Nothing makes 150 years fall away quite like seeing the blood of Abraham Lincoln. Visiting a friend in rural northeastern Pennsylvania a few years back, I was ushered to the local historical society in the town of Milford. A dark patch on the 36-star wool flag displayed there is a stark reminder of the first assassination of a U.S. president, whose head it cradled after he was shot at Ford’s Theatre. The stain is also somber testimony to the fact that the struggle for equality that he came to personify remains a mission unfinished.
Likewise this week’s Supreme Court arguments over the constitutionality of denying marriage to same-sex couples bring Lincoln back to life. They revive his contempt for the notion of popular sovereignty, espoused by archrival Stephen Douglas as a means of accommodating slavery in the run-up to the Civil War. The notion has a parallel in two decades of bruising state referenda over gay rights, reinforced by a federal law that denies recognition to the unions of gay and lesbian people.
The cases now culminating before the high court, one from New York and one from California, also implicate Lincoln’s fervor for the Declaration of Independence. And they test his determination to forge a United States infused with its spirit of equality.
The heartbeat of the Great Emancipator that echoes in current fights over equal rights is a vexing thing for the party he represented. On the heels of the Oscar-winning film depicting Lincoln’s heroic fight to win passage in Congress of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, more than 130 Republican figures, most not holding elected office, broke from their party’s anti-gay orthodoxy to sign an amicus brief supporting the case for marriage equality. That’s progress.
But in a sign of the GOP’s continued hostility to Lincoln’s legacy of voting rights, prominent Republicans are waging a multi-pronged campaign to remove federal oversight of elections and to reduce the number of Americans who can cast ballots. Bush administration lawyer turned Heritage Foundation activist Hans von Spakovsky is promoting an Alabama case pending before the Supreme Court that would end more than four decades of federal review of state redistricting and voting practices. That would undo progress toward free and fair elections, a huge step backwards.
Republican elected officials in several states, from North Carolina to Alaska, bear out the dangers of removing federal watchdogs by continuing to push voter-ID laws that could effectively disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of qualified voters. In 2012, backlash to such policies galvanized black and Latino turnout, contributing to President Obama’s victories in Florida, Ohio and Colorado. Still, neither political risk nor historical contradiction seems to deter the laws’ sponsors. In Lincoln’s boyhood home of Indiana, Secretary of State Connie Lawson this month actually used a Lincoln Day event by her party to argue for further efforts to impose and enforce voter ID requirements.
Tone-deafness does not appear bipartisan. The president drew favorable comparisons with Lincoln for his remarks against gun violence after the Newtown massacre and paraphrased Lincoln at least 10 times in his second inaugural address, when he also took the oath of office on Lincoln’s Bible. Lincoln’s life and writings have also informed Obama’s courtship of conservatives.
Former Florida governor Charlie Crist, who became a Democrat late last year, used Lincolnesque language to endorse the president’s reelection, citing his “calm through a historically turbulent storm.” The confirmation of former GOP senator and veteran Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, with only four Republican votes for him, showcases the rift in the party and ongoing migration of moderates to the Democratic coalition.
Lincoln’s humility, intellect and perseverance transcend party lines and make him a touchstone for all Americans, yet it is hard to imagine him surviving, much less serving as a standard bearer, in today’s Republican Party.
That incongruity has a great deal to do with the domination of the GOP by its religious-right flank. Their escalating and outright opposition to the freedom struggles that have defined the past 40 years, including the LGBT rights movement, makes a mockery of the “Party of Lincoln” moniker. The looming fight over the president’s immigration reform proposal, as Republicans wrestle publicly with their low support among Latinos and Asian Americans, offers a chance to break that streak of resistance.
But two other factors in Lincoln’s leadership help explain why the GOP has lost its grip on his legacy. He venerated the liberal spirit of the Declaration of Independence, especially its assertions that human beings are created equal and that ensuring life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are the first purposes of government. He also articulated his position in frank terms as part of a course of action anchored not only in law and politics but in morality and history. Spare phrasing, clear goals and a sense of the sweep of America’s own narrative lend the Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural speech their majesty.
Lincoln, then a one-term former congressman, rose to national prominence in 1858 during fiery debates across Illinois with incumbent senator Stephen Douglas that hinged in part on the expansion of slavery into states preparing to join the union. He rejected as “a living, creeping lie” the notion that state voters could ultimately decide such basic constitutional questions as the bondage status of residents. The Supreme Court, in its Dred Scott ruling of 1857, foreclosed the judicial path to recognizing the humanity, much less the freedom, of one eighth of the population, slave and free. The combination of outcomes rendered legislation the only course for feasibly advancing abolition and equality claims. With that arena at loggerheads, so came disunion and the war.
Two decades of ballot measures over the human rights of LGBT people, including 12 years of constitutional amendments to preempt or eliminate marriage for same-sex couples, are not the equivalent of the fracturing democracy over slavery and political powder keg on the eve of the Civil War, nor is the nation’s system of checks and balances as rudimentary or as fragile as it was then. A century and a half of complex legal and political struggles have tested our democratic institutions and our model of federalism, including in the still-unfolding effort to overcome segregation.
Yet some cautionary parallels are in order. In taking up the marriage cases, this Supreme Court must bear in mind its tragic mistake in Lincoln’s day in Dred Scott. The court must not place undue faith in the clearly demonstrated momentum of LGBT advocates in shifting public opinion and state election outcomes in their favor to achieve ultimate justice or, in the New York case, pretend that a federal law preempting marriage equality constitutes anything but a monumental and impermissible barrier to lesbian and gay people’s pursuit of happiness. In the California Prop 8 case, the court must not stray from its earlier precedent in 1996 and insist that a majority vote via direct democracy is the only recourse for a minority to undo a denial of fundamental rights.
Lincoln’s words have staying power in the republic for which he gave his full and final measures of devotion. Every movement for equality has gained insight and advantage from his wisdom, and every landmark victory to advance equality renews his insistence that all, not some, Americans are its beneficiaries.
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