Historians study the past so they can understand it. But when pundits start talking history, you can bet that they are likely using the past to talk about the present.
A new book by former Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., features his conversations with average Americans about the country's founding principles. DeMint now heads the Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative think tank and advocacy group.
Christian radio host Jerry Newcombe had DeMint on his show Vocal Point to talk about that book Falling in Love With America Again. DeMint defined conservatives as people who want to retain principles that have proven to move the country forward. The conversation turned to the Civil War and whether that showed that the nation's founding guidelines didn't always produce good results.
DeMint argued that the Civil War vindicated conservative principles. He first credited the Constitution for leading to the end of slavery, then he took a different tack.
"But a lot of the move to free the slaves came from the people, it did not come from the federal government," DeMint said. "It came from a growing movement among the people, particularly people of faith, that this was wrong. … So no liberal is going to win a debate that big government freed the slaves."
PunditFact thought we should check with historians to see whether a lot of the move to free the slaves came from people of faith rather than the federal government.
There are two elements to run down — the role of Washington and the role of religion. We contacted the Heritage Foundation for information that would back up both parts of DeMint's statement. DeMint himself was unavailable and a spokeswoman sent us material only about the role of religion.
The federal role
Eric Foner, professor of history at Columbia University and a leading Civil War scholar, rejected DeMint's conclusion and invited him to attend the class he is teaching this semester.
"He will learn that the federal government was central to emancipation," Foner said. "The Second Confiscation Act, Emancipation Proclamation and Thirteenth Amendment originated with the federal government, not to mention the role of the army in freeing slaves. Of course, many other actors were involved, not least slaves themselves who seized freedom. But it was a context created by the federal government — the war — that enabled them to do so."
The Second Confiscation Act of 1862 declared that the federal government would seize the slaves of any rebel and they "shall be deemed captives of war, and shall be forever free of their servitude, and not again held as slaves."
The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, declared that slaves in the Confederate states — but not states loyal to the Union — "are, and henceforward shall be free."
The Thirteenth Amendment, passed while the fighting still raged and ratified about six months after it ended, declared that "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States."
Another prominent Civil War researcher, University of Illinois historian Bruce Levine, said DeMint was "mixing apples and pears."
"It was one, very important, thing to advocate abolition," Levine told PunditFact. "It was another thing to legislate and impose it. It was obviously the federal government that actually did decree and enforce the abolition of slavery, first of all through the Union war effort and finally through enforcement of the thirteenth amendment."
Faith and slavery
The role of faith is a complicated picture, more nuanced than what DeMint described. His office pointed us to an interview with Rob Rapley, the writer of a PBS series on the abolitionists.
"Every one of the abolitionists was shaped very much by their faith," Rapley said. "In fact, they would have defined themselves first by their faith before any other category."
The historians we reached, and others whose work we read, don't share such a monolithic view of the abolitionists.
"White abolitionists included people who were less influenced by religious than by secular outlooks," Levine said. "The earliest and most determined enemies of slavery were African-Americans themselves, some of whom were pronouncedly religious and some were not."
Still, the majority of the leaders of the American Anti-Slavery Society, a powerful voice for emancipation in the decades before the war, identified with some branch of faith. They drew their inspiration from the Bible.
In 1845, two theologians debated the biblical view on slavery. Jonathan Blanchard spoke for the abolitionist position.
"Abolitionists take their stand upon the New Testament doctrine of the natural equity of man," Blanchard said. "The one-bloodism of human kind (from Acts 17:26): — and upon those great principles of human rights, drawn from the New Testament, and announced in the American Declaration of Independence, declaring that all men have natural and inalienable rights to person, property and the pursuit of happiness."
Whatever the specifics on the abolitionists, DeMint made a broader point. He said that faith powered a growing movement among people to free the slaves. Even the source his office sent us reveals that faith cut both ways. While it fueled those who condemned slavery, the Bible was also the bulwark for the most ardent defenders of slavery.
Rapley talked about a Christian woman abolitionist who made her appeal directly to Southern women.
"She thought that if the women of the South turned against slavery, it would lead very quickly to the end of slavery, that men would follow suit," Rapley said. "That was roundly rejected. The gentle appeal to her kinfolk resulted in a violent backlash."
Manisha Sinah, adjunct professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, said the religious justification for slavery was well formed.
"The defense of slavery in the Southern states, especially South Carolina, rested on a biblical — fundamentalist and literal reading of the Bible — argument," Sinah said.
There many examples of this. Presbyterian minister James Henley Thornwell, a co-founder of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America, wrote, "Certain it is that no direct condemnation of slavery can anywhere be found in the Sacred Volume. The master is nowhere rebuked as a monster of cruelty and tyranny; the slave is nowhere exhibited as the object of peculiar compassion or sympathy."
Thornwell declared that the church could never go beyond what the Bible said.
"And apart from the Bible she can never speak. Her only argument is, Thus it is written."
According to John Kaufman-McKivigan, professor of history at Indiana University, Southern ministers favored one line above all others.
"Almost invariably, these writers noted that Saint Paul in several of his epistles, admonished slaves to be obedient to their earthly masters," McKivigan wrote.
Paul's words were, "Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord."
Some in the North also believed that slavery was divinely ordained.
Nathan Lord, who was president of Dartmouth College from 1828 to 1863, "warned that any human reproach to the institution of slaveholding was 'dishonorable to God and subversive to his government,' " McKivigan wrote." Despite the efforts of thousands of antislavery men and women, both inside and outside the churches, all but a few small denominations balked at a commitment to uncompromised abolitionist principles and programs."
DeMint said that the federal government played less of a role in the freeing of the slaves than did a movement among people, especially those of faith.
DeMint has a point that people of faith played a part in supporting the end of slavery. But the historical record is clear that people of faith also played a role in trying to defend slavery.
More critical, leading historical scholars we consulted were unanimous that the federal government was the necessary and decisive force that ended slavery.
DeMint's statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate his claim Mostly False.