"No liberal is going to win a debate that big government freed the slaves," Heritage Foundation president and former senator Jim DeMint told a radio host on Wednesday. And he's right, unless you consider the U.S. government circa 1865 a "big government."
DeMint was speaking to religious radio host Jerry Newcombe when he made the claim, as Right Wing Watch reports.
Well the reason that the slaves were eventually freed was the Constitution, it was like the conscience of the American people. ... 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 this 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.
DeMint then continued. "In fact, it was Abraham Lincoln, the very first Republican," he said, "who took this on as a cause and a lot of it was based on a love in his heart that comes from God."
So here's the thing about Abraham Lincoln: He was, at the time of the Civil War, the president of the United States. DeMint's argument here would be like someone saying that the recent expansion of health insurance had nothing to do with the government, it was simply the result of "a love in Obama's heart."
When he was a senator — from South Carolina, the first state to secede from the union at the outset of that war — DeMint advocated for the reduction of the size of government. That earned him his current position, at the increasingly conservative Heritage Foundation. Small government advocacy has been the focal point of DeMint's career, including, at one point, advocacy for reducing the size of the military.
From a rhetorical standpoint, if you want to minimize the role of government in general, it's easy to point out that ending slavery was something of an outlier in government activism, the sort of thing that you don't really need to do on a regular basis.
But it seems ridiculous for him to suggest that government played no role in ending slavery. While it's true that public opinion shifted against slavery, there were a number of states (including DeMint's) which used the continuation of slavery as a rationale to form their own distinct country. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but it didn't make any difference until the Civil War was over — a war fought almost entirely by the big United States government. Slavery ended when it did because that government defeated the pro-slavery Confederacy in a war. A war that was won by mobilizing the armed forces of the United States under the command of the president. A war won because Lincoln instituted the nation's first income tax, allowing the government to pay the soldiers that crushed the rebellion and settled the issue of slavery once and for all.
Big government played a significant role in freeing the slaves. Acknowledging that shouldn't make DeMint's job at Heritage that much harder. Denying it is only likely to make other anti-government arguments seem similarly blinded by ideology.