Not for the first time in our nation's factious history of presidential elections, we are debating what it means to be free in The United States of America. Not for the first time, a U.S. President is arguably staking his mandate to lead the country on the body politic interpretation of the freedom of the individual. And, not for the first time, but presumably for the last time, "We the People" are coming to grips with Thomas Jefferson's seemingly unassailable dictum that "all men are created equal."
By becoming the first U.S. President to come out in support of same-sex marriage, President Obama has boldly illuminated bone-deep and often ugly differences of opinion dividing Americans, and exposed them to open civil discussion. Comparisons to Abraham Lincoln and his stand on slavery a century and a half ago are ample and inescapable.
Both presidents, incumbents from Illinois facing difficult reelections, were forced to confront a crisis cleaving the nation along uncomfortably similar political and geographic boundaries: North vs. South, federal vs. state, equal vs. unequal. Harsh, often brutal and vulgar criticism, often having little to do with issues, was heaped upon both heads, with vicious lies and distortions about their private lives and beliefs running rampant.
Both men, from all accounts pensive by nature, apparently agonized over the slow, difficult conclusions they came to -- decisions overdue to many and rash to others, unwelcome to an unyielding third constituency and inconsequential only to a benumbed, indifferent fourth. President Obama described his position as "evolving" toward espousing same-sex marriage, while allowing, "I've always been adamant that gay and lesbian Americans should be treated fairly and equally." Lincoln stated his decision was part of a "personal wish that all men everywhere could be free."
Publicly lambasted by prominent figures of the day, many of whom were leaders of his own Republican party, Lincoln was derided by the other side, especially abolitionists, for not addressing the issue earlier. Sound familiar?
Even a founder of the president's party, the great Horace Greeley, wrote early in Lincoln's bid for a second term, "He is already beaten.... He cannot be re-elected. And we must have another ticket to save us from utter overthrow." Democratic U.S. Senator, Joe Manchin (WV) not only declined to endorse President Obama during his election campaign in 2010, but has also indicated he may break with his party and vote for the president's Republican opponent this November.
Neither a president breaking with his rank-and-file over unpopular policies, nor disillusioned, disgruntled factions threatening to break with one, is new to American politics -- particularly where considerations of who's free and who's equal, rooted throughout our nation's history, are concerned. Andrew Jackson, "The People's President," subscribed to expanding the electorate to include all white male adult citizens rather than landowners exclusively. Jacksonians and Whigs, no less confrontational in 1828 than the parties they would imminently evolve into, Democrats and Republicans respectively, only found accord when it came to confronting the thorny issue of slavery. Avoid it.
The formation of The Confederate States of America and their convention's calls for secession from the Union on the one hand, and on the other, Lincoln's first inaugural address resolutely declaring his intention to preserve the Union and let none destroy it, made heated talk and threatened action over the practice of slavery impossible to avoid or turn back the clock on. To the contrary, the impassioned debate spurred Lincoln's resolve to settle the issue of slavery once and for all, paving the way for the nation's most politically sweeping human rights action since the Declaration of Independence, i.e., the Emancipation Proclamation.
Issued as an executive order during the third year of the Civil War, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation declared "that all persons held as slaves" within the rebellious states "are, and henceforward shall be free." Not stopping there, the Proclamation took another decisive step forward by providing for the acceptance of freed slaves into the United States (Union Army and Navy) military. Freedom in America took on meaning for 200,000 black soldiers who took up arms for it. Three generations would pass before President Harry S. Truman would sign an executive order integrating the U.S. military by mandating equal "treatment and opportunity... without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin." Only 16 years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson would enact the capstone "Civil Rights Act of 1964."
Every presidential initiative to expand and ensure civil rights has been bold and highly controversial. That didn't stop Woodrow Wilson from signing into law the 19th Amendment to the Constitution granting women the right to vote, nor discourage the Clinton Administration from issuing a hard-won compromise policy, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," regarding gays serving in the military, nor hamper presidential candidate Obama from pledging to revoke the ban on gays in the military and President Obama from signing the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010" into law.
As landmark civil rights proceedings go, the two historic drafted documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation, made the third, unwritten one, President Obama's endorsement of same-sex marriage, possible. The president has in effect "edited" and enhanced Jefferson's classic dictum to avow, unequivocally, all men and women are created equal. As such, his pronouncement may be the last major civil rights action of our time.
Ray Errol Fox is an Oscar-nominated documentarian and journalist/writer. He regularly posts on his on his wide-ranging blog, SON OF THE CUCUMBER KING. Jacopo della Quercia is a history writer researching the Lincoln and Taft presidencies for an upcoming book.