Gay Marriage and the Founding Fathers

Earlier today I was listening to NPR, which was airing a discussion of gay marriage and President Obama’s announcement yesterday that he now supports the rights of gay and lesbian Americans to marry. During the discussion, a listener called in to say that he thought that the Founding Fathers must be spinning in their graves in reaction to the President’s interview.

And my reaction was “Well, good.”

I have a doctorate in U.S. History, and I honestly believe that it is impossible to study the creation of our system of government without being struck by the brilliance and foresight of the men who crafted the U.S. Constitution.  But I have always believed that we can respect their accomplishment without fetishizing it and them.  These were flawed men who were limited not only by the blinders worn by all people of their time with respect to gender, religion, race, and yes, sex, but also by their own all-too-human failings.  They were guilty of repeated and abject hypocrisy: Even as they championed liberty and the rights of men, they codified slavery, literally fractionalizing the humanity of those living in servitude. They ignored the rights of women entirely.

And some think they only started spinning in their graves yesterday?  Really?  Isn’t it far more likely that their gyroscopic gymnastics began long ago?  Frankly, I’m not even sure I could put a date on when the spinning started.  1861 comes to mind — Secession would have set them in motion, don’t you think?  How about 1912, when the Constitution was amended to allow the direct election of U.S. Senators by what the Founders would have called “the rabble?”  (Originally, Senators were elected by the State Legislatures.)  How about 1920, when women were given the right to vote?  Or 2008, when we elected an African-American man to the White House?

What President Obama said yesterday — what he should have said months or even years ago — might have added a couple of RPM to their rotational speed, but the Founders were already going round and round.  Trust me on this.

And what’s more, that’s just what they expected.  Because despite their flaws, or perhaps because of them, these foresighted men created a form of government that could adapt and adjust and grow as evolving values and changing circumstances dictated.  Therein lies the brilliance of their work as well as the humanity of their legacy.  No, they could not have envisioned a day when a sitting U.S. President — especially one in the early days of what promises to be a close and contentious election — would have the courage to say that he supports the right of all people to marry, regardless of their sexual orientation.  But they did envision a time when their own assumptions and prejudices would be hopelessly outdated.

And so rather than clinging to their original words as if they were sacrosanct, we should embrace their clear intent and accept that progress is inevitable, that change is good, and that we are blessed to live under a governing system that allows for both.

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