On Friday, the First Lady joined new graduates of City College in New York, giving the commencement address. In an effort to assure the students that they were capable of great things, she told the following story:
“It’s the story that I witness every single day, when I wake up in a house that was built by slaves, and I watch my daughters – two beautiful, black young women – head off to school, waving goodbye to their father, the President of the United States…
While I think it’s fair to say that our Founding Fathers never could have imagined this day… you are the fruits of their labor. Their legacy is very much your legacy.”
The fact that slaves assisted with the construction of the White House is no secret, although it did not get much attention until Barack Obama was elected. (Since then, the President himself has referenced the information, as well.)
But while their statements are technically correct, both the President and the First Lady left out a few valuable pieces of information.
First, the White House was not built solely — or even primarily — by slaves. In addition to the slaves, the labor force consisted of local (from Maryland and Virginia) white laborers and artisans and a number of immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, and other European nations.
Second, the government paid the slaves who worked on the White House. While many of the surviving records only indicate payments made to their masters, at least one slave — Philip Reid — was paid directly, a sum of $1.25 per day ($31 per day in 2016 dollars).
This is in addition to the fact that Mrs. Obama is herself a multi-millionaire, along with her Presidential husband, a graduate of Harvard University who is herself a walking symbol of the success that can come to anyone who is willing to work hard and apply one’s talent in America.
In other words, even as Michelle Obama herself rebukes the nation’s history of racism, she is a living example that America has done much to overcome it.
The most “glaring” point, however is that the First Lady claims that The Founders could never imagine a black person in The White House, when many specifically wanted to eliminate racial differences.
“The Deleted Passage in The Declaration of Independence” written by Thomas Jefferson is but one example, though later removed to win the signatures of southern colonies:
He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
The infamous three-fifths clause of The Constitution, although often ignorantly condemned as dehumanizing of slaves, was a strategic measure to erode the power of the southern states in The Congress, and ultimately lead to the slaves’ emancipation.
A separate clause in The Constitution sought to eliminate the slave trade to American shores in twenty years’ time.
The First Lady went on to criticize presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump later in her commencement address.