Commentary Magazine


Topic: slavery

Correcting DeMint’s Historical Confusion

Former Senator Jim DeMint gave an interview that requires some correction and amendment.

Senator DeMint was asked what he would say to a liberal who argued, “That Founding Fathers thing worked out really well. Look at that Civil War we had eighty or so years later.” To which DeMint answered this way:

Well the reason that the slaves were eventually freed was the Constitution. I mean it was like the conscience of the American people. Unfortunately, there were some court decisions like Dred Scott and others that defined some people as property. But the Constitution kept calling us back to ‘”all men are created equal and we have inalienable rights” in the minds of God. But a lot of the move to free the slaves came from the people. It did not come from the federal government. It came from a growing movement among the people, particularly people of faith, that this was wrong. People like Wilberforce who persisted for years because of his faith and because of his love for people. So no liberal is going to win a debate that big government freed the slaves. In fact, it was Abraham Lincoln, the very first Republican, who took this on as a cause and a lot of it was based on a love in his heart that comes from God.

Senator DeMint, who counts himself, I believe, a “constitutional conservative,” quotes from the preamble of the Declaration of Independence, but seems to ascribe the words to the Constitution. In addition the Constitution, of course, contained the three-fifths compromise (Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3) and also allowed for the importation of slaves until the early part of the 19th century (Article 1 Section 9). Why? Because the Southern states threatened to withdraw from the Constitutional Convention if slavery was banned. In Madison’s words, “great as the evil [slavery] is, a dismemberment of the union would be worse.” Madison was right; it was a difficult but necessary and prudential judgment. Furthermore, he believed that the Constitution would eventually put slavery on the road to extinction. In fact, that required the Civil War.

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Former Senator Jim DeMint gave an interview that requires some correction and amendment.

Senator DeMint was asked what he would say to a liberal who argued, “That Founding Fathers thing worked out really well. Look at that Civil War we had eighty or so years later.” To which DeMint answered this way:

Well the reason that the slaves were eventually freed was the Constitution. I mean it was like the conscience of the American people. Unfortunately, there were some court decisions like Dred Scott and others that defined some people as property. But the Constitution kept calling us back to ‘”all men are created equal and we have inalienable rights” in the minds of God. But a lot of the move to free the slaves came from the people. It did not come from the federal government. It came from a growing movement among the people, particularly people of faith, that this was wrong. People like Wilberforce who persisted for years because of his faith and because of his love for people. So no liberal is going to win a debate that big government freed the slaves. In fact, it was Abraham Lincoln, the very first Republican, who took this on as a cause and a lot of it was based on a love in his heart that comes from God.

Senator DeMint, who counts himself, I believe, a “constitutional conservative,” quotes from the preamble of the Declaration of Independence, but seems to ascribe the words to the Constitution. In addition the Constitution, of course, contained the three-fifths compromise (Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3) and also allowed for the importation of slaves until the early part of the 19th century (Article 1 Section 9). Why? Because the Southern states threatened to withdraw from the Constitutional Convention if slavery was banned. In Madison’s words, “great as the evil [slavery] is, a dismemberment of the union would be worse.” Madison was right; it was a difficult but necessary and prudential judgment. Furthermore, he believed that the Constitution would eventually put slavery on the road to extinction. In fact, that required the Civil War.

Senator DeMint is certainly right that part of the impetus to end slavery came from the people, including people of faith, including abolitionists and individuals like Harriet Beecher Stowe, who authored Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the first novel to criticize the institution of slavery. (Supposedly Lincoln, upon meeting Stowe, said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war?”) Oddly, though, DeMint mentions William Wilberforce, a great opponent of the slave trade but who was English, not American (as the interviewer, sensing trouble, quickly points out) and who died decades before the American Civil War.

Fine. But where DeMint really gets into trouble, I think, is when he claims, “the move to free the slaves came from the people. It did not come from the federal government.” In fact, the move to free the slaves did come from the federal government – in the form of Lincoln, the chief executive at the time; in the form of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment; and in the form of the Civil War itself. Lincoln himself, it should be said, vastly expanded the powers of the federal government, including instituting the first federal income tax. And Lincoln’s prosecution of the war was based first and foremost on preserving the union, though his commitment to end slavery became an increasingly important factor.

So why call attention to these matters? In part, I think, because it’s important for conservatives to undo some of the confusion that DeMint created. But there’s another, somewhat deeper point to be made about the danger of approaching history and politics through an overly ideological lens. In this case Senator DeMint, a fierce critic of the federal government, has reinterpreted history in order to make it fit into his particular narrative. He seems so eager to refuse to give credit to the federal government for anything that he insists it didn’t play a role in the abolition of slavery. And that’s where he made perhaps his biggest error.  

I worry, too, that some on the right invoke the Constitution without really understanding it and its history. For example, many conservatives who profess reverence for the Constitution are vocal and reflexive critics of compromise per se – despite the fact that the Constitution was itself a product of an enormous set of compromises. (For more, see this National Affairs essay I co-authored with Michael Gerson. As we wrote, “A recovery of constitutional ideals is, to be sure, a worthwhile endeavor — but it does not point quite where [certain Tea Party and conservative] leaders and activists often suggest.”)

In the end, I would argue that conservatism and the cause of limited government are undermined by loose talk and an excessive animus toward the federal government. These days, in fact, conservatives would be well served to focus a good deal more attention on the purposes of government, not simply its size. I say that because during the Obama era the right has been very clear about what government should not be doing, or should be doing much less of, and for understandable reasons. But it has not had nearly enough to say about just what government should do. That needs to be corrected — and in the process conservatives need to be careful to speak with care and precision about our Constitution and the role of the federal government in our history.

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Getting Serious on Slavery

As Max Boot noted yesterday, fourteen Caribbean nations are banding together to demand reparations from the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in a case that has no legal foundation. As the New York Times explains:

But the prospects for a modern-day legal case for reparations by victims are far from clear. Roger O’Keefe, deputy director of the Lauterpacht Center for International Law at Cambridge University, said that “there is not the slightest chance that this case will get anywhere,” describing it as “an international legal fantasy.” He argues that while the Netherlands and Britain have accepted the court’s jurisdiction in advance, Britain excluded disputes relating to events arising before 1974. “Reparation may be awarded only for what was internationally unlawful when it was done,” Dr. O’Keefe said, “and slavery and the slave trade were not internationally unlawful at the time the colonial powers engaged in them.”

The plaintiffs acknowledge their legal case is little but an attempted shake-down:

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As Max Boot noted yesterday, fourteen Caribbean nations are banding together to demand reparations from the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in a case that has no legal foundation. As the New York Times explains:

But the prospects for a modern-day legal case for reparations by victims are far from clear. Roger O’Keefe, deputy director of the Lauterpacht Center for International Law at Cambridge University, said that “there is not the slightest chance that this case will get anywhere,” describing it as “an international legal fantasy.” He argues that while the Netherlands and Britain have accepted the court’s jurisdiction in advance, Britain excluded disputes relating to events arising before 1974. “Reparation may be awarded only for what was internationally unlawful when it was done,” Dr. O’Keefe said, “and slavery and the slave trade were not internationally unlawful at the time the colonial powers engaged in them.”

The plaintiffs acknowledge their legal case is little but an attempted shake-down:

Even lawyers for the Caribbean countries hint that a negotiated settlement, achieved through public and diplomatic pressure, may be their best hope. “We are saying that, ultimately, historical claims have been resolved politically — although I think we will have a good claim in the I.C.J.,” [Plaintiff’s lawyer] Mr. [Martyn] Day said.

In effect, the Caribbean nations hope to use slavery as a means to gain a windfall payment to compensate for years of mismanagement, corruption, and incompetent leadership.

The tragedy is that the same 14 governments—and many more—do not expend their diplomatic energy tackling modern-day slavery. The Walk Free Foundation has recently unveiled a new “Global Slavery Index” that makes for truly shocking reading. While the foundation defines slavery broadly, it does not diminish the basic point that perhaps 30 million people today—1 in 230—find themselves trafficked, in domestic servitude, or traded as property. Regionally, Haiti is a major offender, as are Cuba, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago. Internationally, India and Pakistan, Mauritania, Ethiopia, and much of sub-Saharan Africa score poorly.

That the International Criminal Court becomes the forum for diplomatic nonsense such as suing over 18th century offenses while at the same it turns a blind eye to 21st century slavery does much to illustrate why the international legal regime has become such a self-parody. Kudos, however, to the Walk Free Foundation for shining a spotlight on the problem; let us hope that they continue to produce the Global Slavery Index annually, and that what international diplomats won’t seek to accomplish, public shaming might.

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Reparations for Europe’s Slave Trade?

There is no doubt that slavery was a great evil. But that does not mean that 14 Caribbean nations should succeed in their attempt to win reparations from Britain, France and the Netherlands, their former colonial masters, in a case that is being brought by enterprising British lawyers before the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

For a start there is the issue of what lawyers call standing: Most of these nations did not even exist when slavery was abolished, a process that began with the British Parliament passing the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807. No doubt many Caribbean citizens are descendants of former slaves, but quite a few also have ancestors who were European; conjugal relations between masters and slaves were hardly unknown. Should the large number of mixed-race West Indians receive reparations with one hand and pay them out with the other?

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There is no doubt that slavery was a great evil. But that does not mean that 14 Caribbean nations should succeed in their attempt to win reparations from Britain, France and the Netherlands, their former colonial masters, in a case that is being brought by enterprising British lawyers before the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

For a start there is the issue of what lawyers call standing: Most of these nations did not even exist when slavery was abolished, a process that began with the British Parliament passing the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807. No doubt many Caribbean citizens are descendants of former slaves, but quite a few also have ancestors who were European; conjugal relations between masters and slaves were hardly unknown. Should the large number of mixed-race West Indians receive reparations with one hand and pay them out with the other?

The problems with this legal action hardly end there. Reparations are generally accorded when nations take actions which are illegal and unethical under prevailing standards of international law. This, for example, is why it is appropriate for Germany to pay reparations to victims of the Holocaust or for Japan to pay reparations to former comfort women. But slavery was hardly against international law when it flourished in the Caribbean in the 18th century. In fact, slavery had been widely accepted since antiquity and practiced not only by Europeans but by Africans, Arabs, Asians, and many other cultures. It still exists in many places today.

Slavery only came to be accepted as a moral abomination—and eventually banned—thanks to the efforts of Western abolitionists such as William Wilberforce. The international slave trade was repressed through the action of the Royal Navy, with a small assist from the U.S. Navy. The moral opprobrium that clings to countries such as Britain which benefitted from the slave trade must be weighed against the moral approbation they earned by campaigning against slavery. Also on the plus side for the colonial powers is the fact that they invested in considerable physical infrastructure—roads, ports, railroads—that continue to benefit Caribbean nations to this day.

How one balances all of this out is impossible to say, and it is not a job for a court to address. We should learn from the past, but it is a stretch to try to benefit from misdeeds that occurred hundreds of years ago by and against people who are long dead.

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Ryan Unleashes Liberal Incivility

With the heightened focus on the Republican vice presidential candidate, it was only natural that the Democratic incumbent in that office would say something to get a little attention for himself. Vice President Joseph Biden, the gift that keeps giving to Republicans, wasn’t content to merely criticize Republican policies at a campaign appearance in Danville, Virginia; he claimed the GOP would revive slavery. As the Weekly Standard noted, affecting a drawl for the benefit of his south Virginia audience, Biden lambasted the idea that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan would free up Wall Street to create more prosperity:

“Look at their budget, and what they are proposing,” Biden said. “Romney wants to let–he said in the first hundred days, he’s going to let the big banks once again write their own rules. Unchain Wall Street. They going to put y’all back in chains.”

While Democrats may defend this as just another Biden exaggeration, this is a clear-cut case of racial incitement. After all, unless he is referring to Jews being returned to slavery some 3,500 years after the Exodus from Egypt, the only possible allusion here is to the enslavement of African Americans in the south. This is more than just garden-variety political hyperbole. It is an unfortunate example of just how desperate Democrats are to scare voters into backing the president’s re-election.

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With the heightened focus on the Republican vice presidential candidate, it was only natural that the Democratic incumbent in that office would say something to get a little attention for himself. Vice President Joseph Biden, the gift that keeps giving to Republicans, wasn’t content to merely criticize Republican policies at a campaign appearance in Danville, Virginia; he claimed the GOP would revive slavery. As the Weekly Standard noted, affecting a drawl for the benefit of his south Virginia audience, Biden lambasted the idea that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan would free up Wall Street to create more prosperity:

“Look at their budget, and what they are proposing,” Biden said. “Romney wants to let–he said in the first hundred days, he’s going to let the big banks once again write their own rules. Unchain Wall Street. They going to put y’all back in chains.”

While Democrats may defend this as just another Biden exaggeration, this is a clear-cut case of racial incitement. After all, unless he is referring to Jews being returned to slavery some 3,500 years after the Exodus from Egypt, the only possible allusion here is to the enslavement of African Americans in the south. This is more than just garden-variety political hyperbole. It is an unfortunate example of just how desperate Democrats are to scare voters into backing the president’s re-election.

We can expect Democratic spin masters to excuse this as merely Joe being Joe, the crazy uncle of our political system whose excesses should be tolerated if not smiled at. But what is on display in this video is a willingness to demonize opponents that eclipses the routine nastiness we’ve become accustomed to during elections. Biden’s comment is at the level of 9/11 truther–let alone an Obama birther. But this is more than just another example of how hypocritical mainstream liberal complaints are about civility in politics.

The Biden blast shows that in this election, there is literally nothing to which the Obama campaign would not stoop in order to besmirch their opponents. If, as Seth wrote earlier today, liberals are prepared to call Romney and Ryan “murderers,” why wouldn’t they claim the GOP is in favor of slavery?

While some conservatives are guilty of uncivil behavior, the Biden gaffe (and it will be interesting to see if liberals are prepared to admit it was a gaffe rather than a justified comment) points out commentator Dennis Prager’s insight about the difference between the left and the right. Most conservatives merely think liberals are wrong. Most liberals really believe most conservatives are evil.

While it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable — a character trait for which Ryan is well-known — to expect civility from someone who thinks his opponent is beyond the pale is to demand more than a partisan such as Biden can manage. As long as liberals are prepared to demonize Republicans in this manner, we must expect more of this kind of despicable behavior from Democrats this fall–if not far worse.

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