Bill O’Reilly’s Benevolent Slaveowners

Slave House in Washington, D.C.

Slave House in Washington, D.C.

Update: Bill O’Reilly offers additional comments confirming that Michelle Obama’s statements about slavery are accurate, which leaves me wondering why he needed to point it out to begin with.

Last night Bill O’Reilly used his “Tip of the Day” segment to respond directly to First Lady Michelle Obama’s address to the Democratic Party Convention in which she referenced the use of slaves to build the White House. The First Lady used the opportunity to remind her listeners of how far we’ve come as a nation and to try to impart some understanding of what it has meant for one African-American family to occupy the White House for the past eight years. Many listeners were likely surprised to hear this little tidbit of history, while others, no doubt, refused to believe it. O’Reilly’s “spin” reflects the continued difficulty of coming to terms with this aspect of our nation’s past.

O’Reilly is perfectly willing to admit that slaves were utilized to construct the White House, but he also wants his viewers to understand that free blacks and immigrants were also involved. In doing so, O’Reilly undercuts the salient economic, social, and political distinctions that defined freedom and slavery. More disturbing, however, is his employment of one of the most deeply embedded tropes in our history and memory of slavery. According to O’Reilly:

Slaves that worked there were well-fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government, which stopped hiring slave labor in 1802.

It is unclear as to the sources O’Reilly consulted in support of this claim, but we do have an account by Abigail Adams, who shortly after occupying the house in 1800 shared her thoughts about slavery in a letter to Cotton Tufts. In it Adams characterizes twelve slaves working to remove a pile of dirt from in front of the White House as “half fed, and destitute of clothing.” This was not the first time she observed such conditions in the nation’s capital. It doesn’t take much digging to uncover similar accounts and O’Reilly fails to note the work that slaves carried out on other buildings that stretched beyond 1802.

Indeed, slaves toiled in the nation’s capital for the next fifty years leading up to the American Civil War. They drove cabs, worked in barbershops and hotels and even helped with the expansion of the Capitol Dome that was still unfinished by the eve of the war. Slaves were traded legally up to 1850 while a flourishing underground trade continued for the next decade. Slavery itself remained legal until April 1862.

Michelle Obama was not simply commenting on the significance of slave labor in the construction of the White House, but about its central place in the new nation. Slavery survived those Founders, who believed that its existence conflicted with the ideas of freedom and equality. It not only survived, it expanded and in the process generated great wealth and fueled a strong sense of America’s exceptionalism that many of this nation’s leaders hoped would eventually stretch into the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America.

O’Reilly could have just as easily used the occasion to highlight the theme of racial progress celebrated in the First Lady’s speech – a speech that takes the audience from slave builders to a White House now occupied by an African-American family. That O’Reilly failed to do so points to the limits of who he believes is qualified to tell this nation’s story. In failing to embrace Obama’s understanding of America’s exceptionalism, O’Reilly undercuts the story of ‘slavery to freedom’ that constitutes the intellectual and cultural space in which many black families frame their histories and their relationship to the nation. O’Reilly seems to be unable to comprehend a narrative of the United States that places slavery at its very center, even within a broader narrative that is ultimately celebratory.

Unfortunately, O’Reilly’s characterization of slaves as “well-fed” places him in a long line of slavery apologists. Southern slaveowners celebrated their “peculiar institution” on the grounds that their property was well cared for and civilized. After the Civil War, former slaveowners waxed poetic about the benevolent relationships established with their slaves that were destroyed by “Yankee” invaders and a corrupt federal government that sought to remake their world during Reconstruction. Images of benevolent slaveowners remained popular throughout the twentieth century in the form of bestselling novels and popular Hollywood movies such as Gone With the Wind.

Only in the last few decades have our history textbooks begun to move past this deeply embedded and dangerous trope. As late as the 1970s, the state of Virginia still used the popular textbook, Virginia: History, Government, Geography by Francis B. Simkins, Spotswood H. Jones, and Sidman P. Poole, first published in 1957.

Virginia textbook

The chapter on slavery is titled, “How the Negroes Lived under Slavery” and shows a well-dressed African-American family on board a ship shaking hands with a white man, who is presumed to be the family’s new owner. Here is how it describes slavery:

A feeling of strong affection existed between masters and slaves in a majority of Virginia homes. . . The house servants became almost as much a part of the planter’s family circle as its white members. . . The Negroes were always present at family weddings. They were allowed to look on at dances and other entertainments . . . A strong tie existed between slave and master because each was dependent on the other. . . The slave system demanded that the master care for the slave in childhood, in sickness, and in old age. The regard that master and slaves had for each other made plantation life happy and prosperous.  Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy. The Negroes went about in a cheerful manner making a living for themselves and for those for whom they worked. . . But they were not worried by the furious arguments going on between Northerners and Southerners over what should be done with them. In fact, they paid little attention to these arguments.

Such characterizations dismiss the horrors of slavery and the subsequent struggles for racial equality that persist to this day. These books were published to turn back the tide of civil rights and the historical narrative that helped to fuel it.

The First Lady hoped to impart some sense of what living in the White House has meant to her family. That involves reminding the nation of who helped to build it regardless of how difficult it is for some to accept.

And that is Bill O’Reilly’s “history thing.”

46 comments… add one
  • Robert Colton Jul 27, 2016

    I wish politicians would stop talking about American exceptionalism. We are not better than others. Currently much of the world thinks American politics is craxy. I agree with you about O’Reilly.

  • Michael Rogers Jul 27, 2016

    To me it’s not about how well they were fed and housed. They were slaves. That’s the salient point.

  • Patrick Jennings Jul 27, 2016

    Poor Robert. Trapped by birth and economics in this grubby, insignificant country. I recommend you displace to a better place. As for exceptionalism, Lincoln had it right in 1862 when he called the Union (e.g. the fully United States) “the last best hope of earth.” American exceptionalism isn’t measured by your obvious self-loathing, it is measured by the numbers of people who turn here for aid and protection in time of need.

    President Sarkozy of France wasn’t talking about Germany when he said…”Without you, the Americans, we would have been unable to maintain our freedom. We have no right to forget this, and we will never forget it…When your sons came to die in our land, which was foreign to them, they came to die for an ideal which was common to both sides of the Atlantic.” Nor was he talking about China when he noted…”each time an American soldier falls, wherever in the world it may be, France feels solidarity with the United States…”

    I am not sure where you have been, but in my time in service to the United States I and my fellow servicemen and women have built more infrastructure, delivered more food, water and medicine, and provided more comfort and protection from bad and evil than any other government or organization on earth. From the pacific rim to the Balkans and across the Middle East I have seen the exceptionalism of this nation reflected in the eyes of those who need us most.

    More importantly, that exceptionalism is borne by our ability to embrace change and alter wrong even at great cost. Yes, slavery existed in the US and in any form – from the mythical, gentle “House Slave” to the beaten and weary field hand, that institution was wrong, evil and brutal. We also fought a long, grueling war to not only end slavery but preserve the nation. Thousand of slaves built DC and suffered for it. Thousands of Union soldiers fought to end slavery and suffered for it.

    I guess the difference here is that you, Robert, see history as a dark shadow that lays across a land that could have been perfect had we all only been born with your perfect vision and absolute morality. I, on the other hand, see our history as bright sunshine guiding us down a path that shows us goodness and right are the things we can fix now as we move toward a better future.

  • John Heiser Jul 27, 2016

    Bill O’Reilly’s knowledge of history, any history for that matter, is reflected in the poor scholarship of his “Killing So and So” books, so this assumption on his part is par for the course, especially if it knocks the current administration. That he cannot discern the difference between slave labor & skilled tradesmen exhibits a sad lack of understanding of this country’s early years.

  • BPS Jul 27, 2016

    Perhaps you have discussed it elsewhere, if so please redirect me, but according to documentation I’ve seen cited by the historian Henry Louis Gates and others, appox. 488,000 black slaves were imported (from Africa & Carribean) into what is now the U.S. between 1619 and 1808. By 1860 blacks (free & slave) numbered 4 million. While American slavery is of course, antithetical to our country’s founding principles, it must have NOT been the unrelenting cruelty it is often portrayed as, to allow such a large natural increase, in so relatively short a period of time.
    If I’m misinformed, I’ll consider better information.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 27, 2016

      While American slavery is of course, antithetical to our country’s founding principles, it must have NOT been the unrelenting cruelty it is often portrayed as, to allow such a large natural increase, in so relatively short a period of time.

      I highly recommend that you pick up a copy of Edward Baptist’s recent book, The Half Has Never Been Told. It is now available in paperback.

      • BPS Jul 27, 2016

        Thanks for the recommendation. I will.

      • London John Jul 28, 2016

        Does Edward Baptist explain the difference from the West Indies, where the slave population was never self-sustaining. Is it just that sugar was the killer crop, or was there more to it?

    • Bryce Hartranft Jul 27, 2016

      “By 1860 blacks (free & slave) numbered 4 million”

      I thought it was 4 million slaves and then there were additional free blacks as well.

      Looked up 1860 census data (http://mapserver.lib.virginia.edu/index.html) and found the following:

      3,950,546 Total slaves in America in 1860
      476,748 Total free colored persons in America in 1860
      4,427,294 Total colored (free and black)

      One comment on the general theme. Can a person who holds others against their will (whether they know it or not) be a nice slave master? I say no.

      • BPS Jul 27, 2016

        I appreciate the correction.

      • BPS Jul 27, 2016

        I appreciate the correction on the number slaves vs free blacks.
        Regarding your question, whether a person holding slaves against their will can be a nice slave master, a friend of mine answer something similar when we were discussing St. Paul’s admonition in Galatians “There is neither slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, but all are one in Jesus Christ.” I also noted that in the letter to Philemon, Paul charges Philemon to accept the runaway slave Onesimus back as a brother. My friend said to me “How do you enslave a brother” , a “drop-mike” question, and perhaps what St. Paul was trying to get at .
        But is a “nice master” better than the alternative? The Zulu Chieftain Shaka slaughtered enmasse the non-Zulu tribes he encountered in the 1820s and 1830s during his wars to unite the Zulu tribes under his leadership. Professor Gates, in his series “Many Rivers to Cross” acknowledged that the first version of “Roots”, in terms of how Africans were made slaves, was fiction. These Africans were the weaker tribes taken in war by the stronger tribes. When Wilberforce was trying to outlaw the slave trade in the British Empire, his opponents brought West African chieftains who engaged in the trade to parliament to plead hardship on their people, if slavery were outlawed.

        • Kevin Levin Jul 27, 2016

          I wish we could move beyond questions about whether slaveowners were “nice”, “benevolent” etc. It is so unhelpful and tells us much more about our own difficulties coming to terms with this subject.

          • Mark Pethke Jul 27, 2016

            Is it “our own difficulties coming to terms with this subject,” or does the fact that some, even in the 21st century, seem to think this ameliorates the wrong perhaps tell us something about how the institution managed to endure for so long in this country, in one fashion or another?

            The textbook reference is fascinating. I’m reminded of my visit a decade or so ago to the Old Court House Museum in Vicksburg, where the diorama at the time (and maybe still) depicting slavery showed a wedding. Smiling bride. Proud groom. Everybody had the day off. Yeah. Family. That was what slavery was all about . . .

            • Kevin Levin Jul 27, 2016

              The exhibit that you referenced has been on display for decades.

            • Jerry McKenzie Jul 30, 2016

              It endured because of the profits.

        • London John Jul 28, 2016

          ” These Africans were the weaker tribes taken in war by the stronger tribes. When Wilberforce was trying to outlaw the slave trade in the British Empire, his opponents brought West African chieftains who engaged in the trade to parliament to plead hardship on their people, if slavery were outlawed.”
          I think it’s misleading to refer to “tribes” – permanent hereditary groupings. West Africa consisted of kingdoms in constant flux. The crucial point is that the slave trade was also an arms trade – slaves were often paid for with guns (made in Birmingham for the purpose). So West African kings and chiefs who sold slaves got guns, and those who didn’t, didn’t. So with his superior firepower a slave-trading king or subordinate chief could build his kindom by conquering his neighbours, or make himself a king by overthrowing his overlord. Just as today a ruler in the “global south” who refuses to let the West have what it wants is likely to be overthrown by a more obliging rival armed by the west.

          • BPS Aug 1, 2016

            “I think it’s misleading to refer to “tribes” – permanent hereditary groupings. West Africa consisted of kingdoms in constant flux.”
            That may be a distinction without a difference. My reading of the history of Africa is that most (if not all) of these kingdoms were single tribe entities (or tribes of close family affinity).
            “the slave trade was also an arms trade – slaves were often paid for with guns (made in Birmingham for the purpose). So West African kings and chiefs who sold slaves got guns, and those who didn’t, didn’t.”
            I’d love to see the extent of this arms trade…I wasn’t aware it was very extensive. I know about the American “Triangular Trade” (of song and story) Rum from New England to Africa, Slaves from Africa to the Caribbean, and “broken” slaves, molasses, & money back to America. Could you direct me to the literature about this? I know that rulers like Shaka, in South Africa, engaged in successful conquest without western weapons.

  • HankC Jul 27, 2016

    In many cases, I think that white people, like O’Reilly, don’t like non-whites, like Obama, criticizing the country organized by whites.

    It’s really thinly-veiled racism as to whose experiences are allowed to mold the future.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 27, 2016

      What they don’t like is when African Americans set the terms of the American Exceptionalist narrative that places slavery at the center of the story.

      • Michael Rogers Jul 27, 2016

        I think you nailed it one sentence Kevin. Well done

      • Livonian for Liberty Aug 4, 2016

        Sorry, Mr. Levin, but slavery was not exceptional to the United States of America. If memory serves me correctly, I believe only 6% of the slaves that were forcibly removed from Africa to the Western Hemisphere were brought to what became the U.S.A. I believe one of the characters in the movie “Glory,” Chester I believe (the one played by Denzel Washington), when talking to Col. Shaw said it best when he indicated no one’s hands are clean or something to that effect.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 4, 2016

          Sorry, Mr. Levin, but slavery was not exceptional to the United States of America.

          Thanks for the comment, but where did I suggest that it was

          • Livonian for Liberty Aug 4, 2016

            “set the terms of the American Exceptionalist narrative that places slavery at the center of the story.” Apologies if I misinterpreted your comment.

            • Kevin Levin Aug 4, 2016

              My point was that white Southerners understood their slave society as superior (Exceptionalist) in contrast with the free labor North. Hope that helps.

  • David Kent Jul 27, 2016

    I’m surprised he didn’t go the whole route of the civil war era slave owners. If he’s going to speak of slaves being well fed and housed, he might as well have told of how slavery was sanctioned by the bible. Of how their skin color made their work as slaves the only thing they were good for, (also in the bible), and how happy they were. All of which I’ve read in diaries and memoirs. A horse can be well fed and housed, but it’s still a horse.

  • Bruce H Vail Jul 27, 2016

    I have to admit to a little discomfort with Michelle Obama’s comment, although my problem is not really related to O’Reilly’s.

    It is of course true that slave labor was used in construction of the White House, the Capitol, and in other public structure in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. Slave labor was also used in the construction of public streets, highways, railroads, etc.

    But the White House is not a slave-built structure in any meaningful way. It has been extensively expanded, remodeled, rebuilt, and modernized over the years without the use of slave labor. More importantly, all the work was financed from the general revenues of the USA (your tax money) as part of the overall administration of our government, not for the purpose of private profit. To call the White House a slave-built house is akin to calling the modern Pennsylvania Avenue a slave street or the modern CSX Corp. a slave railroad. It just isn’t connected to modern reality.

    I understand perfectly that Michelle Obama was in search of rhetorical point about the advancement of oppressed peoples in American history, but I wish she hadn’t used the White House for her political purposes.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 27, 2016

      It’s not a “rhetorical point” when you broaden your focus to the construction and maintenance of Washington, D.C. right through to the Civil War.

    • Michael Douglas Jul 27, 2016

      “But the White House is not a slave-built structure in any meaningful way.”

      According to an article I read this morning on the Smithsonian Magazine’s web site:
      “Slaves were likely involved in all aspects of construction, including carpentry, masonry, carting, rafting, plastering, glazing and painting, the task force reported,” Lane writes. “And slaves appear to have shouldered alone the grueling work of sawing logs and stones.” In addition to constructing the buildings, slaves also worked the quarries where the stones for the government buildings came from.

      Sounds pretty meaningful to me.

      • Bruce H Vail Jul 27, 2016

        Yes, all of that is true when you are discussing the original structure.

        As I explained in my first post, the White House has been almost completely rebuilt since the end of slavery.

        • Jerry McKenzie Jul 30, 2016

          Remodels don’t count.

  • Bruce H Vail Jul 27, 2016

    Totally off topic, but I am deeply disturbed that Bill O’Reilly is the most widely read historical writer in America today.

  • Matt McKeon Jul 27, 2016

    “not used the White House for political purposes.” Um….what else do you use it for?

    • Bruce H Vail Jul 27, 2016

      I actually wrote “used for her political purposes” which, in this case, is the promotion of her husband’s election agenda.

      And what else do you use it for? Well, how about as a residence where the head of state can conduct official government business?

  • Matt McKeon Jul 27, 2016

    Mrs. Obama’s point is an optimistic one: the nation has changed for the better, look how far we’ve come, progress, etc. Its just that Bill O and his ilk don’t like some uppity woman talking about their country, even to praise it. That discourse is reserved for good white men like O’Reilly.

    • Jen Adamo Jul 28, 2016

      You have that right. Methinks Mr. Vail and others so desperate to Whitesplain slavery to us, are part of that ilk of which you speak.

  • Matt McKeon Jul 27, 2016

    Bruce, I am not getting your tutting.
    Obama is the head of state, and he is conducting the business of government, and one of those tasks is building political support for his programs. But the White House is not the Holy of Holies. An obvious historical fact can be mentioned
    about it, without violating a normal person’s tender feelings.
    The White House was built by slaves. All these weird attempts to evade or qualify this apparently uncomfortable fact don’t illuminate

    • Bruce H Vail Jul 27, 2016

      Yeah, I suppose you are right. I’m just rubbed the wrong way by Michelle’s using the White House as a symbol of slavery to get applause at a political party convention. I’m generally a Michelle supporter (even an admirer in many instances), so I am disappointed, not outraged like Bill O’Reilly. Yes, slaves helped build the old White House, but the White House should not be used as a symbol of slavery.

      • Kevin Levin Jul 27, 2016

        Bruce,

        I don’t understand your point. She didn’t just use it as a symbol of slavery. Obama used it as a symbol of racial progress, promise, and pride.

        • Bruce H Vail Jul 28, 2016

          Well, no, she was using her husband (and daughters) as a symbol of racial progress, promise, and hope. The White House was a prop.

      • Jen Adamo Jul 28, 2016

        I’m guessing you only “admire” FLOTUS as long as she doesn’t contradict your narrative of American history vis a vis the enslavement of African people.

  • Scott Ledridge Jul 27, 2016

    Some people just don’t like to deal with the icky parts. Beyond just her positive point, I think it’s an important aspect most don’t know, but should.

  • Sally Greenfield Jul 28, 2016

    I think people are focusing too much on the literal point that she made…that she wakes up in a house built on the backs of slaves. But metaphorically, she is also spot on…this country is a “house built on the backs of slaves” as well. And it’s not a history that should be glossed over or forgotten about. I can’t change that my ancestors owned human beings (I assume they did…I don’t know for sure, but it doesn’t matter) but I can acknowledge that it is not okay, that it will never be okay, and that we live the repercussions of such a system to this day. Own it, white people (like me!). We have a lot to be proud of our ancestors for, but this isn’t one of those things.

    • James Harrigan Jul 30, 2016

      very well put, Sally. There is no understanding history of our country without understanding the history of slavery and white supremacy.

  • Jen Adamo Jul 28, 2016

    Bill O’Reilly is a delusional idiot.
    Remember his shock when dining at Sylvia’s should food restaurant in Harlem and noticing Black diners eating politely with utensils, not yelling out for waitresses do bring them some tea. So anyone who would give HIS take on history any credence is as delusional as he is.
    Why he still has a show or why anyone would watch it is beyond me.

  • Sandra Jul 28, 2016

    Bill O’Reilly’s remarks about slaves being “well fed and housed” were simply meant to undermine Michelle Obama’s eloquent speech. He should have just kept his big mouth shut!

  • bob carey Jul 30, 2016

    O’Reilly knows that Mrs. Obama speech was powerful and effective, therefore he has to try to discredit it or soften it’s impact in order to help his candidate. His lame attempt at doing so backfired and he compounded his mistake the next night by defending his original statements, his ego wouldn’t allow otherwise.
    O’Reilly’s real problem is that Michelle Obama has much too much class for him to deal with.

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