Gay Marriage? Blame
It On Jefferson...
by: Thom Hartmann
"It's never been tried
before." "The Bible doesn't mention it." "Civilized
people have never done things this way." "No society in the 6000
years of the history of civilization since Gilgamesh has suggested such a
thing." "It'll create social chaos, ultimately destroying the
nation." "It's just too radical an idea for people to
Those were the arguments put forth in the 1760s and 1770s as the American
colonies split - divisions that often tore apart families - on the issue
of whether a free people could govern themselves in a democracy or should
stay with England's king. They were trotted out in the 19th century over
the issue of freeing America's slaves. They appeared again in the 20th
century over whether women should be allowed to vote and fully participate
in society. And these voices were heard again early in my lifetime when
the Supreme Court forced public schools to allow white and black children
to attend class together.
Gay marriage is simply the logical and appropriate extension of the idea
that in a constitutionally limited democratic republic a vital function of
government is to protect the rights of minorities. It's called "civil
Back in 1787 when the Constitution was being worked out, conservatives
pointed out that what John Adams called "the rabble" couldn't be
trusted to elect representatives or - even more dangerously - become
elected officials. As the father of modern conservative thought, Edmund
Burke (1729-1797), famously noted: "The occupation of a hair-dresser,
or of a tallowman [candle maker], cannot be a matter of honor to any
person - to say nothing of a number of other more servile employments.
Such description of men ought not to suffer oppression from the state, but
the state suffers oppression if such as they, either individually or
collectively, are permitted to rule."
American representative democracy was an experiment in 1776 that had never
before been tried among "civilized" people. The world watched
with curiosity and awe, and during the Civil War figured it was at an end.
Even by 1900 there were only a handful of democratic nations in the entire
world, and if you define democracy to require the enfranchisement of all
people, male and female, black and white, the first true democracy didn't
appear until 1920 when we passed the 19th Amendment.
Since that time, liberal democracies have exploded across the world. Of
the 191 member nations of the UN in 2003, 140 hold multi-party elections
and 81 are considered "fully democratic" by the UN's standards.
Through democratically elected representatives, citizens themselves rule
nearly all of North and South America, Europe, Australia and most Pacific
Islands, South Africa, and many parts of Asia.
This is all startlingly new - an eye blink in the history of what we call
civilization. Democracy and civil rights are not "traditional
values." The Bible, the Koran, and the Vedas sanction slavery. Women
have been the property of men for nearly all of our history. And the idea
that one of the most important functions of government is to protect the
rights of often-unpopular minorities so shocked Colonial conservatives
that many took up arms against the revolutionaries, fled to Canada, or
returned to England.
George Washington was speaking directly to the issue of civil rights when,
in 1790, he said, "As Mankind becomes more liberal, they will be more
apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of
the community are equally entitled to the protections of civil government.
I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations of justice and
The history of America and the history of modern democracies is one of
expanding civil rights. First we freed white males from the kings and
queens. Then we freed those of us whose skin varied in color. Then we
freed women. While none of us are yet completely free, the ancient kings
are returning in the guise of multinational corporations, and the battles
for civil rights continue against conservative forces, it's essential that
we recognized that "We, the People" means all of us.
It's no coincidence that when the Vermont and Massachusetts Supreme Courts
recently looked at constitutions written in the 1700s, inspired by the
writings of Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin, they discovered therein the
rights of gays and lesbians to civil unions and marriage.
Gay marriage is a civil rights issue, plain and simple, and entirely in
keeping with the egalitarian vision of this nation's Founders. It's time
for us to honestly and frankly face and accept that fact, and act
Hartmann (thom at thomhartmann.com) is the award-winning, best-selling
author of over a dozen books, and the host of a nationally syndicated
daily talk show. www.thomhartmann.com
This article is copyright by Thom Hartmann, but permission is granted for
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