Thomas Jefferson on Gay Rights

July 4, 2009

Let us revere the Declaration of Independence.

–Abraham Lincoln

It is usually somewhat presumptuous, even ridiculous, to bring up the unlikely birth of this nation.  Like Governor Sanford’s reference to King David, invoking the Founding Fathers is typically self-serving and vaguely inappropriate.  We tend to make exceptions for world-changing speeches (see Address, Gettysburg) and national holidays.  Since Independence Day gives me a 24-hour pass on this indulgence, I will now continue the public tradition of celebrating July 4th by interpreting the Declaration of Independence in ways that promote my self-interest.

The Declaration was not always considered a sacred document of the Republic.  President Lincoln almost single-handedly elevated it to its current status when he used it to justify the abolition of slavery and the extraordinary human costs of the Civil War.  As right-leaning students of American history have pointed out, Lincoln transformed Jefferson’s words, particularly his preamble, from a hide-protecting defense of a band of revolutionaries who expected to be hanged as traitors into the essential guide to American ideals.

On the subject of the revered signers, Lincoln said this:

[They] grasped not only the whole race of man then living, but they reached forward and seized upon the farthest posterity.  They erected a beacon to guide their children and their children’s children, and the countless myriads who should inhabit the earth in other ages.

Wise statesmen as they were, they knew the tendency of prosperity to breed tyrants, and so they established these great self-evident truths, that when in the distant future some man, some faction, some interest, should set up the doctrine that none but rich men, or none but white men, were entitled to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, their posterity might look up again to the Declaration of Independence and take courage to renew the battle which their fathers began — so that truth, and justice, and mercy, and all the humane and Christian virtues might not be extinguished from the land; so that no man would hereafter dare to limit and circumscribe the great principles on which the temple of liberty was being built.

We are those children’s children.  We are tasked, as Americans, with protecting certain inalienable rights, namely the rights of all men and women to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  And while I am no objective observer of this political moment, I can’t help but think that we are failing the Founders by limiting the basic rights of gay Americans and circumscribing their pursuit of happiness.  I can’t help but think that we are breeding the type of tyranny Lincoln warned us against, the type that guarantees certain freedoms only to the privileged.

Lincoln’s advice in these moments of national failure is clear.  He invites us to revisit the Declaration of Independence and challenges us to renew the battle that our fathers began.  To facilitate this process, I am providing a convenient link to the text here.

Happy 4th of July.