Lincoln, Obama, and historic second inaugural addresses

On March 4, 1861, two days before his first inauguration, President Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans passed a proposed 13th Amendment, with two-thirds approval in the House and the Senate.

obamainaugThe proposed constitutional amendment was never ratified by the states. It prohibited Congress from abolishing or interfering with state-allowed slavery. In his first inaugural address, Lincoln referenced the amendment’s specific establishment of slavery by stating, “I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.”

In the 1860 campaign, Lincoln and the Republican platform supported slavery where it then existed, but they opposed the extension of slavery in the territories. For most Republicans, it was unfair for white laborers to compete for wages against unpaid slaves and for white businessmen to compete with slaveholder’s free labor.

During his first term, President Lincoln evolved from opposing freeing slaves to issuing an Emancipation Proclamation, and from supporting the constitutional establishment of slavery to supporting a 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation and his second inaugural address helped enshrine Lincoln as the Great Emancipator.

In the 1950s, 49 states criminalized same-sex intimacy. Pursuant to an executive order from President Eisenhower and up to 1975, the federal government would not employ gay or lesbian Americans.

During that era, homosexuality was classified as a mental illness. Gay men were treated for their alleged disorder with electric shock therapy, chemical castration, mental institutionalization, and lobotomies.

Ten years ago, the Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Texas declared that it was unconstitutional to criminalize consenting-adult same-sex intimacy. Prior to the decision, police in nine states could obtain a search warrant enabling them to knock down doors and enter the privacy of a bedroom.

In 2008, presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama supported civil unions, but he stated that marriage was between a man and a woman. During his first presidential term, he referenced that his views on same-sex marriage were “evolving.”

In February 2011, the Obama administration decided not to defend in federal court the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

DOMA prohibited legally married same-sex couples from receiving federal marital rights and benefits. Pursuant to that evolution, the U.S. Department of Justice took the position that legally married same-sex couples were constitutionally entitled to equal federal marital protections and benefits.

In September 2011, the president signed the law repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” enabling gay and lesbian Americans to openly serve in the military. The repeal removed the last vestige of the Eisenhower-era prohibition of federal employment by non-closeted gays and lesbians.

On May 9, 2012, President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage. While he opined that it was a decision for states to make, he lent his stature to state same-sex marriage initiatives.

In his second inaugural address on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, President Obama further evolved.

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths–that all of us are created equal–is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forbears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall…Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law–for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”  It was the first time that an inaugural address referenced gay Americans.

From its mountaintop, the Obama second inaugural address was healing, magisterial, and epochal. It was declarative that the birthright of all citizens is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Like Lincoln, Obama evolved. Both presidents reminded us in their evolved second inaugural address of the nation’s quintessential promise–equality. For LGBT Americans and those who share that dream, President Obama is and will be remembered as the Great Liberator.

Malcolm Lazin is the founder and executive director of the Equality Forum.

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