Michelle Obama: I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.
Bill O’Reilly: Slaves that worked there were well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government, which stopped hiring slave labor in 1802.
If he used a weasel word like “some” to say slaves had relatively decent treatment, then I would be okay with what he said. One of those who worked on the Capitol building, Philip Reid, was paid $1.25 a day but only on Sunday (the other six days his owner received pay for his work). Once freed due to Lincoln, this same man was a highly sought after craftsman. Because of his high desirability, he probably was well treated. Others building in DC with sought after skills probably were also pretty well treated.
But, those slaves doing the worst jobs probably got terrible treatment. Both are common narratives in stories about slavery. Those serving in the house or providing special skills were clean, well fed, and slept in nice houses. Those serving in the fields were dirty, barely subsisting, and slept in terrible conditions.
As an eye witness Abigail Adams observed in a letter slaves working on the White House were so malnourished and weak 2 Northern whites could do the work of 12 slaves. My 2nd cousin 8x removed, John C. Calhoun, was a great defender of slavery describing owners and caretakers of those who would otherwise be destitute. The story that slaves had good lives is a popular propaganda of those who lovingly long for the South to return to its great glory. Dylann Roof’s manifesto contained writings about how slaves positively viewed their lives under it. So I read the Georgia narratives and found the opposite.
Let’s say they were well treated…
- They were still slaves.
- Meaning, they were still considered less than a full person at 3/5ths.
- As slaves they were still forced to work for the benefit of others not themselves.
- As slaves they had no option to decide they would rather do something else.
Pretty sure if I made Bill my slave, then he would be constantly trying to escape like Kunta Kinte to the point of needing to torture him and chop off part of his foot to hobble him. He would ungratefully do this even though I would feed him well and set him up in a nice house. He would bristle under not being free. He talks lots and lots about how great are the Bill of Rights because he appreciates freedom. Even if a slave owner treats the slaves well, they are… still. not. free.
Not all slave owners were terrible people. At least, a few slave narratives of blacks I read revealed some thought their owners treated them better than most did. The common narrative from the worst to the best is they were all still were glad to receive their freedom. Even those who found their circumstances onerous during Great Depression were thankful to be free.
What Bill said though is dog whistle politics. The underlying coded language here is that blacks were better off under slavery than they are now. Freeing my ancestors was a mistake because we could be still benefiting under that vile institution as slaves instead of what we have today. Those Southern conservatives who dream the South Will Rise Again ate that up and totally agree with him. A couple Confederate fanboy blogs I read yesterday even lament that Bill was not more explicit about what he meant.