It really rankled some conservatives that Michelle Obama’s speech on Monday night was universally praised. Thus some of them took the low road of criticizing her for mentioning that slaves had helped build the White House, alleging that the comment was merely an effort to divide us along racial lines (white guilt). At first there were denials that slaves had worked on the White House, but when the evidence became overwhelming that they had, some pundits despicably reached for the argument that slavery was not so bad. Most famously, Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly (who fancies himself an historian after writing a series of poorly researched books), while acknowledging slaves worked on the White House, made sure to note that the slaves had been fed and housed well. The reaction from historians was swift, and there are many stories and blog postings (too many to count) about it all over the web today. As Edward Ayers points out in his interview for Time, O’Reilly’s comments are nothing new, harkening to the antebellum proslavery response to the abolitionist attack on slavery, as well as the “Lost Cause” justification of the South by southerners after the Civil War. Kevin Levin digs even deeper on his Civil War Memory blog, nicely pointing to a letter written by First Lady Abigail Adams in which she noted that some of the slaves she saw laboring around the White House were “half fed, and destitute of clothing.” Meanwhile, food historian Michael W. Twitty responded to O’Reilly by examining slave diets, challenging the Fox News commentator to try the typical enslaved person diet for one week “to go along with his southern fried crow.”
To be fair, O’Reilly did not overtly defend slavery, but we have to wonder why he felt the need to claim the slaves were fed well. In the end, it matters not a bit if these enslaved laborers were well fed and lodged, or even if they had never had their flesh ripped open by the lash. So why bring it up? What purpose does it serve? Whether he wants to admit it or not, doing so (and without any proof) does harken to the proslavery/Lost Cause defense of slavery. No matter their diet or housing, the fact still remains that as enslaved individuals they could not own and control their own labor, could be sold at the whim of their masters, could have their children or spouses sold away from them, had no rights that were recognized either culturally or legally, and could make no decisons about where they wanted to be or what kind of life they wanted to have. Bill O’Reilly’s comments are tainted by his failure to view slavery from the perspective of the enslaved, rather than just from that of white masters.
Listen, I think Bill O’Reilly is intelligent enough to know that Michelle Obama’s reference (as accurate as it was) was not really about the White House specifically, but was a way of personalizing her connection to how much progress we have seen in America. I also actually believe that he knows better than to embrace such a ridiculous proslavery argument. The fact is, some conservatives were so upset about the First Lady’s universally praised speech that they looked for something, anything, for which to criticize it. As a friend of mine noted, “this election is bringing out the worst in everybody.” Indeed.
Lincoln actually had a great retort for people that made the proslavery argument, so I’ll let him have the final word of response to Bill O’Reilly:
“Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.”