At Gettysburg, our sixteenth President spoke poetry to America, framing the civil war as a test of whether or not a nation “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal… can long endure.” To Lincoln’s mind, the only way to truly honor those who strove in battle was to dedicate ourselves to “the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion… that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
I recently read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s exceedingly excellent Team of Rivals, and so Lincoln and his words and his genius are much with me as I look at the news of our own day. I recited from memory some of the Address to my children (who, bless them, sat quietly and listened) when telling them about events in Iran — it matters, I said, that some across the globe are acting to maintain government of, by, and for the people, because for far too many, it is still only a distant dream.
And I have thought about Lincoln’s words again, as the Obama Administration has dithered over the issue of gay rights.
Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, a moment in American civil rights history rightly described by Frank Rich as a time “when courageous kids who had nothing, not even a public acknowledgment of their existence, stood up to make history happen in the least likely of places.” President Obama is holding a reception to mark the event, and that is, in and of itself, an enormous leap. To have Stonewall acknowledged as a stepping stone on our collective journey toward a more perfect union signals a sea-change in American life, and we should hold this in our minds when we consider the struggle over Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and the Defense of Marriage Act.
And yet a reception is not, cannot be, enough.
When President Lincoln spoke of government of, by, and for the people, I think I do him no disservice when I say that he had very specific people in mind. While his lack of racial prejudice is well-documented, I suspect Lincoln would have been stunned to see the Administration currently serving — neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton could have voted, much less served, in 19th century America, and had Walt Whitman started openly courting any of the young men he so admired? It would not, I suspect, have ended well.
But ever since this nation (this truly great nation) was founded, we have acted to expand the notion of just who are “people.” Slowly but surely, we have expanded our understanding to embrace all colors, all ethnic backgrounds, both genders. The fights continue — arguments over special privileges, efforts of those in power to maintain their share — but there is a common sense that all deserve the same fair shake.
Unless you’re gay. Then, you know what? Maybe you’re not people.
That has to change. “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” means — has got to mean — just that: For the people. All of them, all endowed by their Creator with the same inalienable right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Every day that some Americans must lie about who they are in order to serve in the military, every day that certain Americans are not free to choose marriage — every day that we tell these Americans that they are, somehow, not quite people — is another day in which we do violence to our founding principles, values fought for and protected on endless battlegrounds.
If we would support the rights of Iranians to a democratic government, surely we would be wise to defend those rights here at home, as well. “Of the people, by the people, for the people” — all the people.