According to Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, slavery wasn't really that bad for some slaves, particularly those involved in building the White House, who "were well-fed and had decent lodgings."
O'Reilly's comments Tuesday were his attempt to correct First Lady Michelle Obama, who during her address at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia Monday night reflected on the fact that she and her family "wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves."
In his need to fact-check the first lady, O'Reilly on his show said that while "slaves did participate in the construction of the White House … free Blacks, whites and immigrants also worked on the massive building. There were no illegal immigrants at that time. If you could make it here, you could stay here."
O'Reilly went on to add that the "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."
O'Reilly's apparent defense of the use of slave labor drew immediate backlash on social media and fed a long-held narrative that slavery was not as widespread and not as bad as it has been portrayed.
"If slavery was so great how come white people didn't want to sign up?" asked comedian and radio host DL Hughley.
— DL Hughley (@RealDLHughley) July 27, 2016
Film producer Sam Levine tweeted "How dare @oreillyfactor defend the practice of slavery?! He should be fired and/or resign for saying something so ignorant."
The narrative to portray slavery in a better light has been pushed by the likes of Sen. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. Noted for his strong defense of slavery, Calhoun described slavery as "a positive good" during a speech in 1837, saying slaves are better off than many, since they are "in the midst of his family and friends, under the kind superintending care of his master and mistress, [compared] with the forlorn and wretched condition of the pauper in the poorhouse."
Sen. James Henry Hammond, also from South Carolina, explained in a speech to northerners two decades later, "The difference between us is, 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. Yours are hired by the day, not cared for, and scantily compensated, which may be proved in the most painful manner, at any hour in any street in any of your large towns. Why, you meet more beggars in one day, in any single street of the city of New York, than you would meet in a lifetime in the whole South."
And, Hammond made the argument that whites were actually doing Blacks a favor by making them slaves.
"We do not think that whites should be slaves either by law or necessity. Our slaves are Black, of another and inferior race. The status in which we have placed them is an elevation. They are elevated from the condition in which God first created them, by being made our slaves. None of that race on the whole face of the globe can be compared with the slaves of the South. They are happy, content, uninspiring, and utterly incapable, from intellectual weakness, ever to give us any trouble by their aspirations."
And with regard to O'Reilly's statement that slaves that worked in the White House "were well-fed and had decent lodgings," in fact the opposite was true, according to First Lady Abigail Adams, who was actually there as the first family to occupy the White House in 1800 while construction was still going on.
In her writings, she remarked: "The effects of Slavery are visible every where; and I have amused myself from day to day in looking at the labour of 12 negroes from my window.
Two of our hardy N England men would do as much work in a day as the whole 12, but it is true Republicanism that drive the Slaves half fed, and destitute of cloathing, ... to labour, whilst the owner waches about Idle, tho his one Slave is all the property he can boast."