On equality and America: Rush Limbaugh vs. the historical record

May 30, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 30, 2014

I have no sermonizing for you today; simply snippets of transcripts and documents.

I ask, dear reader, that you do one thing: Contrast the way in which conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh describes the founding principles of the United States (particularly the passage that I’ve highlighted below) with actual historical evidence about how America’s founders and esteemed citizens viewed and treated the African-Americans who labored for them.


“The story of humanity on Planet Earth since the beginning of time has been tyranny and bondage. Most people who have lived did not have very much freedom or liberty.

“They did not have the right to own property, and they certainly didn’t have a whole lot of economic opportunity. The vast majority of people who have lived on this planet have had really hard lives. They lived under tyranny, authoritarianism, dictatorship, you name it. There never was a nation before the United States, which founded itself and organized itself on the belief that the citizen was the center of the universe.

“The free, liberated citizen was the engine. Every other nation on earth that had been formed or every other population — even if it was not a nation with borders, just any population group — was always dominated by brutal, tyrannical, dictatorial leaders who led by intimidation, punishment, brutality. The United States came along and was the exception to all of that.

The United States comes along and is founded under the premise that we are all created by God and we’re all created equal and we are all created yearning for freedom, that that is the natural existence of the human spirit. It had never happened before. The Constitution of this country was written for the first time in human history to limit the power of its leaders, to limit the power of its government. It had never happened before.

“Maybe Magna Carta got the start, but in terms of organizing a nation for the purposes of existing as a nation-state, never had anything like this happened before. That’s what’s so remarkable and miraculous! That’s the exception. American exceptionalism is about the exception to the rule or the exception to the norm.”

Rush Limbaugh, “The Drive-By Media Can’t Define the Obama Doctrine — But We Can,” May 29, 2014



“All servants imported and brought into the Country…who were not Christians in their native Country…shall be accounted and be slaves. All Negro, mulatto and Indian slaves within this dominion…shall be held to be real estate. If any slave resist his master…correcting such slave, and shall happen to be killed in such correction…the master shall be free of all punishment…as if such accident never happened.”

Virginia General Assembly, slave codes, 1705


“Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf-skin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man? ….

“But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait, of painting or sculpture. In music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a small catch. Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved. Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. — Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. ….

“To our reproach it must be said, that though for a century and a half we have had under our eyes the races of black and of red men, they have never yet been viewed by us as subjects of natural history. I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications. Will not a lover of natural history then, one who views the gradations in all the races of animals with the eye of philosophy, excuse an effort to keep those in the department of man as distinct as nature has formed them? This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people. Many of their advocates, while they wish to vindicate the liberty of human nature, are anxious also to preserve its dignity and beauty. Some of these, embarrassed by the question ‘What further is to be done with them?’ join themselves in opposition with those who are actuated by sordid avarice only. Among the Romans emancipation required but one effort. The slave, when made free, might mix with, without staining the blood of his master. But with us a second is necessary, unknown to history. When freed, he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture. ”

— Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781


“We risked our Lives and Fortunes, and waded through Seas of Blood…we understand a very subtle and daring attempt is made to dispossess us of a very important Part of our Property…TO WREST US FROM OUR SLAVES, by and act of Legislature for general emancipation.

“It is unsupported by Scripture. For we find in the Old Testament…slavery was permitted by the Deity himself… It is also exceedingly impolitic. For it involves in it, and is productive of Want, Poverty, Distress, and Ruin to FREE citizens, Neglect, Famine and Death to the black Infant…The Horrors of all Rapes, Murders, and Outrages which a vast multitude of unprincipled unpropertied, revengeful and remorseless Banditti are capable of perpetrating…sure and final Ruin to this now flourishing free and happy Country.

“We solemnly adjure and humbly pray that you will discountenance and utterly reject every motion and proposal for emancipating our slaves.

“And you Petitioners shall ever pray…”

Pro-slavery petition, prepared in advance of the Constitutional Convention, signed by 300 people in several different Virginia counties, circa 1785


“Some men of considerable weight to wrestle from us, by an Act of the legislature, the most valuable and indispensable Article of our Property, our SLAVES by general emancipation of them….It therefore cannot be admitted that any man had a right…to divest us of our known rights to property which are so clearly defined…To an unequivocal Construction therefore of this Bill of rights we now appeal and claim the utmost benefits of…in whatever may tend…to preserve our rights…secure to us the Blessings of the free…

“We most solemnly adjure and humbly pray that you Gentlemen to whom we have committed the Guardship of our rights of property, utterly reject every Motion and Proposal for emancipating our slaves…and totally repeal the Act for permitting Owners of Slaves to emancipate them;

“And we shall ever Pray…”

Pro-slavery petition, prepared in advance of the Constitutional Convention, signed by 161 people in Lundenburg County, Virginia, 1785


The slave “has not the power of Choice, and Reason and Conscience have but little influence over his conduct, because he is chiefly governed by the passion of Fear. He is poor & friendless, perhaps worn out by extreme Labour Age and Disease. Under such circumstances Freedom may often prove a misfortune to himself and prejudicial to Society.”

Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, “Address to the Public,” 1789


An anonymous author, who described himself as “a Soldier and a Patriot of the Revolution,” listed some of the reasons why Denmark Vesey wished and was capable of beginning to organize what would have been the largest slave revolt in U.S. history:

“The indiscreet zeal in favor of universal liberty, expressed by many of our fellow-citizens in the States north and east of Maryland; aided by the Black population of those States… The idleness, dissipation, and improper indulgencies permitted among all classes of the Negroes in Charleston, and particularly among the domestics: and, as the most dangerous of those indulgencies, their being taught to read and write: the first bringing the powerful operation of the Press to act on their uninformed and easily deluded minds; and the latter furnishing them with an instrument to carry into execution the mischievous suggestions of the former… The facility of obtaining money afforded by the nature of their occupations to those employed as mechanics, draymen, fishermen, butchers, porters, hucksters, &c.”

Anonymous, “Reflections, Occasioned by the late Disturbances in Charleston,” Nov. 4, 1822


“No intercourse is allowed with other plantations. A certain number [of slaves] are allowed to go to town on Sundays, to dispose of eggs, poultry, coopers’ ware, canoes, &c. but must be home by 12 o’clock, unless by special permit. Any one returning intoxicated, (a rare instance) goes into stocks, and [is] not allowed to leave home for twelve months.”

Georgia plantation owner Roswell King Jr., “On the Management of the Butler Estate,” The Southern Agriculturist, 1828


“I advanced to a small window in the kitchen, which brought me within a few yards of the place where they sat, and from which I was able to hear all they said, although they spoke in a low tone of voice. I here learned, that so many of us as could be sold for a good price, were to be disposed of in Columbia, on our arrival at that place, and that the residue would be driven to Augusta and sold there.

“The landlord assured my master that at this time slaves were much in demand, both in Columbia and Augusta; that purchasers were numerous and prices good; and that the best plan of effecting good sales would be to put up each nigger separately, at auction, after giving a few days’ notice, by an advertisement, in the neighboring country. ….

“The horses and mules that I saw in the cotton-fields, were poor and badly harnessed, and the half-naked condition of the negroes, who drove them, or followed with the hoe, together with their wan complexions, proved to me that they had too much work, or not enough food. We passed a cotton-gin this morning, the first that I ever saw; but they were not at work with it. We also met a party of ladies and gentlemen on a journey of pleasure, riding in two handsome carriages, drawn by sleek and spirited horses, very different in appearance from the moving skeletons that I had noticed drawing the ploughs in the fields. The black drivers of the coaches were neatly clad in gay-colored clothes, and contrasted well with their half-naked brethren, a gang of whom were hoeing cotton by the roadside, near them, attended by an overseer in a white linen shirt and pantaloons, with one of the long negro whips in his hand.

“I observed that these poor people did not raise their heads, to look at either the fine coaches and horses then passing, or at us; but kept their faces steadily bent towards the cotton-plants, from among which they were removing weeds. I almost shuddered at the sight, knowing that I myself was doomed to a state of servitude equally cruel and debasing, unless, by some unforseen occurrence, I might fall into the hands of a master of less inhumanity of temper than the one who had possession of the miserable creatures before me.”

Charles Ball, Fifty Years in Chains, 1836


“Nov. 20, 1836, (Sunday,) Peter John Lee, a free colored man of Westchester Co., N.Y., was kidnapped by Tobias Boudinot, E. K. Waddy, John Lyon, and Daniel D. Nach, of N. Y., city, and hurried away from his wife and children into slavery. One went up to shake hands with him, while the others were ready to use the gag and chain…. This is not a rare case. Many northern freeman have been enslaved, in some cases under color of law. Oct. 26, 1836, a man named Frank, who was born in Pa., and lived free in Ohio, was hurried into slavery by an Ohio Justice of the Peace. When offered for sale in Louisiana, he so clearly stated the facts that a slaveholding court declared him FREE…”

Anonymous, “A Northern Freeman Enslaved by Northern Hands,” Anti-Slavery Almanac, 1839


“Her health seems to be sinking and she has been a sufferer of great agony mentally and bodily. You will recollect the cruelties which you described to me once in confidence that had been perpetrated, by a certain person in whose power Maria is, and I recollect the horror you expressed of it. All these cruelties have been inflicted upon the feeble frame of that girl — and are frequently inflicted — she must die under them….

“Will you not, Colonel, let me have her. She is sickly, suffering, and will die soon if she remains where she is. I buy her only to free her. Lashed as she is like an ox, until the blood gushes from her, I know, your kind, humane heart must revolt at the barbarities she is constantly enduring.”

— J.M. Duffield, letter to Col. R.C. Ballard, 1848


“Until my tenth year I did not care what became of me; but soon after I began to learn that there is a Christ who came to make us free; I began to hear about a North, and to feel the necessity for freedom of soul and body. I heard of a North where men of my color could live without any man daring to say to them, ‘You are my property;’ and I determined by the blessing of God, one day to find my way there. My inclination grew on me, and I found my way to Boston.”

Anthony Burns, speech transcription featured in the New York Tribune and The Liberator, 1855


“[Y]ou have excommunicated me, on the charge of ‘disobeying both the laws of God and men,’ ‘in absconding from the service of my master, and refusing to return voluntarily.’

“I admit that I left my master (so called), and refused to return; but I deny that in this I disobeyed either the law of God, or any real law of men.

“Look at my case, I was stolen and made a slave as soon as I was born. No man had any right to steal me. That manstealer who stole me trampled on my dearest rights. He committed an outrage on the law of God; therefore his manstealing gave him no right in me, and laid me under no obligation to be his slave. God made me a man — not a slave; and gave me the same right to myself that he have the man who stole me to himself. The great wrongs he has done me, in stealing me and making me a slave, in compelling me to work for him many years without wages, and in holding me as merchandize, — these wrongs could never put me under obligation to stay with him, or to return voluntarily, when once escaped.

“You charge me that, in escaping, I disobeyed God’s law. No, indeed! That law which God wrote on the table of my heart, inspiring the love of freedom, and impelling me to seek it at every hazard, I obeyed, and, by the good hand of my God upon me, I walked out of the house of bondage. ….

“You have used your liberty of speech freely in exhorting and rebuking me. You are aware, that I too am now where I may think for myself, and can use great freedom of speech, too, if I please. I shall therefore be only returning the favor of your exhortation if I exhort you to study carefully the golden rule, which reads, ‘All things whatsoever ye would that men shoud do to you, do ye even so to them; fore this is the law and the prophets.’ Would you like to be stolen, and then sold? and then worked without wages? and forbidden to read the Bible? and be torn from your wife and children? and then, if you were able to make yourself free, and should, as Paul said, ‘use it rather,’ would you think it quite right to be cast out of the church for this? If it were done, so wickedly, would you be afraid God would indorse it? Suppose you were to put your soul in my soul’s stead; how would you read the law of love?”

Anthony Burns, letter to the Baptist Church, quoted in Charles Emery Stevens, Anthony Burns: A History, 1856


“The words ‘people of the United States’ and ‘citizens’ are synonymous terms, and mean the same thing. They both describe the political body who … form the sovereignty, and who hold the power and conduct the Government through their representatives…. The question before us is, whether the class of persons described in the plea in abatement [people of Aftican ancestry] compose a portion of this people, and are constituent members of this sovereignty? We think they are not, and that they are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them. ….

“The court think the affirmative of these propositions cannot be maintained. And if it cannot, [Dred Scott] could not be a citizen of the State of Missouri, within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States, and, consequently, was not entitled to sue in its courts.

“It is true, every person, and every class and description of persons, who were at the time of the adoption of the Constitution recognized as citizens in the several States, became also citizens of this new political body; but none other; it was formed by them, and for them and their posterity, but for no one else. And the personal rights and privileges guarantied to citizens of this new sovereignty were intended to embrace those only who were then members of the several State communities, or who should afterwards by birthright or otherwise become members…

“[T]he legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence, show, that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves, nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people, nor intended to be included in the general words used in that memorable instrument.

“It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in relation to that unfortunate race, which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted….

“They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery…. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it. This opinion was at that time fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race. It was regarded as an axiom in morals as well as in politics, which no one thought of disputing…

“And in no nation was this opinion more firmly fixed or more uniformly acted upon than by the English Government and English people. They not only seized them on the coast of Africa, and sold them or held them in slavery for their own use; but they took them as ordinary articles of merchandise to every country where they could make a profit on them, and were far more extensively engaged in this commerce than any other nation in the world.

“The opinion thus entertained and acted upon in England was naturally impressed upon the colonies they founded on this side of the Atlantic. And, accordingly, a negro of the African race was regarded by them as an article of property, and held, and bought and sold as such, in every one of the thirteen colonies which united in the Declaration of Independence, and afterwards formed the Constitution of the United States….

“The legislation of the different colonies furnishes positive and indisputable proof of this fact….

“The province of Maryland, in 1717, passed a law declaring ‘that if any free negro or mulatto intermarry with any white woman, or if any white man shall intermarry with any negro or mulatto woman, such negro or mulatto shall become a slave during life, excepting mulattoes bom of white women, who, for such intermarriage, shall only become servants for seven years….’

“The other colonial law to which we refer was passed by Massachusetts in 1705. It is entitled ‘An act for the better preventing of a spurious and mixed issue,’ &c.; and it provides, that ‘if any negro or mulatto shall presume to smite or strike any person of the English or other Christian nation, such negro or mulatto shall be severely whipped’……

“[T]hese laws … show, too plainly to be misunderstood, the degraded condition of this unhappy race. They were still in force when the Revolution began, and are a faithful index to the state of feeling towards the class of persons of whom they speak, and of the position they occupied throughout the thirteen colonies, in the eyes and thoughts of the men who framed the Declaration of Independence and established the State Constitutions and Governments. They show that a perpetual and impassable barrier was intended to be erected between the white race and the one which they had reduced to slavery, and governed as subjects with absolute and despotic power, and which they then looked upon as so far below them in the scale of created beings, that intermarriages between white persons and negroes or mulattoes were regarded as unnatural and immoral, and punished as crimes, not only in the parties, but in the person who joined them in marriage. ….

“[T]he men who framed this declaration were great men — high in literary acquirements — high in their sense of honor, and incapable of asserting principles inconsistent with those on which they were acting. They perfectly understood the meaning of the language they used, and how it would be understood by others; and they knew that it would not in any part of the civilized world be supposed to embrace the negro race, which, by common consent, had been excluded from civilized Governments and the family of nations, and doomed to slavery. They spoke and acted according to the then established doctrines and principles, and in the ordinary language of the day, no one misunderstood them. The unhappy black race were separate from white by indelible marks, and laws long before established, and were never thought of or spoken of except as property…”

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, Dred Scott v. Sanford1857


“Every where men, women, and children were whipped till the blood stood in puddles at their feet. Some received five hundred lashes; others were tied hands and feet, and tortured with a bucking paddle, which blisters the skin terribly. The dwellings of the colored people, unless they happened to be protected by some influential white person, who was nigh at hand, were robbed of clothing and every thing else the marauders thought worth carrying away. All day long these unfeeling wretches went round, like a troop of demons, terrifying and tormenting the helpless. At night, they formed themselves into patrol bands, and went wherever they chose among the colored people, acting out their brutal will. Many women hid themselves in woods and swamps, to keep out of their way. …. No two people that had the slightest tinge of color in their faces dared to be seen talking together. ….

“My grandmother had a large trunk of bedding and table cloths. When that was opened, there was a great shout of surprise; and one exclaimed, ‘Where’d the damned niggers git all dis sheet an’ table clarf?’

“My grandmother, emboldened by the presence of our white protector, said, ‘You may be sure we didn’t pilfer ’em from your houses.’

“‘Look here, mammy,’ said a grim-looking fellow without any coat, ‘you seem to feel mighty gran’ ’cause you got all them ’ere fixens. White folks oughter have ’em all.’ ….

“I saw a mob dragging along a number of colored people, each white man, with his musket upraised, threatening instant death if they did not stop their shrieks. Among the prisoners was a respectable old colored minister. They had found a few parcels of shot in his house, which his wife had for years used to balance her scales. For this they were going to shoot him on Court House Green. What a spectacle was that for a civilized country! A rabble, staggering under intoxication, assuming to be the administrators of justice! ….

“[T]he most shocking outrages were committed with perfect impunity. Every day for a fortnight, if I looked out, I saw horsemen with some poor panting negro tied to their saddles, and compelled by the lash to keep up with their speed, till they arrived at the jail yard. Those who had been whipped too unmercifully to walk were washed with brine, tossed into a cart, and carried to jail. ….

“Visiting was strictly forbidden on the plantations. The slaves begged the privilege of again meeting at their little church in the woods, with their burying ground around it. It was built by the colored people, and they had no higher happiness than to meet there and sing hymns together, and pour out their hearts in spontaneous prayer. Their request was denied, and the church was demolished.”

— Harriet Ann Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, 1861


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