Look, I know it’s an article of faith among those on the American right that government is ineffective, useless, even downright evil — unless people who look and think like them are in control of said government. Then everything the government does is righteous, true and ordained by God.
But former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, now leader of the ultraconservative Heritage Foundation, recently took this tenet to an absurd and typically incoherent extreme. In an interview on the right-wing radio show Vocal Point, DeMint argued that the federal government didn’t free the slaves — the Constitution did:
“Well, the reason that the slaves were eventually freed,” he said, “was the Constitution, it was like the conscience of the American people. … The Constitution kept calling us back to ‘all men are created equal and we have inalienable rights’ in the minds of God.”
Stirring words. Problem is, the “all men are created equal” language is from the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution. And lest, we forget, this is the same Constitution that originally acknowledged and condoned slavery by counting slaves as three-fifths of a person for purposes of determining representation. Once again, Sen. DeMint proves that the right-wingers who talk the longest and loudest about the Constitution seem to know the least about it.
DeMint goes on, in typically DeMinted fashion:
“A lot of the move to free the slaves came from the people, it did not come from the federal government. … 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.”
All those soldiers (government employees, let us remember) didn’t do squat. All those people working for the Union, funded by the first progressive income tax signed into law by Abraham Lincoln to finance not only the war effort but a vastly expanded federal government — none of them did a thing to free a single slave.
’Twas the Constitution that did all the work. Which is why there was this conversation on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg:
Gen. Lee: “Gen. Pickett, are your men ready to assault the Union line?”
Gen Pickett: “My Virginians are ready, willing and able, sir!”
Lee: “Very well, commence the …”
Pickett: “Blast! There’s no way we can attack now! Might as well go home!”
Lee: “Yep. War’s over, boys. They’ve got themselves copies of the Constitution. Back to your farms. And I guess we have to tell all the slaves they’re free.”
And, of course, there was this great moment from the civil rights movement:
Aide: “President Kennedy! Gov. Wallace is standing in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama to defy a judge’s desegregation order! Should we federalize the National Guard?”
Kennedy: “Nah, just hahve those black fellahs carry a copy of the Constitution.”
Aide: “Mr. President! It worked! And now all the schools are desegregated and black people have equal rights without the federal government lifting a finger!”
Kennedy: “Wicked pissah! Let’s celebrate with some chowdah!”
Apparently, Mr. DeMint feels that the Constitution is like the Ark of the Covenant in the first Indiana Jones movie. Just carry it before you, and it lays waste the enemies of freedom, with no human intervention at all.
It is undeniably true that the Constitution is a mighty document, inspired by the best impulses of the 18th century enlightenment and informed by the memories of men who had seen what tyranny really was.
Even with its original flaws (see “three-fifths of a person” above) it remains the greatest monument to the ideals of freedom and democracy ever created by the hand of Man.
But without people to carry those ideas out, it’s just words on paper. Sometimes those people work for the federal government. Sometimes those people are there to remind that government of its responsibilities.
But to claim the government has no role at all to play — and especially to hold Abraham Lincoln, of all people, up as an icon of limited government — is to deny the lessons of history and warp it beyond all recognition in the service of ideology.
It’s pretty silly, too.