Abraham Lincoln may have been the first American to write about a same-sex couple getting married. His 1829 poem recounting the marriage of Nate and Billy was "perhaps the most explicit literary reference to actual homosexual relations in 19th century America." Lincoln's most important early biographer, William Herndon, initially included the poem in his Life of Lincoln, but as so often with gay subjects, it was subsequently omitted and largely ignored by later scholars.
Recently there has been greater willingness to debate evidence that our greatest president may himself have had same-sex attraction and even acted on it, as the iconic Lincoln biographer, Carl Sandburg, intimated in 1924 when he wrote of Lincoln's "streaks of lavender." In 2005, C.A. Tripp's Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln marshaled accounts of Lincoln's relations with men such as Captain David Derickson, including a November 1862 diary entry by the wife of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy that reads, "There is a Bucktail soldier here, devoted to the President, drives with him, and when Mrs. L is not home, sleeps with him. What stuff!" Like other scholars, Tripp explored Lincoln's singularly intimate relationship with Joshua Speed, who told Herndon, "If I had not been married & happy -- far more happy than I ever expected to be -- [Lincoln] would not have married."
But it's not because of Lincoln's sexual orientation or other "stuff" that February 12, Lincoln's birthday, has for 12 years now been the centerpiece of National Freedom to Marry Week. Lincoln's strongest connection to the freedom to marry cause lies in the values he embodied in his life, and embodies in ours. He was committed to equality, freedom, and lifting people up. He called Americans to the "better angels of our nature," and he combined a deep moral integrity with a determined and strategic focus on achieving what is most important and right.
In the wake of last November's Proposition 8 temporarily halting marriages in California, and with marriage equality shimmering within reach in other states such as New York and New Jersey, gay and non-gay people and organizations across the country will spend Freedom to Marry Week asking our fellow citizens to, in Lincoln's words, "think anew" about how exclusion from marriage harms gay families while helping no one. Freedom to Marry Week in this Lincoln bicentennial year recalls his admonition, "Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves."
In Lincoln's Virtues, William Lee Miller described Lincoln's distinctly independent mind and great empathy (both as a child and adult). Young Lincoln rejected much of his world (hunting, fighting, chasing girls, slavery, churchgoing, cruelty to Indians, etc.) and yet remained engaged in the world, embracing and non-dismissive of others. Lincoln's ability and determination to put himself in the other's shoes -- to say of Southerners, as he did in numerous speeches as a candidate and as president, "they are just as we would be in their situation" -- while holding steadfastly to his lifelong belief that slavery is wrong, offers a lesson to those of us seeking to further move the public toward marriage equality.
Lincoln's combination of tactical maneuvering and incremental action with consistent articulation of a clear moral standard over time helped elevate public understanding and commitment to what is right. Even while biding his time or falling short of "purist" demands for immediate and extreme steps -- he was a politician, not philosopher -- Lincoln understood that "explicit public clarity...that slavery is a great moral evil was essential to the permanent solution to the problem of slavery."
Now slavery was an exceptional injustice, and I don't equate the wrong of marriage discrimination to it. Likewise, the challenges confronting President Obama and our country today are many and serious, though not of the existential scope as those confronting Lincoln. Still, Obama, like me a fervent admirer of Lincoln, would do well to ask himself what Lincoln would do faced with the question of whether to continue the denial of the freedom to marry to these committed couples.
As a candidate for the Illinois Senate in 1996, a body in which Lincoln also served, Obama in his own hand supported the Marriage Resolution now on Freedom to Marry's website. He said, "I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages." I believe Lincoln, with today's understanding of who gay people are, would, too. And once Lincoln had taken such a step, he would have stuck with it, as when he courageously refused to retreat from the Emancipation Proclamation even when facing a difficult reelection battle in 1864. As Lincoln said, "The promise, being made, must be kept."
In recent years, Obama has wavered on marriage equality, while expressing commendable support for gay families and substitute legal status such as civil union -- getting the what (equality) right, but not the how (marriage). Lincoln, however, would not have abandoned a clear commitment to the right result even when, where necessary, moving by intermediate steps.
President Obama seems determined to embrace Lincoln's empathy model -- "there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America.... We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states." I hope he and other politicians also embrace Lincoln's courage and lessons on how to combine strategy with moral education, moral leadership, that prepares and moves Americans in fulfillment of our deepest values. After all, as a recent Freedom to Marry study reported, no legislators who voted for marriage equality or against anti-gay measures lost their seat in the last several election cycles.
As Lincoln's words and actions skillfully paved the way for America's "new birth of freedom," he returned again and again to the Declaration of Independence's promise that "all should have an equal chance." Lincoln didn't expect that promise to waft in by itself, or solely on the work of others. He led.
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