Historians Respond to Bill O’Reilly

Photo Credit: Whitehouse.gov
Photo Credit: Whitehouse.gov

Bill O’Reilly is at it again. Whatever merits the Fox News pundit may have as a commentator on current events, his endeavors in historical scholarship are less than stellar. I admit to not being a regular reader of his “Killing” series, but his book Killing Lincoln–which I have read–was a mistake-ridden flop that offered nothing new to the historiography of Lincoln studies. Historians roundly criticized the book and Ford’s Theater–the very place where Lincoln was assassinated–refuses to carry it in their gift shop. O’Reilly’s influential platform on a popular news station gives him an enormous presence to influence hearts and minds across the United States, however, and so all historians must take his historical claims seriously. Whether or not his claims are accurate or inaccurate is less significant than the fact that his “history” books sell well and his identification as a historian resonates with his television followers. I interned with the National Park Service at the U.S. Grant National Historic Site (where I now work full-time) around the time Killing Lincoln was released, and I must have had at least two dozen visitors to the park over three months who told me they came because they had read that book. Never once did someone say they were visiting because they read a reputable history of the Lincoln assassination by universally respected scholars such as James Swanson, Edward Steers, and Michael Kauffman.

And so it was with great disappointment when O’Reilly, citing his identification as a historian, felt compelled to respond to First Lady Michelle Obama’s acknowledgement of the White House’s construction by enslaved black Americans by stating that those enslaved people were actually well fed and adequately taken care of. O’Reilly’s comments continue a long history of Americans, particularly white Americans, addressing the history of U.S. slavery with qualifications, equivocations, and explanations that downplay the overarching influence of slavery in the building of this nation’s economic, social, and political foundations. “Slavery was bad, but…” “Slavery existed, but…”

In my years as a public historian on the front lines of historical interpretation–which include interpreting U.S. slavery–I have heard visitors claim that slavery was a benevolent influence on black Americans since it Christianized them and took them away from the savageries of Africa. I have heard visitors respond to my talks by saying that “black people owned slaves too” and that tens of thousands of blacks fought for the Confederacy (“they don’t talk about that in the history books!”). They have told me that black slavery existed primarily “to address a labor shortage” and not because of race or racism. They have told me that these enslaved people, once they gained their freedom after the Civil War, largely chose to stay at their old master’s plantation because of their gratitude to the kindness and generosity of their former enslavers, and not because they lacked the economic resources or the freedom to obtain jobs, money, education, and land elsewhere. They have referred to the enslaved people as “the dependents,” a particularly ironic identifier given that “the dependents” were actually the white enslavers who relied on enslaved labor for their material success and high quality of life. They have told me that slavery had nothing to do with the coming of the Civil War. They have gone on TripAdvisor and called my tours “politically correct” because we as an institution have made the interpretation of slavery a central goal of our educational mission. O’Reilly’s comments about slavery at the White House, therefore, were not new to me because they fit into this unfortunate tradition of literally whitewashing slavery from the story of the United States. I get these viewpoints expressed to me by ordinary white Americans too often.

Many historians have responded to O’Reilly’s comments with thoughtful essays refuting his perspective and asking what, exactly, he wanted to point out by stating them in the first place. Of these essays the biggest takeaway in my opinion has been the distinction between understanding the material conditions of slavery and the legal framework of U.S. slavery. This distinction, most forcefully argued by Rebecca Onion and Caleb McDaniel, shows that the day-to-day slave experience took many forms–from enslaved people who were “treated well” to those who were physically, emotionally, and sexually abused–but that legally all enslaved people were bound to the same rules and regulations of chattel slavery. This is not to suggest that the abuse any particular enslaved person endured or the personal gains an enslaved person made (such as Elizabeth Keckley earning wages and obtaining enough money to purchase her freedom and eventually become Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker) should be disregarded, but that the bigger picture of the legal boundaries is necessary to understanding the crushing oppression of U.S. slavery. Whether or not the enslaved people who built the White House were well cared for must be fit within a legal context. That legal context includes the fact that U.S. chattel slavery was determined on the basis of race, that it was hereditary, that it was perpetual for the duration of one’s lifetime, that enslaved people always faced the fear of them or their loved ones being sold away, and that enslaved people lacked the most basic of individual freedoms, ownership of themselves. This is the context that is missing not just from O’Reilly’s comments, but many comments that I hear from Americans on a frequent basis. Part of my role as a public historian includes doing my part to provide a better understanding of this context for the people I interact with on a daily basis.

Here’s a list of articles by historians responding to O’Reilly:

  • Rebecca Onion, “What Bill O’Reilly Doesnt Understand About Slavery”
  • Kevin Levin, “Bill O’Reilly’s Benevolent Slaveowners”
  • Peter Holley, “The Ugly Truth About the White House and its History of Slavery”
  • David A. Graham,” How Abigail Adams Proves Bill O’Reilly’s Wrong About Slavery”

I will update this list if I find more articles on the topic.



18 thoughts on “Historians Respond to Bill O’Reilly

  1. My museum posted the Time Magazine interview with Ed Ayers regarding O’Reilly’s comments and I’ve been sorting through the comments. They tend toward the same thing you notice… a strong desire to equivocate on slavery. “Yes, they were slaves, BUT…[insert terrible historical reasoning.]” (As an aside, I’ve long heard some version of “…they were treated well,” but a new one that I’ve seen a lot within the last year is “…but Irish people were enslaved and deported from Ireland, so why are THEY complaining?” Would love to unpack that particular one.)

    Anyhow, was talking it over with the FB manager today… we can go toe-to-toe in arguing, but who needs an argument on Facebook. We can even do a pretty great job of rooting OUR arguments in actual historical evidence. That’s fine.

    Wondered to what extent, though, that we can step back and talk about the historical thinking skills that lead us to thinking about American racial slavery the way we do (this is what Caleb McDaniel’s Twitter stream was getting at) because the rationalizations/equivocations that many white people offer are bad not necessarily because of certain factual evidence (well… maybe) but because they are the result of terrible historical thinking skills. We’re dealing with larger concepts like the meaning of “chattel.” Historicity and chronology are important as well, because at the time of the alleged Cromwellian offense to Irish people, the concept of race and heritableness were still evolving in British North America and so there are no legitimate grounds for comparison. There are conceptual historical reasons for why we think of slavery (racial, chattel) in 18th and 19th Century America that make it so different than other slaveries that these apologists often refer to.

    I wish (and it may happen here) that we could compose a pithy, one-paragraph statement about why we—as public history institutions—understand slavery as the thing that it was, refer to it often, and declare and that we will not be arguing about it anymore. I likely won’t change any minds, but it may be an opportunity to educate on historical thinking skills. Who knows.

    1. I think one way historical thinking can help us in this particular instance is in how we frame the questions we choose to ask about the history of U.S. slavery. Oftentimes I think these discussions–the ones that focus on material conditions–focus on whether or not slavery was bad thing and whether or not slaveholders, the founding fathers, insert famous white man, etc. was a good person. Those are questions that say more about us than the past itself. The better questions–the ones I think you’re getting to–should force us to consider how chattel slavery came to be accepted as an economic, social, and political force in the United States, a place where the concept of “freedom” has historically been so strongly cherished both in law and practice.

      1. Right. How do you frame a question or a discussion in a way that allows for material differences but doesn’t allow for them to be the measure of the terribleness of the overall institution?

      2. A statement might go something like this…

        American slavery was a uniquely horrific institution defined by its racial character. Understanding its evolution is essential to understanding the Civil War and American history. At this museum, we strive to forthrightly do so. We begin by understanding what made American slavery a historical phenomenon that still shapes us today.

        The historical development of racial slavery in America, as we understand it, takes into account these points:

        1. Heritable, permanent, servitude developed in British North America in the mid-17th Century as colonial legislatures assigned black people to permanent, lifelong, slavery, and white people to temporary servitude at worst.

        2. American slavery, as it transformed into a race-based institution—operated on the chattel principle—that the enslaved person was legally and socially considered property of the owner, and not people. Thus, only the owner defined the condition of servitude.

        3. No white person in American history was subject to any similar proscription.

        4. In the 19th Century, the legal sanctions against enslaved and free African Americans tightened in association the development of a separatist southern identity by many white people.

        5. Slavery, as maintained by white people and as experienced by black people, was highly complex and varied based on location, time, labor, politics, economics, and social relationships, often producing counterintuitive individual narratives of slavery. Observing that the condition of slavery at one place and time may have been less onerous than another does not, to us, at all compromise our historical assessment that American racial slavery was a devastating injustice in general.

        This museum will host evidence based historical inquiry and discussion about American slavery in all its beguiling and frustrating complexity, but we will not engage in or entertain equivocations about it based on faulty historical thinking. We believe that understanding the historical experience of race relations in the United States better situates us to understand and navigate race relations in our own lives.

        1. I think this is an interesting exercise for museums that interpret slavery, sort of an intellectual blueprint that clearly lays out “non-negotiables” when discussing slavery within the museum’s walls. I like it.

    2. Oh, and I forgot to mention that the mythical “Irish slaves” meme is starting to grow exponentially on social media. I haven’t encountered it yet in real life but I’m sure someone will come to park talking about it someday.

  2. What’s interesting to me about these reactions/excuses/etc. from modern white folks is their defensive quality, as if they consider any descriptions of the horrors of slavery as attacks on all white folks, or even an attack on them personally. Perhaps someone more versed in psychology than history could explain it.

    1. I agree that it’s more about the contemporary sense of embattled identity rather than any particular understanding of history. I think the new “Irish slave” thing is a claim to–and an undermining of–the apparent cultural cache one receives for being a member of a historically oppressed group. (Which is debatable, of course.)

  3. Thanks for your summary of the historian’s view on O’Reilly’s comments. I always feel particularly ticked at him for this nonsense because he grew up near me. Although he was years older than I, he went to the same parish elementary school and Catholic High School as I did.

    The Irish slavery issue seems to exist as a meme, although I only occasionally encounter it. Usually it is raised from a Left perspective as a way of Irish Americans identifying with the oppression of blacks. Certainly that is how Timothy Egan uses it in his new book Immortal Irishman, a bio of Thomas Francis Meagher. Liam Hogan, the Irish scholar, is a strong opponent of the idea that Irish were held as slaves. Hogan has researched the issue deeply and I tend, at first blush, to agree with him.

    I do not have any knowledge of whether Irish were slaves in 17th Century Barbados, as is sometimes claimed, but I would warn that “race-based chattel slavery” is not the only kind of slavery. Modern definitions are much broader than that. We should not privilege the mid-19th Century American definition of slavery as the only appropriate definition.

    The reason I bring this up is that groups like ISIS hold members of certain religious minorities in what international humanitarian NGOs and the US State Department describe as slavery. Since ISIS is not a government, these individuals cannot be property, however, they are slaves.

    Whether Irish were slaves, I do not know. But we should understand that the definition of slave developed by and around the American experience are not the only appropriate definition of “slave.” My job involves me in human rights-related work and I think it is important to understand that slavery was and is a worldwide phenomenon with thousands of years of history. We need to resist the view that the American experience is the only one that counts in defining it.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Patrick. I think Hogan is doing good work in demolishing a lot of the silliness around the Irish slaves meme. I’ve observed its uses in ways completely opposite from you. It pops up on Twitter most often from conservatives during events like Michelle Obama’s aforementioned acknowledgement of slavery at the White House or during periods of intense racial strife like the events in Ferguson. The meme is often deployed as a rhetorical weapon to essentially say “We Irish people were enslaved and we don’t bitch about social justice or as for handouts. Get over yourselves and get over slavery.” I think that’s a ridiculously inaccurate and simplistic perspective to take, but that’s when the meme really pops up on social media in my observation.

  4. Given his on-air persona as an arrogant, obnoxious willfully ignorant blowhard, which unlike Stephen Colbert’s persona on The Colbert Report actually represents his genuine self, I wouldn’t waste money or time in reading any book written by Bill O’Reilly. When it comes to history, I’d much rather read a book by an actual historian with a reputation for basing his or her writings on an objective analysis of the actual known facts that can be verified than by a celebrity known for ranting on topics of which he has no expertise and without care for the actual facts of the matter just to give vent to his pre-determined opinions.

    1. I agree completely with your comment, but unfortunately there are millions of people who will uncritically consume anything O’Reilly publishes. How do we encourage people to take an interest in legitimate historical scholarship? It’s a challenge without an easy answer.

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