On the first night of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama gave a well-received speech. It included this line:
“That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”
Immediately, Twitter world lit up. At first, Mrs. Obama’s critics said it was a lie: The White House was not built by enslaved labor:
That wasn’t going to fly for long, except in racist folklore, because the facts are simply impossible to deny: We have the bookkeeping showing the amounts that the government paid to slave owners for leasing their enslaved workers. The White House Historical Association posted an example showing amounts paid in May 1795 to James Hoban, the Irish-born White House architect, for the services of three enslaved carpenters, Ben, Daniel, and Peter:
Hoban, who had settled in Charleston, South Carolina c.1787, along with his brothers, Philip and Joseph, was well-acquainted with the ins and outs of slavery. In 1789, for instance, he ran an ad in the local newspaper seeking the return of an enslaved carpenter named Peter, perhaps the same Peter mentioned in the 1795 payroll:
So, back to 2016: By the following night, the critique had devolved to a curious assessment by Bill O’Reilly, of Fox News. He acknowledged that, yes, enslaved laborers had been used, along with a variety of hired workers, including Scottish stonemasons, Irish immigrants, free blacks, and so on. Not to worry, though. O’Reilly went on to claim:
“Slaves that worked there were well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government, which stopped hiring slave labor in 1802. However, the feds did not forbid subcontractors from using slave labor. So, Michelle Obama is essentially correct in citing slaves as builders of the White House, but there were others working, as well.”
Well-fed? Government housing? Not according to the first occupant of the White House, Abigail Adams, who described watching twelve enslaved men working near the White House as “half fed and destitute of cloathing.” As far as the “decent lodgings,” in 2009, Reginald Washington, Archivist at the National Archives, described the enslaved workers’ housing as “not much more than huts.”
And what about the “well-fed” part? Not likely. Maryland and Virginia were slave states, and the requirements for slave rations were well-established; in some cases, by law. We know, for instance, that the going ration for “a hard-working slave” in Baltimore in 1788 was a single peck of corn or rice per week, plus an occasional serving of meat. That was pretty typical across the south. That amount of corn meal might equate to a diet of just over 2,000 calories a day. It might be sufficient for a 2016 desk jockey like me, but someone shoveling mud or quarrying stones from sunrise to sunset would likely burn at least 6,000 calories a day.
So how did the enslaved workers even get up to Abigail Adams’ description of them as being “half fed,” let alone up to O’Reilly’s “well-fed” level? We suspect that enslaved workers on that stretch of undeveloped land on the north side of the Potomac probably supplemented their rations through late-night fishing, foraging and hunting. But that’s a very long way from O’Reilly’s gratuitous characterization.
This brings us to a subject we’ve discussed before in this blog; namely, the many ways in which food has been invoked to support the myth of the “happy slave.” We saw it in the controversy back in January over the children’s book about Washington’s enslaved chef, Hercules. We also saw it in an exploration of the watermelon stereotype.
The myth of the happy slave started out as a defense of slavery. David A. Graham cites, for instance, an 1837 speech by John C. Calhoun arguing that the enslaved in the south were much better off than “the tenants of the poor houses in the more civilized portions of Europe.” He also cites a speech some twenty years later by Sen. James Henry Hammond, telling a northern audience that “our slaves are hired for life and well compensated; there is no starvation, no begging, no want of employment among our people, and not too much employment either.” Our slaves are well-fed, so shut up and let us be.
The same logic was used after the abolition of chattel slavery to defend the rollback of Reconstruction rights, Jim Crow segregation, and the widespread efforts during the early years of the Great Migration to prevent African Americans from leaving the south. In the Civil Rights era, it was an excuse to resist desegregation: This is our problem; let us work things out, and keep the Feds out of it.
Today, the argument still pops up in discussions. In 2011, Fox News’ Stuart Varney put “poor” in quotes, and argued that because poor people in America have “luxuries” like refrigerators, poverty must not be all that bad. Hey, you can keep your food cold; go home and eat, and stop griping about “black lives matter.” In 2013, Chief Justice Roberts used the same logic in the Shelby decision to allow states and localities to start disenfranchising voting blocks deemed undesirable. Meanwhile, Duck Dynasty‘s Phil Robertson asserted that when it came to life for African Americans under segregation, “they was happy.”
The dismissive myth of the happy slave becomes in our time the rationalization for maintaining the status quo, and ignoring demands for social justice: Things were never that bad. Even the enslaved workers who built Washington, D.C. were well-fed and had good government housing, so shut up and stop whining. And so Bill O’Reilly, even when he tells the truth about the use of enslaved labor in the building of the nation’s capital, still feels compelled to turn around in the same breath and lie about it in order to prop up one of the foundational myths of social injustice.