What History Says About Comparing Gay Rights To Civil Rights

What History Says About Comparing Gay Rights To Civil Rights

The gay-rights movement has followed not the trajectory of the anti-slavery movement, but of those who supported slavery.
Paul Moreno

Republicans stand accused of supporting religious objections to homosexual marriage in Indiana and Arkansas. This is nothing new. The party was founded by men with moral and religious scruples about contested social institutions.

The first national Republican Party platform, of 1856, denounced polygamy, or “plural marriage,” as a “relic of barbarism.” But this plank was uncontroversial. Even the Democrats condemned polygamy. Somehow Stephen Douglas had no difficulty arguing that people in the territories should be able to choose slavery, but not polygamy. And the targeted Mormons were few in number, isolated in the distant Utah Territory, and without media or business advocates. But the new party drew fire for its religious condemnation of the other relic of barbarism, chattel slavery.

Anti-Slavery Moves from Rationalists to the Religious

At the time of the American founding, opposition to slavery was primarily the cause of Enlightenment rationalists. Many of the leading antislavery founders tended toward Deism or Unitarianism—Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, Hamilton, and Adams were all pretty cool religiously, although some like John Jay were more orthodox. Among the more radical Protestant denominations, the Quakers stood out as abolitionists.

Nearly every American church split into pro- and anti-slavery groups.

The Second Great Awakening turned antislavery into a mass religious campaign, especially among the growing ranks of evangelical denominations like the Methodists and Baptists. These churches also promoted social-reform movements like temperance, sabbatarianism, prison reform, asylums for the insane, women’s rights, and the like. But especially after about 1830, the slavery issue overshadowed the others.

The issue became increasingly divisive. Nearly every American church split into pro- and anti-slavery groups. The Quakers had expelled slaveholding members in 1776. The leading immediate-abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, had been converted by Quakers. Many more northern denominations now followed Quaker antislavery doctrine, and southern theologians began to fabricate elaborate Biblical defenses of slavery.

Slavery’s Defenders Seek to Restrict Free Speech

On the eve of the Civil War, defenders of slavery were determined to shut down criticism and moral objections to slavery. After John Brown’s raid, Sen. Stephen Douglas introduced a resolution “to protect a state or territory against invasion.” Abraham Lincoln called this “Senator Douglas’ Sedition Act,” whose real object was “to put down republicanism, to prevent republican meetings, and to shut men’s mouths.”

The slaveholders demanded that the free states stifle expressions of moral opposition to slavery. They had long done so themselves.

When South Carolina seceded, it declared that the northern states “have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States.” The slaveholders demanded that the free states stifle expressions of moral opposition to slavery. They had long done so themselves. Arkansas made it a felony for anyone to question the propriety of slaveholding. South Carolina’s legislature had proscribed “foreign” antislavery agitators—Samuel Hoar of Massachusetts had been greeted by a hostile mob when he ventured to challenge that state’s policy of imprisoning free black sailors when they entered the port of Charleston.

The campaign slogan of the Republican Party was “free soil, free speech, free labor, free men.” They were determined to end slavery by containing it in the states where it existed, although this policy had been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case of 1857. As the Civil War approached, it became increasingly clear that slavery curtailed not just the liberty of the slaves, but of all non-slaveholding Americans.

The Slave Power wanted not just public recognition and protection of the right to own slaves, but the suppression of any private moral objection to slavery. Thus Lincoln wrote to Alexander H. Stephens, soon to be the first (and only) vice president of the Confederate States of America, that the Republicans had no intention, “directly, or indirectly [to] interfere with their slaves, or with them, about their slaves…. I suppose, however, this does not meet the case. You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. That I suppose is the rub. It certainly is the only substantial difference between us.”

From Toleration to Equality to Supremacy

At the time of the Founding, slaveholders recognized that slavery contradicted the principles of the Declaration of Independence—Jefferson and others repeated that slavery was wrong—but they pleaded for toleration in dealing with a condition that they could not immediately and fully set right. Over time they stopped seeking mere toleration, began defending slavery as a “positive good,” and objected to any public policy that implied its wrongness. The most radical of them, like George Fitzhugh, argued that slavery was a better social system than free labor.

The pro-homosexual movement has followed a similar trajectory, from toleration to equality to supremacy.

The homosexual-rights movement has long claimed the civil rights movement as its model. But its increasingly strident effort to suppress all moral and religious dissent makes it look more like the antebellum proslavery movement. Some years ago one wit observed that homosexuality, once “the love that dare not speak its name,” had become “the love that can’t shut up.” We cannot let it shut everybody else up.

Paul D. Moreno holds the William and Berniece Grewcock chair in constitutional history at Hillsdale College and is the director of academic programs at the college’s Kirby Center.

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