Jim DeMint: The federal government had nothing to do with emancipating the slaves

The former South Carolina senator and current head of the Heritage Foundation is not exactly an historian

Published April 9, 2014 9:50PM (EDT)

Jim DeMint           (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
Jim DeMint (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Heritage Foundation head and former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint has some news for all you Civil War buffs out there: Everything you thought you knew about how the war led to the emancipation of the Confederacy's millions of slaves is wrong.

Joining Jerry Newcombe of Truth In Action Ministries radio show last week, the Tea Party hero and architect of last year's government shutdown insisted that the popular narrative was wrong and that an expansion of federal and executive power had nothing to do with emancipation. On the contrary, DeMint insisted, it's the Constitution and fervent Christians who should get the credit — no matter what those foolish liberals say.

Here's DeMint's entire quote, which really must be read in-full to be appreciated:

Well, the reason that the slaves were eventually freed was the Constitution. 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 [slavery] 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.

As ThinkProgress' Ian Millhiser wrote in response, it's hard to know where to start; there's just so much here that DeMint gets wrong. But here are a few of the more obvious mistakes in DeMint's attempt to rewrite American history:

*The Constitution makes no mention of "all men are created equal," a paraphrase of one of the most famous lines in the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence is not the Constitution, which is one of the key reasons why most historians and otherwise educated people call it the Declaration of Independence instead of calling it the Constitution. Because, again, they're not the same thing.

*In fact, what mention the Constitution does make of slavery is mostly value-neutral. There's the infamous three-fifths clause, of course; there's also the explicit ban on legislation intended to stop the United States' involvement in the slave trade before 1808. And, most tellingly of all, is the Fugitive Slave Clause, which required that slaves who tried to escape from one state to another in order to attain freedom be returned to their masters.

*William Wilberforce, a British politician whom DeMint says deserves more credit for ending chattel slavery than the federal government, died decades before the first shots on Fort Sumter were fired in DeMint's home state of South Carolina and the Civil War officially began.

*Further, while there's no question that the abolitionist movement was infused with religious fervor, it's also true that many religious figures in the antebellum American South argued strenuously that slavery was not only acceptable in god's eyes but downright preferable. The Civil War split America's religious community along sectional lines, just as it did for nearly everyone else.

*The Emancipation Proclamation was a military order delivered by the commander-in-chief of what was at the time the largest army in the history of the world. This massive fighting force was created through an expansion of presidential powers as well as the implementation of the first federal income tax in U.S. history. At the time and indeed to this day, many argued that the proclamation was a power-grab by Lincoln that assigned him powers that were theretofore limited by the Constitution.

*Last but not least, the emancipation of the slaves and the end of (most forms of) slavery in America was ultimately enacted and guaranteed by amendments to the U.S. Constitution. These were undertaken in large part by members of the federal government (though they required approval from three-fourths of the states) and were opposed most vociferously by Northern Democrats, who tended to appeal to "states' rights" far more than their Republican counterparts.

As mentioned previously, these are hardly the only mistakes in DeMint's story. And as to whether Lincoln expanded the federal government in order to build a weapon to smash slavery in the South because he had "a love in his heart that comes [sic] from god," we'll have to plead ignorance. Unlike DeMint, we're not comfortable speaking authoritatively about what was going on in the "heart" of a man who has been dead for nearly 150 years.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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