Like Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, President Obama’s declaration that gay and lesbian Americans deserve a right to marry is a historic statement of principle, even though its practical policy implications are limited because the states, not the federal government, hold most of the power to define marriage.
Obama’s assertion that state-level prohibitions on same-sex marriage are morally objectionable but legally sound rings familiar to this Civil War historian. I can’t help but notice a close resemblance to the pre-Civil War views of millions of white Northerners (and perhaps more than a few white Southerners) on slavery. Northerners understood that the constitution protected slaveholding as a matter left to individual states, and for decades many had found this a comforting justification for their tolerance of an institution they knew should be intolerable. Slavery was a Southern problem, and as long as it could be kept a southern problem, Northerners’ thinking went, they would bear little moral responsibility. It was this North that elected Abraham Lincoln in 1860.
For all of Lincoln’s success as lawyer, politician, orator, and commander-in-chief, perhaps what should be most celebrated about our sixteenth president is his capacity to evolve, a point raised eloquently in Eric Foner’s 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Fiery Trial. A product of the times in which he lived, Lincoln moved gradually from tepid moral aversion to slavery to blunt public declarations of his “belief that slavery is wrong,” as in his famous 1860 Cooper Union Address.
After he was elected president, Lincoln’s antislavery evolution slowed in the face of sharp political pressures—most notably his desire to prevent secession and, failing that, to retain the support of Union slave states such as Kentucky and Maryland. Famously he asserted that “if I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” Perhaps even more tellingly, early in the war Lincoln revoked two different generals’ orders freeing slaves in their military departments.
Yet Lincoln continued to progress, however gradually, in an antislavery direction. The fact of secession changed everything. As the Confederacy waged a bloody war to protect slavery, Lincoln was compelled to consider the real meaning of his previous warnings that the nation could not long persist “half-slave and half-free.” Moreover, it was becoming very hard to ignore the thousands of southern slaves who attempted to free themselves by absconding to Union lines.
And so, on Jan. 1, 1863, President Lincoln finally issued an Emancipation Proclamation. In this oft-misunderstood landmark declaration, Lincoln embraced black freedom as a military necessity, offering emancipation primarily to Confederate slaves over whom the Union had no practical authority. At this time he still encouraged African-American emigration to Liberia. Nevertheless, the Proclamation transformed the president’s position. His public support for emancipation won him plaudits from antislavery radicals, even as it temporarily cost him electoral support.
Over the ensuing years Lincoln’s principles advanced toward the edge of political possibility, and in the process he gained the support of a polity that was evolving alongside its president. He soon endorsed black military service, a 13th constitutional amendment forever abolishing American slavery, and finally just days before he was gunned down, extension of voting rights to some African-Americans (specifically soldiers and “the very intelligent”).
We can only speculate on how Lincoln’s views on interracial democracy might have evolved further if he had survived the assassin’s bullet. But by the time he breathed his last, Lincoln’s transformation was undeniable. As he conceded to Frederick Douglass in 1863, he had at times been “tardy.” But Lincoln also insisted that he had never retreated from the increasingly antislavery positions he staked out. In that fact the radical Douglass found cause for praise and optimism.
Like Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama has been “tardy.” Pushed by developments beyond his control (including occasionally by his off-message vice president), Obama’s public positions on marriage equality have continued to progress, though gradually. Already we had glimpsed the evolution of his principles in his advocacy of gay and lesbian military service. In recent days, Obama has been rightly celebrated for his momentous declaration, and also justifiably assailed by those who had hoped for more. After all, he might have promised to fight for equality, instead of merely asserting a belief in it while also accepting a federalism that allows states to discriminate against gay and lesbian Americans. Still, there may be reason for optimism.
While the stakes for President Lincoln were undoubtedly higher, we should not doubt that the fight for marriage equality is a vital struggle for all Americans’ civil rights, one that many future historians will likely celebrate. Hopefully, they will have reason to view President Obama’s May 2012 proclamation as a turning point—assuming that, like Lincoln, Obama continues to evolve.
Corey M. Brooks is assistant professor of history at York College of Pennsylvania.