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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.

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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