The first of January signaled two momentous events in the history of freedom in America.
As roundly acknowledged, the day marked 150 years since President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the 3.1 million men and women held as slaves in the ten states then considered to be “in rebellion” and not under Union control.
Additionally, this past January 1 was the first day in which same-sex couples in the state of Maryland could legally marry, as stipulated by that state’s Civil Marriage Protection Act, affirmed by Maryland voters on November 6. Following similar legislation, same-sex marriage began in Maine on December 29 and in Washington on December 6.
Abraham Lincoln, the man said to have been written about more than any person except Jesus and Shakespeare, has long been used as a prism through which to view and debate the great American questions both past and present.
In light of the temporal coincidence I have just noted—the partial emancipation of two historically oppressed groups in the United States—allow me to suggest using Lincoln and his political maneuvering on slavery as a means of understanding where America stands on same-sex marriage in the age of Barack Obama.
Our present president formally endorsed legalization of gay marriage last May, following a period in which his views on the subject were said to be “evolving.” Naturally, this presidential seal of approval was an exceedingly welcomed development for, and by, the gay community (and much of the straight community as well), doubly so because of how longstanding and passionately-fought-for it had been.
As history will likely forget, within gay circles Obama was widely viewed as dragging his feet on same-sex marriage for the majority of his first term, his public “evolving” act seen as exactly that: A too-clever-by-half evasion of his genuine views.
What made Obama’s resistance to publicly support marriage so painful was not that the reasons behind it were so mysterious, but rather that they were so obvious: From the opinion polls, it was yet unclear that the country was “ready” for same-sex marriage, and Obama was unwilling to press the issue, expending precious political capital in the process, until he was certain the people would follow.
What we learn from Lincoln is that the Emancipation Proclamation was all about timing.
Lincoln was nothing if not a political animal—a fact that Doris Kearns Goodwin rightly argues “is only to his credit”—and he was not prepared to move on emancipation until he could use it to his political advantage. In 1862, any and all executive action on slavery had to be seen in the context of winning the war, and the proclamation was nothing if not a savvy war tactic, invigorating the North and demoralizing the South.
That we must regard our most beloved of national heroes as a political strategist first and a moral exemplar second is unavoidable, and also a little sad.
Because Lincoln was fundamentally on the side of emancipation, and was unquestionably the deftest politician of his day—not to mention the most powerful—every abolitionist in the country was effectively tethered to Lincoln’s own timetable as to when emancipation would actually happen. It was his way or the highway.
For an abolitionist—to say nothing of the enslaved themselves—it was undoubtedly heartening to know the president was on your side, but also positively maddening when appreciating the bind he was in. Yes, freedom for all would need to be waited out longer than most were comfortable with, but what other choice did the country have?
Returning to Obama, then, we reflect that his reticence on marriage, and the timing of his eventual endorsement thereof, may well have been the best thing that could have happened to the gay rights movement from the executive branch.
The legacy of Bill Clinton on gay matters, after all, is that the 42nd president pushed the issue too fast, too early—allowing gays in the armed forces was the primary objective of the time—which turned the whole business into something of a calamity, arguably setting the gay movement back several years as a result.
That Obama, in being far more cautious, would become the best friend the gay community has ever had in the Oval Office, must simply be accepted as an irony of history and of politics. It is a state of affairs that is neither fair nor morally ideal, but that doesn’t prevent it from being true.