By Erin Carlson Mast
One hundred and fifty years ago, our country was deeply divided over an issue of individual liberty—slavery. We are currently divided over yet another issue of personal freedom. What’s more, political analysts and journalists are drawing comparisons between Obama’s recent self-proclaimed evolving views on the issue of gay marriage to Lincoln’s evolving views and policies regarding slavery. As a place that spends a great deal of time studying the ideas and actions of our 16th President, as well as the political, economic, social, and religious culture of his day, when Lincoln makes national news, President Lincoln’s Cottage feels an obligation to provide non-partisan, thoughtful comment for reflection.
Consider this: Today, many of our visitors want to know why it took Lincoln so long to act on slavery. The answer is complex. Many things only seem obvious in retrospect. Lincoln is, appropriately, most remembered for the Emancipation Proclamation, developed at the Cottage, in which he helped an entire population take a step closer to enjoying their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But when he issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, while living here, there was strong opposition. (It is worth noting, Lincoln did not have a spotless record when it came to other issues involving civil liberties. And let there be no mistake, many other populations, such as women, were still being denied rights in Lincoln’s lifetime that we take for granted today.)
On the other hand, consider this: Enslaved people were unable to change their status through democratic means—they were denied the right to vote. Many enslaved persons did not let that deter them—they self-emancipated. Today, more Americans are empowered to affect change if they choose to engage in the political process. Granted, people are still disenfranchised in our country, but more people today can participate in the process and let their voice be heard than could in Lincoln’s time. Participating in the process is Lincolnian.
Lincoln pledged an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution. But Lincoln notably heralded the Declaration of Independence as the purest statement of who we are as a people. When some of Lincoln’s contemporaries argued that the Founding Fathers didn’t really mean to imply that all men were truly created equal, he challenged them, suggesting that if we walked down that path, there would be no end to who could be denied their rights.