Joseph Ellis: What Would Jefferson Say About the Amendment to Ban Gay Marriage?Roundup: Historians' Take
Joseph Ellis, in the NYT (Feb. 29, 2004):
Abraham Lincoln once observed that America was founded on a proposition, and that Thomas Jefferson wrote it. He was referring, of course, to the section of the Declaration of Independence that begins,"We hold these truths to be self-evident . . ." The reality, though, is that we are founded on a debate over what Jefferson's proposition means. And the current struggle over gay marriage is but the most recent chapter in that longstanding American argument.
The words that started the current controversy were written by John Adams. In 1779, Adams almost single-handedly drafted the Massachusetts Constitution. It was passages from that document that the state's supreme court cited to support its decision to overturn all legal restrictions on same-sex marriage."All people are born free and equal and have certain natural, essential and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties," Adams wrote."In fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness."
It is most unlikely, of course, that Adams had gay rights in mind. But like Jefferson's more famous formulation of the same message, Adams framed the status of individual rights in absolute and universal terms. Certain personal freedoms were thereby rendered nonnegotiable, and any restrictions on those freedoms were placed on the permanent defensive. At the very birth of the republic, in effect, an open-ended mandate for individual rights was inscribed into the DNA of the body politic, with implications that such rights would expand gradually over time.
In 1848, for example, the women at Seneca Falls cited Jefferson's magic words to demand political equality for all female citizens. In 1863 Lincoln referred to the same words at Gettysburg to justify the Civil War as a crusade, not just to preserve the Union, but also to end slavery. In 1963 Martin Luther King harked back to the promissory note written by Jefferson to claim civil rights for blacks. Now the meaning of the mandate has expanded again, this time to include gay and lesbian couples wishing to marry. With all the advantages of hindsight, it now seems wholly predictable that America's long argument would reach this new stage of inclusiveness.
Are Adams and Jefferson rolling in their graves? This is not just a rhetorical question, since opponents of same-sex marriage are sure to argue that neither man intended his words to be interpreted as a sweeping endorsement of gay rights. While such opponents would be historically correct, their argument would also apply to civil rights for blacks and, at least in terms of Jefferson, to voting rights for women. A literal enforcement of their original intentions, in short, would necessitate rolling back a full century of liberal reforms now broadly regarded as beyond debate.
But the open-ended character of their language on individual rights is a crucial clue to a more relevant version of their original intentions. Both Adams and Jefferson regarded the American Revolution as a long-term experiment to test the limits of personal freedom. Present at the creation, they did not want to place any cap on the potential achievement of the experiment in the future. Jefferson was particularly eloquent in urging each new generation to interpret his famous words anew. Adams was a more cautious revolutionary, emphasizing way stations on the road forward to allow time for popular opinion to catch up with jarring changes. He may well have favored civil unions as a sensible compromise in the current furor.
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