Michele Bachmann’s Reading List: Slavery Was Awesome?

According to a new profile in The New Yorker, in 2002 Republican Presidential hopeful Rep. Michele Bachmann released a “must read” list of books. On the list was a book titled Call of Duty: The Sterling Nobility of Robert E. Lee.

In the biography of Lee (a slave owner himself) a passage reads (via Think Progress):

Northerners were often shocked and offended by the familiarity that existed as a matter of course between the whites and blacks of the old South. This was one of the surprising and unintended consequences of slavery. Slavery, as it operated in the pervasively Christian society which was the old South, was not an adversarial relationship founded on racial animosity. In fact, it bred on the whole, not contempt, but, over time, mutual respect. This produced a mutual esteem of the sort that always results when men give themselves to a common cause.
The credit for this startling reality must go to the Christian faith.

You know what?! Slavery wasn’t awesome. My ancestors and their slave masters weren’t BFFs.

Slavery was absolutely based on racial animosity as my ancestors were bought and sold as chattel. There was no mutual respect. There was no understanding between slaves and their masters.

Do I really need to say this?! I thought it should be obvious to people that slavery was hell on earth for black people who were raped and beaten.

If Congresswoman Michele Bachmann really wants to be President of the United States, which includes ancestors of slaves, she needs to acknowledge these missteps in her past and apologize. And for goodness sakes please stop with the slavery analogies and pledges!

There is no excuse whatsoever for anyone to believe this, much less endorse these ideas publicly without being shamed.

Join the Conversation

  • http://cabaretic.blogspot.com nazza

    It’s interesting. I took a course in college called “Deconstructing the Confederacy” that focused on complete lies like this. The most religious students were clearly uncomfortable seeing their faith used to justify something that is not justifiable like slavery.

    This is not history. This is wishful thinking.

  • davenj

    If slavery wasn’t based on racial animosity, where were the white slaves?

  • http://feministing.com/members/eprupar/ Emily

    I think you are overreacting about the book choice. You have chosen one excerpt from the book which you have obviously not read, removed it from context and have torn it apart. If you go through and actually read the book, the book does not focus on slavery, it focuses on the life of General Robert E. Lee. Who, yes, held slaves, but if you knew that the Civil War was not first fought because of slavery and Abe Lincoln didn’t decide until later into the war that he would write the Emancipation Proclamation then you cannot simply blame Southerners for being slaveowners. Robert E. Lee was a great general and this book is simply an account of his life and actions.

    There are so many books written about Nazi Germany that may seem as if they are defending the actions and work of Adolf Hitler but in fact they are just history books. Just because Michelle Bachmann recommends this book in no way means that she supports slavery. NOR does the excerpt you have included say that “slavery is awesome”.

    Slavery is a huge part of the American past and to understand it further is very important. You cannot change history and when someone writes about a Southern Civil War General, slavery is going to be mentioned. I would suggest reading the book and interpreting it from a historical perspective rather then a racial perspective.

    • http://feministing.com/members/gibby/ Nina

      I totally agree with this comment….Robert E. Lee died in 1870, you have to take his comments within that historical context.

      And no one in that above quote is saying slavery is awesome. Lee’s perspective on slavery is obviously going to be influenced by the time period he was alive in. To ignore that is just bad journalism.

      • http://feministing.com/members/ak47/ a

        The selected quote was not from Lee himself. It was from the AUTHOR, someone who lives in our time, born in 1950.

        • http://feministing.com/members/gibby/ Nina

          My bad for not articulating myself clearly enough. I know that quote wasn’t from Lee himself, but I interpreted it as the author’s own interpretation of Lee’s (and others of his time) thoughts on slavery, but I am probably misguided on that.

          And while I disagree what the author is saying, I have no problem with him saying it. And while I think it is bad judgement that Bachmann endorsed this book, it is her right. I would rather we focus on true action to make sure this woman doesn’t get the GOP nomination (which she most likely won’t, but still…), rather than focusing on her bad taste in books. And yes, I understand the broader implications of her worldviews when it comes to endorsing this book, but I really think we have more urgent matters to attend to…

    • davenj

      ” if you knew that the Civil War was not first fought because of slavery and Abe Lincoln didn’t decide until later into the war that he would write the Emancipation Proclamation then you cannot simply blame Southerners for being slaveowners.”


      The Civil War started because of secession. Secession occurred because of the institution of slavery, and the South’s (correct) perception that abolitionist sentiment in the North would limit slave state expansion in the short run, and push for total abolition in the long run.

      That the North used the Emancipation Proclamation as a power play to avoid European intervention on the part of the Confederacy does not mean that slavery was not the issue the war was fought over. It was. It was the issue for fighting in Bleeding Kansas. It was the issue for fighting in Harper’s Ferry. And it was the issue at First Manassas, Emancipation Proclamation or not.

      Soldiers for the North were singing “John Brown’s Body” in 1961.

      Nobody here is suggesting that Michelle Bachmann endorses slavery. However, she, and many others of her ilk, underplay it or misinterpret its history to drastic extents, partially due to willful ignorance and a desire to avoid the thorny matter of America’s racial past and present.

    • http://feministing.com/members/ak47/ a

      Listen up:

      Zerlina made the very understandable, and legitimate, point that there are problematic portrayals of slavery in this book, hence it’s rather sketchy that Bachmann recommends it. Additionally, in case you forgot or simply never knew, Bachmann signed a pledge that had a great line in it about how black families were better off in the days of slavery. Bachmann is a troubling figure.

      “Racial” cannot be separated from “historical”. In America, when one is from a non-white background (and I make no assumptions as to whether or not you are), one’s race and history are one and the same. The argument could be made that even if one IS white, race and history are still the same. White privilege, after all, has shaped much of American and world history. I take offense, as a PoC, to your suggestion that one eliminate race from their analysis of a book.

    • http://feministing.com/members/melissalynnette/ Melissa Lynnette

      I agree.

      I found out last summer that Andrew Jackson, yes that Andrew Jackson, is an ancestor of mine. Now, obviously for that to have happened, at some point he owned another of my ancestors and then raped her, probably telling himself she “wanted it” or that it didn’t matter because she was his property. But if I were to say to my hypothetical, future daughter “here, read this book about Andrew Jackson”, that doesn’t mean I’m advocating his heinous behavior. It means that I’m encouraging another aspect of her education, especially since he was also a President.

      Now, Bachmann is…….a special snowflake and I doubt her motives every time she opens her mouth, but she can certainly include a biography of a famous man on one of her reading lists without too much side eye from me.

      Besides, what would we expect Lee to say? “Slavery is horrible and I should have never done it?” Lincoln himself said something to the effect of Russian czars would step down and give their country to their people before the American South would freely give up its slaves. And maybe, in an understandable act of self preservation, Lee’s slaves were nice to him and his delusional ass thought it meant they actually liked him and weren’t cussing him out when he was out of ear shot and spitting in his food behind his back. Lol!

      Books aren’t bad. Recommending books aren’t bad. Recommending that people become familiar with history isn’t bad. Ever. Or rarely ever. A direct quote from a historical figure isn’t the same thing as Bachmann herself saying that slavery was full of fun times for the slaves. I mean, if it is, what does that say about some of the things that the rest of us read?

      • http://feministing.com/members/namurray/ nicole

        The quote is from the author who wrote this BIOGRAPHY (this is not an autobiography) in the 50s.

    • http://feministing.com/members/goimre/ Mike

      You say several things that don’t seem to relate to the original article. Namely:

      “you knew that the Civil War was not first fought because of slavery and Abe Lincoln didn’t decide until later into the war that he would write the Emancipation Proclamation then you cannot simply blame Southerners for being slaveowners.”

      The article makes no claims about why the Civil War was fought or why Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, nor does it “simply blame Southerners”. Furthermore, you say:

      “Slavery is a huge part of the American past and to understand it further is very important. You cannot change history and when someone writes about a Southern Civil War General, slavery is going to be mentioned.”

      I don’t think the article argues that we shouldn’t ever mention slavery; it just objects to trying to justify or whitewash it, which this section of the book is clearly trying to do (“Race Relations”, starting on page 301 in Google Books, only missing the final page). If you go back and reread it, you’ll notice that this section really doesn’t talk much about Lee at all until the very end and is very much focused on making the argument that black people had a better life under southern slavery than they would have had in the north or in “pagan Africa”. Wilkins is not here presenting the old Southern ideology or Lee’s own thoughts, but is claiming this himself. There is a good deal of difference between saying “Hitler wanted to exterminate the Jews because he thought they were destroying German society” versus “Jews were destroying German society, and that’s why Hitler wanted to exterminate them”.

    • http://feministing.com/members/daiju/ Masa

      Once more in line with the other responses, the book itself seems shady. So yes, endorsing it is a bad move.

      The forward of the book uses a great little rhetorical flourish that basically drives the point that there’s little agreement over what the war was about and little agreement over which side was morally right. You can make a case for UNDERSTANDING the motivations of the Confederacy, but even if you throw every argument about the economic and political subjugation of the south, it’s a no brainer that ending slavery (even if you can make a case that it wasn’t the original intention) has the moral high ground. Likewise, you can make a case for corporate rights and laissez-faire economics against laws that prohibit racial discrimination (“it’s my business, I’ll do what I want!”), but human dignity beats out any economic ideal on the morality spectrum.

      The book obfuscates the immorality of slavery. The forward downplays historical consensus and brushes over facts. From the author’s introduction: “Lee’s life was one that needs no defense; it was a life full of deeds that require no justification.” I’m sorry but all credibility is lost there. NO defense? NO justification? Come on! He might have been a great general and a likeable guy with lots of virtues, but he fought to defend slavery. That needs no justification or defense? We try to defend politicians whose biggest problems are that they say some offensive things and put their foot in their mouth. If they owned slaves, I’m pretty sure there’d be SOME kind of scrambling (“Well, you see, that’s a funny story… what had happened was…”).

      There might be some good facts and stories and analysis in the book, but in terms of recommendations, find a book written by a TRUE HISTORIAN about Robert E. Lee. Not a conservative evangelical pastor who distorts history.

  • http://feministing.com/members/treydawgg/ Trey

    While I agree with you in concept, I don’t agree with censoring material just because the ideals within the materials are different than what you (or a society) believes. His view was the ideology for his culture in the time. Misguided, absolutely, but if you start this type of witch hunt in books based on one passage, or based on its contents, then we will 1.) never evolve as a society and correct the mistakes of the past, 2.) are destined to repeat the same mistakes of the future if we don’t examine the ugly past, and 3.) will become a book burning society where works (like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or The Color Purple) will be be destroyed because they may have controversial texts that are different from the common view. I don’t think that Michelle Bachmann is saying “yes, let’s promote slavery and rape minorities. See, it’s wonderful like the book says.”

    • davenj

      No, what Bachmann is saying is that slavery wasn’t as bad as we know it was. She endorses books that misinterpret history to the extent that they become cover for the (false) “Old South” paternalist society in which ignorant black slaves were cared for and nurtured by their intellectual and racial superiors (white slave-owners), in exchange for the “small” gift of being their property to do with as they chose.

      This demonstrates several things about Bachmann: she’s willing to ignore the truth in favor of ideology, she has a profound misunderstanding of racial and religious history (especially in the US), and she’s not even willing to hide it, regardless of the (valuable) social stigma that we attach to apologists for our nation’s worst misdeeds.

    • http://feministing.com/members/goimre/ Mike

      The article does not suggest that we censor the book or prevent people from reading it, just that the book’s slavery apologetics are ridiculous and people really ought not be so foolish as to buy into them. Saying “I think this is silly and you should too” is not the same as “I think this is silly and will censor it and prevent people from judging for themselves”.

      Also, judging from your comment that “his view was the ideology for his culture in the time”, you seem to think that Robert E. Lee himself wrote this passage. He did not; the biographer, J. Steven Wilkins (born 1950), did. I don’t think “his culture in the time” can really excuse him.

      You’re right that Michelle Bachmann is not saying that “let’s promote slavery and rape minorities”. But she was in effect saying “I love this book by a slavery apologist”, and isn’t that cause for concern?

      • http://feministing.com/members/smiles/ Smiley

        “But she was in effect saying “I love this book by a slavery apologist”, and isn’t that cause for concern?”

        Err, no, actually.

        I love Richard Wagner’s music. Adolf Hitler loved it too. Does that make me an admirer of AH?


        • davenj

          If Wagner’s music explicitly stated that the mass genocide of Jews, Roma, and the handicapped was not as bad as people think it was, then yeah, endorsing it would be a sign of bad judgment at the very best.

          You’re conflating mutual tastes with outright offensiveness. A better example would be something like Woodrow Wilson’s endorsement of “The Birth of a Nation”, for which historians criticize him constantly.

          Wagner’s music is not explicitly prejudiced. This author’s work is. Therefore, endorsing one is different than endorsing the other.

          • http://feministing.com/members/smiles/ Smiley

            Fair point.

        • http://feministing.com/members/cupkate/ Kate

          This metaphor doesn’t work. She’s saying “I love this book by a slavery apologist about how great slavery was.”

          To correctly make a metaphor here, you’d have to say “I love Wagner’s symphony, ‘Ode to Hitler,’ which joyously calls to mind the great ideas of Naziism.”

          She recommended a book that celebrates a false history. This is fair to criticize.

          • http://feministing.com/members/smiles/ Smiley

            Oh, you know, Richard Wagner would never have written such a piece: he died seven years before AH was born!

            But I take your point.

  • http://feministing.com/members/azure156/ Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    Ok, so today I’ve learned that Michele Bachmann prefers the Dark Ages to the Rennaissance and apparently also idealizes the Antebellum South. As for everyone defending this, the author claims that the relationship between plantation owners and slaves became one of “familiarity” and “mutual respect”? This is ridiculous. If you respect another human you don’t think it’s all right to make them your slave. Respect would be–I don’t know–paying them the accurate wages they deserved for the work they did. Or them having the option to seek that type of work or another type as they chose, without being bought and sold to do it for someone else’s profit.

    Just because something is traditional or has a historical precedent doesn’t mean it isn’t appalling.

  • http://feministing.com/members/amck/ AMM

    There’s a book — Roll, Jordan, Roll — which exhaustively researched what is known about the institution of slavery in the US south. As usual, the reality was more complex than any of the views mentioned here.

    First of all, the power was not entirely on the master’s side (just mostly.) Slaves had the power of passive resistance — working less competently, or more slowly, and if the master was bad enough, they would decide that their lot couldn’t be much worse if they stopped obeying. In most cases, master and slave would reach some sort of accommodation where life was at least predictable for both sides.

    Second, masters and slaves, especially house slaves, lived in daily contact. Both had an interest in not constantly being in conflict. Also, masters became used to having slaves take care of certain things, and as long as the masters were satisfied with the results, they were usually inclined to allow the slaves some autonomy in how they were done.

    These relationships could perhaps be called “mutual respect,” but it was clearly not respect between equals. And there were plenty of cases where it broke down — where masters would go beyond the ordinary oppression inherent in slaveholding and become actively abusive, or slaves would actively rebel against the conditions of their lives. Despite the veneer of gentility we associate with the Old South, it was a pretty violent place.

    The fact that this “mutual respect” was predicated on an unequal power relationship became obvious when slavery ended, and masters discovered to their shock that hardly any of those apparently happy and satisfied servants wanted to continue serving once they had an alternative.

    • http://feministing.com/members/stickbeat/ andrea

      This, this so much. The histories of the slave trade and institutionalized slavery in the U.S is a minefield. There’s so much emotion wrapped into any discussion of the subject, and so much revisionism from both the right AND the left that it’s extremely difficult to reach any kind of conclusion that you could possibly consider safe.

      And modern history isn’t safe, politically speaking.

    • http://feministing.com/members/azure156/ Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

      You think doing a half-assed job (oh, I mean “passive resistance”) is “power”? How likely was it the plantation owners said “Let’s dialog about improving morale around here!” vs. just whipping, starving, or possibly even killing a slave that wouldn’t obey?

      Maybe “slave-breakers” were kind of like the “motivational speakers” of the day. Yeah, that’s the ticket!

      • davenj

        Passive resistance was a type of power, albeit an extremely risky and limited type of power. Any method of resistance, however small it is, is a type of power.

        Some slave masters did bring in slave breakers and punish their slaves harshly. Others re-normed their views of what slaves could or would do, and adjusted their lives accordingly.

        You’re also treating passive resistance as something like a worker’s strike, when in reality it was the accumulation of many different events and opportunities in which slaves made their own cost-benefit evaluations. There are some great works about tools that went missing or deteriorated at absurd rates on plantations.

        Every act of passive resistance was not met with the whip. Slaves accurately concluded that such a thing would be impossible, and then toed the line as best they could. Limited power? Absolutely. Few dynamics have power imbalance as great as the master-slave dynamic.

        Still, you’re denying the agency of slaves who legitimately tried their best to resist an institution in whatever capacity they deemed possible.

        • http://feministing.com/members/azure156/ Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

          No, I’m not denying them agency. Look at the story of how Frederick Douglass resisted the slave-breaker. You should try accusing me of seriously questioning the idea that passive resistance is some an effective show of power, or that it created any sort of mutuality of respect between slaves and plantation owners (I don’t even like calling them “masters”), because that’s what I’m doing here.

          • davenj

            Yeah, you are. One Frederick Douglass story does not the experiences of slavery make. There is a breadth of research out there that shows that passive resistance did achieve gains in terms of accommodations from slave masters. Every instance of passive resistance was not met with a slave breaker. In fact, most were not.

            Your language of “effective” show of power is, yeah, denying agency. Effectiveness is a caveat that you’re adding with a historical lens on abolitionism, denying the experiences of slaves who had little to no hope of achieving freedom, but who used passive resistance to gain a bit more control of their lives.

            The poster you responded to clearly put “mutual respect” in quotes to show how unequal the power dynamic was.

            That said, you seem obsessed with a particular narrative of slavery that, by focusing on the cruelty of slave owners, ignores that slaves were themselves people who could make choices to try to alleviate their conditions, and often did.

            That’s denial of agency.

      • http://feministing.com/members/amck/ AMM

        I see no point in speculating about “how likely” anything was under a system that ended more than a century before either you or I were born. Given that there are people who have spent years of their lives examining primary sources to try to get a picture of what went on, among them the author of the book I mentioned, Roll, Jordan, Roll, it makes more sense to read what they have to say.

        I am struck, though, with how many people are emotionally invested in seeing slavery as a system of uniformly evil oppressors and uniformly helpless victims. Seeing the slaves as helpless victims erases the accomplishments of the many slaves who managed to not only resist dehumanization, but were able to wrest some measure of autonomy from the system. And seeing the slaveholders as uniformly evil oppressors is, IMHO, a way of denying the ways in which we are like them.

        • http://feministing.com/members/azure156/ Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

          You’re like the plantation owners then? Speak for yourself.

          • davenj

            It’s a fair-ish point. Much of the economic exploitation that we employ in America, either first-party or by proxy via globalization, could definitely be frowned upon 150 years from now in the way that we condemn slavery.

            Privileged people, and if you are an American citizen you’ve got quite a bit of privilege, have quite a bit of unacknowledged power. That gives us the capacity for a pretty large amount of cruelty and exploitation, two core pillars of slavery.

            I just don’t think history’s gonna look at you or I buying a pair of sneakers made by a child in Vietnam for 10 cents an hour and think “those folks were SO different than plantation owners”.

      • http://feministing.com/members/stickbeat/ andrea

        ‘Passive resistance’ is a form of power. It’s not exactly something that meets or compares to the power of the individual owning another human being, but it is power. It’s still power, something that people use all the time. The majority of slave owners had fewer than three slaves, and relied heavily on their labor to succeed. Slaves were expensive, and an investment that would be criminally wasteful to lose through neglect, abuse, or murder. Those who had the frivolous means to murder or starve a slave were NOT the norm.

        Mind you, what was considered ‘reasonable oppression’ (oh my god, is that really a term?) was batshit fucking brutal, and the expectations of slaves were atrocious, and sexual violence was disgusting, and families were ripped apart, and and and. . .

        I don’t think anybody here is arguing that slavery wasn’t brutal, oppressive, ethically and morally destitute, and the like. It’s just that there IS a lot of misinformation and revisionism on both sides of the political spectrum: the leftist portrayal of the abusive, power-mad, violent-raping-beating-killing salve owner as the norm is no more accurate than the gentile, mutually respectful, please-let’s-all-just-get-along slave owner. There are definitely sources you could point to that show the truth of both extremes, but by and large the norm of southern U.S slave owning lies somewhere more towards the middle.

  • http://feministing.com/members/skoelle/ Spencer Koelle

    I think this small excerpt isn’t indicative of Bachman’s political views. I think it’s a tiny chunk of a book she pretends to have read so as to appear less ignorant.

  • http://feministing.com/members/shawnc/ Shawn Sproatt

    What’s truly disturbing, though, is that there are people who try to say that slavery wasn’t as brutal as we’re “led to believe.” As someone who was raised in South Carolina, in some of the elementary and middle schools here they try to teach students that most slave owners didn’t abuse or “mistreat” their slaves, because they wanted them in a good, healthy physical condition to work in. They teach that slave owners would treat slaves like a prized horse, the way we wouldn’t mistreat our prized cars today. First of all, not only is this a horrible, terrible lie, but how is comparing slaves to horses any better?

    I know I went off subject a little, but I felt it important to point this out.

    • davenj

      It’s not really off-topic. There is a lot of revisionism that goes into historical interpretation for political purposes, and this is true of both the right and the left. Facts are thrown out when they get in the way of an ideological point. In this case the point is that some conservatives strive to create an exceptionalist portrait of the Old South, and in doing so they need to ignore or misinterpret information about that era.

      This is evident both in the pledge Michele Bachmann signed and in her endorsement of this book. Both are cases of poor historical analysis to serve a political goal.

      In the case of your school curriculum, the political goal seems evident: to assuage the guilt and protect the status of the state’s white population.