Frustrated by the absence of any real dirt on Sen. John Ashcroft, his ideological opponents have descended into dishonesty and distortion. He is being attacked as a racist and a defender of slavery. Ashcroft's 1998 interview with Southern Partisan magazine has been denounced with particular venom.
In that interview, Ashcroft expresses not the slightest support for slavery or racism. Quite the opposite. In a passage ignored by the major media, he speaks indignantly against "revisionists" who have falsely attempted to turn America's Founders into defenders of slavery. Here is the full quotation:
Revisionism is a threat to the respect that Americans have for their freedoms and liberty that was at the core of those who founded this country, and when we see George Washington, the founder of our country, called a racist, that is just total revisionist nonsense, a diatribe against the values of America. Have you read Thomas West's book Vindicating the Founders?
Interviewer: I've met Professor West, and I read one of his earlier books, but not that one.
Ashcroft: I wish I had another copy: I'd send it to you. I gave it away to a newspaper editor. West virtually disassembles all of these malicious attacks the revisionists have brought against our founders.
Ashcroft was referring to my 1997 book, Vindicating the Founders, which showed in detail that the leading Founders were slavery opponents.
That early antislavery sentiment led to its abolition in the northern states. It led to the 1787 law banning slavery from the territories north of the Ohio River. These states became the American heartland that eventually, following Lincoln's lead, stood up for the founding principles, won the Civil War, and abolished slavery throughout the country.
After calling historical revisionism a "threat" to "the respect that Americans have for their freedoms and liberty," and praising my efforts to vindicate the Founders, Ashcroft continues with the words for which he has been assailed.
Your magazine also helps set the record straight. You've got a heritage of doing that, of defending Southern patriots like [Robert E.] Lee, [Stonewall] Jackson and [Jefferson] Davis. Traditionalists must do more. I've got to do more. We've all got to stand up and speak in this respect, or else we'll be taught that these people were giving their lives, subscribing their sacred fortunes and their honor to some perverted agenda.
Southern Partisan has been described, correctly, as a magazine that defends the South in the Civil War. But Ashcroft has just pointed out that "liberty" — not slavery — was "at the core" of the founding, and that Washington was not a racist. His praise of the three Confederate leaders, therefore, must be taken in context as respect for men of honor and talent, but in no way for the pro-slavery policies of the Old South.
In the quotation above, Ashcroft worries that revisionists will teach our children that "these people were giving their lives, subscribing their sacred fortunes and their honor to some perverted agenda."
This language is telling. It is a clear reference to the final words of the Declaration of Independence, where the Founders "pledge to one another our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." The "perverted agenda" to which Ashcroft alludes is the political ideology of pro-slavery, which he is utterly rejecting here.
In this tactful way, Ashcroft is actually criticizing the Confederate cause, insofar as it was the cause of slavery, with the words of the Declaration.
Ashcroft has also been unjustly vilified for a speech at Bob Jones University in 1999. His words, "We have no king but Jesus," have been denounced as narrow and bigoted — as if the Constitution has some sort of religious test that excludes serious Christians from high office. Yet in that speech, as in the Southern Partisan interview, Ashcroft singled out for his highest praise the Founders' inclusive vision of equal rights for all.
To his Bob Jones audience, Ashcroft quotes with reverence the Declaration's famous phrases, including "endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights." He celebrates the fact that Christians, indeed most Americans, believe these rights come from "our Creator," not from a merely "civic and temporal" source in "Caesar" or "the king." For, as Ashcroft knows, if our rights come merely from government, then government may one day decide to take them away.
In this conviction he expresses his agreement with the greatest statesmen and heroes of the past, from Washington and Jefferson to Lincoln and Reagan.