Many words have been spilled about today’s SCOTUS ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act. Along with the plethora of opinions (of which everyone has one, though I’ll be keeping mine to myself for the time being) have come the predictable quote memes on the Facebook news feeds, thanks to our collective love of appealing to authority.
One meme in particular stuck out to me today, posted to the Facebook page of Congressman Jim Bridenstine (R-OK):
I happen to applaud and agree with this quote. And it has the added virtue of being correctly attributed to our 16th president, unlike so many other Abraham Lincoln “quotes”.
These lines come from a speech Lincoln gave on September 16 & 17 in Kansas & Ohio, during his first presidential campaign. The country was in a state of increasing turmoil over the issue of slavery, with people deeply divided by strongly held convictions. In many ways, this parallels the current divide in our country over the ability for homosexuals to marry. It is somewhat ironic, then, that I have seen Lincoln quoted today by both proponents and critics of gay marriage.
So who has the better case for invoking Lincoln’s support? Let’s take a closer look at the context, shall we?
The Supreme Court’s DOMA ruling is far from its first controversial judgment. In 1857, the Court handed down the infamous Dred Scott Decision. Seven of the nine justices ruled that no slave or descendant of a slave could ever be considered a U.S. citizen. They also declared that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional, meaning that Congress had no authority to tell states that slavery must be illegal (because this would be violating the 5th Amendment’s prohibition of citizens being deprived of their “property” without due process of the law).
Proponents of slavery saw this as a big win, and an opportunity to see a controversial practice legalized in more states. Abolitionists cried foul, stating that the institution of slavery was wicked, and that the nation had a moral obligation to prevent its spread. This became the most heated topic of debate between the two leading candidates in the upcoming presidential election: Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.
Douglas, citing the principle of popular sovereignty, argued that individuals should have the right to determine for themselves whether or not they would own slaves, and that no one else had the right to object. The government’s responsibility was to protect the sovereignty of the states to determine for themselves whether slavery should be allowed:
Now, I hold that Illinois had a right to abolish and prohibit slavery as she did, and I hold that Kentucky has the same right to continue and protect slavery that Illinois had to abolish it. I hold that New York had as much right to abolish slavery as Virginia has to continue it, and that each and every State of this Union is a sovereign power, with the right to do as it pleases upon this question of slavery, and upon all its domestic institutions. … And why can we not adhere to the great principle of self-government, upon which our institutions were originally based. I believe that this new doctrine preached by Mr. Lincoln and his party will dissolve the Union if it succeeds. They are trying to array all the Northern States in one body against the South, to excite a sectional war between the free States and the slave States, in order that the one or the other may be driven to the wall.
Lincoln countered that slavery was wrong, and that national policy should discourage it. He claimed that what would actually send the nation to war was trying to exist as “half Slave, half Free” (from his famous “A House Divided” speech). But, like Douglas, he affirmed the Constitutional authority granted to the states to determine their own laws. This brings us to our pertinent quote, in it’s proper context (for even more context, read the entire speech here):
We expect upon these principles to ultimately beat them. In order to do so, I think we want and must have a national policy in regard to the institution of slavery that acknowledges and deals with that institution as being wrong. Whoever desires the prevention of the spread of slavery and the nationalization of that institution yields all when he yields to any policy that either recognizes slavery as being right or as being an indifferent thing. Nothing will make you successful but setting up a policy which shall treat the thing as being wrong: When I say this, I do not mean to say that this General Government is charged with the duty of redressing or preventing all the wrongs in the world, but I do think that it is charged with preventing and redressing all wrongs which are wrongs to itself. This Government is expressly charged with the duty of providing for the general welfare. We believe that the spreading out and perpetuity of the institution of slavery impairs the general welfare. We believe–nay, we know–that that is the only thing that has ever threatened the perpetuity of the Union itself. The only thing which has ever menaced the destruction of the government under which we live is this very thing. To repress this thing, we think, is, Providing for the general welfare. Our friends in Kentucky differ from us. We need not make our argument for them, but we who think it is wrong in all its relations, or in some of them at least, must decide as to our own actions and our own course, upon our own judgment.
I say that we must not interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists, because the Constitution forbids it, and the general welfare does not require us to do so. We must not withhold an efficient Fugitive Slave law, because the Constitution requires us, as I understand it, not to withhold such a law. But we must prevent the outspreading of the institution, because neither the Constitution nor general welfare requires us to extend it. We must prevent the revival of the African slave trade, and the enacting by Congress of a Territorial slave code. We must prevent each of these things being done by either Congresses or courts. The people of these United States are the rightful masters of both Congresses and courts, not to overthrow the Constitution, but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution.
With all of the obvious parallels, why might both sides of the gay marriage debate see Lincoln as being in their corner? Well, that depends on how you see slavery in relation to gay marriage.
Are homosexuals the equivalent of slaves, being deprived of their rights by a waning majority who see them as second-rate citizens, waiting for their liberation by a President who finally affirms their equal standing under the law? Or is gay marriage an immoral institution that threatens the general welfare of America, leaving the government with the duty to prevent its spread?
Chances are, no matter where you stand on the issue, you can probably make a pretty compelling case for Lincoln’s support. This is why I’m so hesitant to rely on quotes from historical figures as a primary means of building a case for contemporary ethical and Constitutional problems. I just don’t think Abraham Lincoln is all that helpful on the issue of gay marriage.
Incidentally, I find it interesting that the one area in which Lincoln and Douglas at least appeared to agree was on the affirmation of the Constitution’s delegation to the States or the people the authority to decide on matters not delegated to the federal government. Which is why perhaps the greatest irony of all is that, fewer than four years after the Lincoln-Douglas debates ended, President Lincoln issued an Executive Order which emancipated slaves in the “rebellious states”, a clear violation of both his campaign promises and the 10th Amendment.
Considering how slavery is now universally (and rightly) abhorred by Americans, and how Lincoln has been perpetually venerated as a hero for “doing the right thing”, it should probably come as no surprise that all parties in the gay marriage debate seem to be content with nothing less than a national solution. And why not? Lincoln’s our guy, right?