he owned, only two during his lifetime and five upon his death.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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