An Open Letter To Bill O'Reilly About Slavery

First lady Michelle Obama waves before delivering her remarks at the Democratic National Convention
First lady Michelle Obama waves before delivering her remarks at the Democratic National Convention

Recently, you made comments in an attempt to “fact check” First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. In your comments, you concurred with Mrs. Obama’s statement that the White House was indeed built by slaves, but then you proceeded to state that the slaves were “well fed, and had decent lodging.”

As you purport yourself to be a student of history, it is unfortunate that you did not take the opportunity to educate your viewers on the realities of slavery. You seem, based on your comments, to be implying that slavery really wasn’t that bad, especially if the slave was lucky enough to work at the White House. First off, I am not quite sure where got your facts, because there is no documentation to say that the slaves who performed this task were in fact well fed and housed. There was no “menu” circa 1800 documenting what and how much slaves ate. Additionally, Abigail Adams, who resided in the White House during the latter stages of construction, debunks this assertion in one of her letters, stating “but it is true Republicanism that drive the Slaves half fed, and destitute of cloathing, to labour, whilst the owner waches about Idle, tho his one Slave is all the property he can boast” (emphasis added). Slaves were borrowed from their masters to do the work; their masters, not the slaves, were compensated for the slaves’ work as you correctly stated. The very definition of being a slave as per Webster’s Dictionary means that you are not paid for your work. Secondly, any housing would’ve been no better than a hut. If you consider that to be “decent housing,” then you have deeper issues than that can be addressed here. Slaves were not free to leave, get paid for their work, marry, vote, or voice their opinions ― all of which are tenets of the American Constitution, and freedoms that white Americans enjoyed. 

However, here is what is documented. For 246 years, starting in 1619 when African slaves were brought to American shores, slavery ensued.  As per the Gilder Lehrman Institute, Congress outlawed the African slave trade in 1808, but the domestic slave trade continued to flourish, and the slave population in the U.S. nearly tripled over the next 50 years. This increased was also due to forced breeding of slaves to increase the population. The domestic trade continued into the 1860’s and displaced approximately 1.2 million men, women, and children, the vast majority of whom were born in America. African-American males were sold from their families. Women were sold into prostitution; it was not uncommon for slave masters to have their way sexually with African-American slaves. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson have descendants of children they had by their slaves. Slaves were beaten, whipped, bitten by dogs, and forced to breed for their masters with their offspring ripped from their arms to be sold or forced to work in the fields. To be “sold down the river” was one of the most dreaded prospects of the enslaved population. Some destinations, particularly the Louisiana sugar plantations, had especially grim reputations. But it was the destruction of family that made the domestic slave trade so terrifying. Lastly, most folks aren’t aware that slavery in this country didn’t officially end until Dec. 6, 1865, the day the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. 

Another refresher: our country’s Civil War was over slavery. Not immigration patterns, not a dispute over commerce as some books trying to paint it; the fact of the matter is that the states in the south wanted slavery, and the rest of the country realized that slavery, by its very nature, was inhumane. There were some economic drivers as well as moral. If you claim to be a lover and student of history, then this accuracy must be preserved.

The. American experience includes things that are quite painful in our history. But to deny that slavery was an awful, hideous part of our history, to try to minimize it, is foolhardy at best and racist at its worst. I understand that you are an entertainer, with high ratings being a necessity to ensure your survival. But to do so at the expense of the history that you claim to love, as well as to be a student of, is not only disingenuous, but a disservice to your viewers. You bear some moral responsibility in preserving the truth of American history; whether you choose to or not only speaks to your measure as a human being.