On Monday night, Michelle Obama brought the house down at the DNC in Philadelphia with an emotional speech where she illustrated the greatness of America with this line: “Today, I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”
That remark prompted Bill O’Reilly to delve into the history of the construction of the White House. But his history lesson he provided his Fox News viewers on Tuesday was like one that would’ve been taught in Richmond in 1850.
After acknowledging that Michelle Obama’s comment was factually correct and providing a bit of the backstory, O’Reilly — a former history teacher — asserted that “Slaves that worked there were well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government, which stopped hiring slave labor in 1802.”
That comment comes around the one minute mark of this video:
Liam Hogan, a historian whose work focuses on slavery, noted on Twitter that O’Reilly’s comments are reminiscent of “how chattel slavery was defended by slave owners and pro-slavery interests.” To cite just one example, a U.S. history primer put together by the Independence Hall Association notes that “defenders of slavery argued that by comparison with the poor of Europe and the workers in the Northern states, that slaves were better cared for. They said that their owners would protect and assist them when they were sick and aged, unlike those who, once fired from their work, were left to fend helplessly for themselves.”
The reality, Hogan added, is that slavery were “treated like livestock.”
Hogan cited comments made by First Lady Abigail Adams in 1800, who wrote that White House slaves were in fact “half fed, and destitute of clothing.”
“What is O’Reilly’s claim of ‘well fed’ and ‘decent lodgings’ based upon?” Hogan wrote. “What are his sources? What is his evidence?”
In an email to ThinkProgress, Hogan said that based on his study of the literature, “I can’t see any basis… to justify a claim of [slaves] being ‘treated well.’ It’s kind of oxymoronic in the context of man as chattel property.”
To illustrate the point, Hogan shared a story about an ad White House architect James Hoban placed for a runaway slave named “Peter” in 1789. Three years later, Peter had apparently been recaptured and was listed as being among the slaves working for Hoban at the White House. Most of the slaves that worked on the White House and Capitol were leased, and it stands to reason that slaves in that circumstance would be treated worse than slaves put to work by masters who owned them. But, as Hogan writes, Peter “was willing to risk life and limb to escape his bondage” — hardly the behavior one would expect from a slave who is being “well fed” and kept in “decent lodgings.”
This isn’t the first time in recent months O’Reilly has expressed skepticism about the legacy of slavery and racism in the U.S. In April, he sent his interviewer to Princeton to say the word “ghetto” to black students in an attempt to make a point about political correctness on college campuses. Suffice it to say it did not go well.