A few weeks back I reported on a Florida Tea Party event, sponsored in conjunction with Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project, in which Frantz Kebreau of the National Association for Conservative People of All Colors (NAACPC) reimagined an American history in which slavery was not initially raced-based and the “Christian” founders were anti-slavery. Republicans, in this narrative, have led the fights for abolition, emancipation, voting rights, civil rights, and even integration, while Democrats have fostered racism for political gain.
In looking anew David Barton’s Christian history revisionist work in light of Glenn Beck’s recent promotion of it, I discovered that he is the source—almost word for word—of the material contained in Kebreau’s presentation. Barton’s work has been a staple in Christian schools and among Christian homeschoolers for a generation now but thanks to Beck’s “Founders’ Fridays,” “university,” and upcoming rally at the Lincoln Memorial, Barton’s audience is expanding.
Barton accuses historians of hiding the truth about slavery and racism from the American people, a charge that fits the larger conspiracy-oriented worldview of Beck and other leading conservatives.
In one notable example, first published on Barton’s Wallbuilders’ Web site in 2001, Barton argues in favor of the three-fifths rule which required that slaves be counted as three-fifths of a person for representation in Congress. Barton maintains that, while contemporary Americans are aghast that “we” could have ever considered African-Americans just three-fifths persons, the result was beneficial to the slaves, because the rule diminished the power of slaveholding states. It was not, he says, “a measurement of human worth; rather, it was an anti-slavery provision to limit the political power of slavery’s proponents.”
The rule does not, as Barton and Beck maintain, prove that the founders were seeking to abolish slavery out of their Christian goodness (in fact many of them owned slaves). The rule resulted from a compromise between the pro-slavery delegates to the Constitutional Convention (who wanted slaves to count as full persons because it would increase the representation of the southern states in Congress) and the anti-slavery delegates (who wanted slaves not to count at all in order to decrease the representation in Congress of the slave states). One can certainly say the compromise diminished the pro-slavery representation in Congress, and thus the Southern states’ political power, compared to counting slaves as full persons. (Since slaves couldn’t vote, increasing their “representation” in Congress actually increased the power of the slaveholding states to keep slavery in place.) But it’s hard to argue that the rule was an “anti-slavery” provision when it resulted from the need to compromise with pro-slavery delegates in order to get the Constitution ratified.
In any case, the significance of the three-fifths rule is generally understood as a way of bringing into focus the bizarreness that, at the time, counting an African American as three-fifths of a person seemed like an expedient compromise.
Barton’s framing—that the “Christian” founders were anti-slavery—is now showing up in the talking points of tea partiers. On his radio show in late 2009, Beck argued with a listener that “African-Americans were deemed three-fifths people because the founders wanted to end slavery and they knew if the South could count the slaves as full individuals, you could never get the control to abolish it.” This was one of Kebreau’s principal points; I heard it at a Tea Party rally supporting Arizona’s immigration law in June, and I heard it from a Jacksonville Tea Party representative on my local public radio station the morning I wrote this. But it’s neither historically accurate nor proof of what Barton and Beck maintain: that the founders, who they consider to be the true godfathers of conservatism, were anti-slavery and intended that the Constitution to reflect that.