Jim DeMint, the former U.S. senator from South Carolina who now leads the conservative Heritage Foundation, went on a Christian radio show last week where he discussed the topic of slavery. He offered some rather unusual views on the subject of slavery while he was a guest on this show.
Well the reason that the slaves were eventually freed was the Constitution, it was like the conscience of the American people. Unfortunately there were some court decisions like Dred Scott and others that defined some people as property, but the Constitution kept calling us back to ‘all men are created equal and we have inalienable rights’ in the minds of God. 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. 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.
It’s difficult to know where to begin a list of the errors this brief passage. The phrase “all men are created equal and we have inalienable rights” does not appear in the Constitution, although a very similar phrase does appear in the Declaration of Independence. Indeed, the Constitution, at least as it stood before the Civil War, had very different things to say about the subject of human equality. It provided, for example, that “[n]o person held to service or labor in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.” The original Constitution also contained explicit language prohibiting Congress from banning the importation of new slaves until 1808.
Nevertheless, DeMint is technically correct that “the reason that the slaves were eventually freed was the Constitution.” That’s because the Thirteenth Amendment provides that “[n]either slavery nor involuntary servitude. . . shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The Thirteenth Amendment did not, however, simply come into being because Abraham Lincoln had a “love in his heart that comes from God.” Rather, it happened because Lincoln led the nation in a massive big government program known as the “Civil War”.
During this war, the United States raised an army of over two million service members who clashed with a Confederate army of about half that size. Moreover, the war effort increased federal spending nearly 25 times. As the leader of a centralized government in Washington, DC, Lincoln also issued a document known as the “Emancipation Proclamation,” which ordered slaves in the Confederate states freed.
Notably, while the Thirteenth Amendment ended the legal practice of human chattel slavery, state laws such as the Black Codes and the Jim Crow laws were enacted in the South to maintain the inferior status of former slaves and their descendants. These laws were eventually eradicated by big government as well, primarily through legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
It’s also worth noting that the Confederate system of government differed from the Union’s system in that it placed far less power in a strong central government. While the United States Constitution, permits the federal government to “lay and collect taxes . . . and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States,” for example, the Confederate Constitution excluded the power to “provide for the general welfare.” Thus, the United States Constitution permits major national spending programs such as Medicare or Social Security, while these programs would have been unconstitutional in the Confederacy. Similarly, the Confederate Constitution includes a rigid limit on national infrastructure spending — forbidding its congress from “appropriat[ing] money for any internal improvement intended to facilitate commerce” — a limit that does not appear in the United States Constitution.
So Jim DeMint is correct that there was a belligerent during the American Civil War that rejected “big government.” He’s just wrong about which side that was.