The Spectacle Blog

Chris Matthews’ Balloon Head History

By on 1.28.11 | 12:31PM

Now that Keith "Lincoln only lost one election" Olbermann has departed MSNBC, the banner of historical ignorance has been picked up by Chris Matthews.

After playing a soundbite of Minnesota's Congresswoman Michele Bachmann talking about the Founding Fathers and specifically discussing John Quincy Adams' opposition to slavery, Matthews went on to disparage Bachmann as a "balloon head" because, according to Matthews, the Constitution deliberately counted slaves as only three-fifths of a person.

This is historical misstatement of a size that makes Matthews look like, well, a balloon head. 

First, Bachmann was totally correct about John Quincy Adams. Second, as anyone who has spent, say, five minutes studying the U.S. Constitution and its history is fully aware the famous "three-fifths clause" was a compromise by the anti-slavery forces to keep slave-owners from being over-represented in the U.S. House of Representatives where population determined -- then as now -- the number of congressional seats per state. If slaves, specifically mentioned as "persons" in Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 ("three fifths of all other Persons") were counted, the Southern slave-owners would have an even greater numerical advantage in Congress than they already were destined to have. With slaves counted as a whole person, slave owners' power would increase -- while slaves would be unable to ever win their freedom in a system dominated by slaveowners. Hence the compromise, which was in fact pushed by anti-slavery forces.

The population in the North would grow -- eventually destined to overwhelm the South in numbers. This was one of the reasons for the Dred Scott decision -- a desperate attempt to write slavery into the Constitution forever, written by the slave-holding Roger Taney -- the Democrat who was Chief Justice of the United States.

For Matthews to so grossly misstate the most rudimentary of historical fact in his zeal to go after Bachmann displays either an overdose of partisan zeal (and a considerable whiff of sexism, a Matthews problem in the past) -- or just plain old fashioned historical ignorance by someone parading around as a smart guy.

Someone's a balloon head here alright, and it isn't Michele Bachmann.

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