The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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August 22, 2013

Conservative criticism lacked context

Tom Maertens’ Aug.11 centrist bromide railing against the Republican Party had a historical reference that should be clarified. He tells us that the 19th century British philosophy John Stuart Mill is quoted as saying “Conservatives are not necessarily stupid, but most stupid people are conservatives.”

First, Maertens likely takes this quote from the Laurence Peter book Quotations In Our Time (1978). The actual quote from Mill reads “I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative.” The Maertens version is deliberately modified from Mill’s actual quote to augment his disparaging opinion of the Republican Party.

Second, in American political lexicon, the term ‘conservative’ didn’t even come in to existence until the 1930s in response to the policies of FDR. Mill’s quote is from 1866 in reference to the government which came to power — named the Conservative government.

In a parliamentary debate with Sir John Pakington in May 1866, Mill said his famous quote. But, Mill was referring to the British government at the time not American conservatives as we think of them today.

If you look at the text of the quote, the word is capitalized with an upper-case C (Conservative) because Mill was referring to the British government at the time, not the general political philosophy of 20th century America. Had Mill meant conservatives as in a political philosophy, the word would be spelled with a lower-case c (conservative).

So, when Maertens trots out that quote to disparage conservatives and the Republican Party, he’s taking it completely out of context both in the text of the quote and its historical accuracy.

Patrick Dempsey


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