What would Abe have said about same-sex marriage?

The logic of the legal arguments for same-sex marriage are remarkably similar to those for the judicial imposition of slavery nationwide.
Michael Stokes Paulsen | 2 March 2015
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No, of course Old Abe never said a lick about same-sex marriage. The idea would have been unheard of in the 1850s—or even the 1950s. The issue of Lincoln’s day was slavery—in particular, the extension of that peculiar institution into federal territories and even into free states. But in connection with the slavery issue, Lincoln had plenty to say about the use and abuse of judicial authority to propagate social policy and about the dangers of judges usurping legislative authority. The man whose birth we honored last month thus spoke, indirectly, to one of the central controversies of our own era, and to a case pending before the Supreme Court right now.

Lincoln’s specific concern was the expansion of slavery into federal territories, mandated by the Supreme Court’s horrendous decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford,in 1857. Lincoln warned of the prospect of a “second Dred Scott” decision following on the heels of the first, mandating the extension of slavery into (formerly) “free” states where the institution of slavery was banned, like Illinois. “We shall lie down pleasantly dreaming that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free,” Lincoln intoned, in the famous House Divided speech launching his (unsuccessful) 1858 campaign for Senate, “and we shallawake to the reality, instead, that the Supreme Court has made Illinois slaveState.”

The logic of the Dred Scott case, Lincoln argued, would seem to imply that nostate could deny recognition to the property rights of slaveholders coming from another state. Dred Scott had held that a right to own slave property, conferred by the laws of a slave state, bound the federal government, in administering federal territories that had not yet become states. Federal law could not ban slavery in the territories, for that would unfairly and unconstitutionally deprive slave-owners of a benefit they had possessed under state law, and thus deny them “due process of law.”

However convoluted and unpersuasive the Court’s reasoning, Lincoln recognized the implications of its logic: if the federal government had to recognize slavery as a result of some states’ laws, how could a free state (like Illinois) deny recognition to slave status conferred by a slave state’s laws (like Missouri’s)?

A House Divided  

Lincoln warned that politicians and judges, like builders working according to a common plan, were preparing the framework to make slavery the uniform national rule: “Put that and that together, and we have a nice little niche, which we may, ere long, see filled with another Supreme Court decision, declaring that the Constitution of the United States does not permit a state to exclude slavery within its limits.” And once that had happened, a state could scarcely deny to all citizens of a state the same “constitutional right” to the institution of slavery that it had to recognize to newcomers or travelers from slave states. A case presenting exactly these issues was kicking around in the New York courts, and seemed at the time destined to make it to the US Supreme Court, presenting the perfect opportunity for such a second Dred Scott.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Lincoln said, quoting Jesus. Lincoln did not expect the house to fall, but he did expect that “it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.” The only way to prevent slavery from becoming the national rule was to resist the decision of the Supreme Court and to seek to prevent its extension—to “meet and overthrow the power of” the “political dynasty” that was seeking to extend slavery to the entire nation.

Lincoln lost that Senate campaign to the incumbent Stephen Douglas, but then beat Douglas in a rematch two years later, this time for the presidency. The rest, as they say, is history: southern states revolted against what they considered a revolting, lawlessly antislavery president; Lincoln considered it his constitutional duty to maintain the Union, faithfully execute the laws, and put down the rebellion; and during a four-year bloody Civil War that tragically claimed 620,000 lives—more than all of America’s other wars combined—Lincoln found it necessary to proclaim the emancipation of slaves held in the states in rebellion. The Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery throughout the nation, was proposed by Congress 150 years ago this month, and Lee surrendered to Grant 150 years ago this April. Barely a week after that, Lincoln was killed by an assassin’s bullet—having seen, but never entered, the promised land of a nation free of slavery.

Parallels between Dred Scott and Windsor

So what does all this have to do with same-sex marriage? A lot. Two years ago, in the contrived test case of Windsor v. United States, a bare majority of Supreme Court justices held that a legal status conferred by state law had to be recognized within the federal sphere. The court held that to deny such a status, as federal law did, violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

In legal form and substance, the decisions in Windsor and Dred Scott are surprisingly parallel. Windsor involved a same-sex marriage that was recognized by the state of New York but not recognized by the federal government due to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The Court held that DOMA denied “due process of law” because it withheld federal recognition to a state-law legal status. That is exactly the same thing the Court did in Dred Scott. Instead of marriage, Dred Scott involved the status of slavery, which was recognized by the state of Missouri, but not by federal law in federal territory. Scott’s master, a captain in the army, had taken Scott to Fort Snelling, in the free federal territory of present-day Minnesota. The federal Missouri Compromise of 1820 banned the status of slavery in federal territory north of a designated line. Dred Scott held that the Missouri Compromise denied “due process of law” because it withheld federal recognition to a state-law legal status. That is just what Windsor did with respect to DOMA.

In both Dred Scott and Windsor, the Court’s legal analysis was transparently result-oriented: the justices wanted a particular result, and manipulated the law to reach the outcome they thought preferable as a social-policy matter. In both cases, the majority’s “reasoning” wanders aimlessly before finally settling into the same oft-discredited judicial invention of “substantive due process”—the idea that it is simply morally wrong, or mean, for a democracy to deny a legal right or status conferred under the law of a different jurisdiction. In both cases, the majority opinions were subject to devastating dissents, and they produced greatly divided public reaction. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Dred Scott and Windsor are two peas from the same judicial-activist pod.

A Second Windsor?

Lincoln warned that there could be a “Second Dred Scott” making slavery national. “Such a decision is all that slavery now lacks of being alike lawful in all the States. Welcome or unwelcome, such decision is probably coming.”

Could there be a “Second Windsor” making same-sex marriage national?

Quite possibly yes. A case is now pending before the Supreme Court asking whether four states—Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee—acted unconstitutionally by not recognizing the status of same-sex marriages under their laws. Some of the plaintiffs are same-sex partners who were married under the laws of other states before moving to a state not recognizing such status. Other plaintiffs seek simply to be married in their home states, the laws of which limit marriage to opposite-sex couples.

Just as with Dred Scott and slavery, the logic of Windsor does not quite require extension to invalidate the laws of every state that denies same-sex marriage status. But an argument will be made that it does. The reasoning of Windsor is that it was gratuitously and indefensibly mean, and therefore unconstitutional, for the federal government to deny recognition to a same-sex marriage recognized under state law. Just as Lincoln asked with respect to Dred Scott, how likely is it the Court will say that a state can then deny to other state’s citizens, or even to its own, the status of same-sex marriage? “Put that and that together,” as Lincoln said, “and we have another nice little niche” for the next Supreme Court decision.

Same-sex marriage is obviously an entirely different social institution than slavery. Reasonable and honorable people today disagree about whether the traditional view of marriage as a conjugal and intrinsically male-female union should be abandoned for an understanding of marriage as embracing any sexual-romantic bond into which two (or more) people might enter. Nobody today disagrees about slavery.

But that is not the point. The point is that, in the structure and logic of the legal arguments made for judicial imposition of an across-the-board national rule requiring every state to accept the institutions, the two situations appear remarkably similar.

If recent lower court opinions on marriage are any guide, the judicial winds may be blowing on the marriage question in the same direction Lincoln seemed to perceive them blowing on the question of extending slavery into northern states by judicial decree. (Lincoln’s prediction probably would have proved right had he not been elected president.) As with slavery in the 1850s, so too with same-sex marriage in 2015: the house very likely will soon cease to be divided. I wouldn’t want to say it’s inevitable, but it is certainly possible that a Second Windsor is coming.

Will the Republican Party produce another Lincoln to stand against it?

Michael Stokes Paulsen is Distinguished University Chair and Professor of Law at the University of St. Thomas, in Minneapolis. He is co-author, with Luke Paulsen, of The Constitution: An Introduction (forthcoming from Basic Books this May). This article has been republished with permission from Public Discourse. 

This article is published by Michael Stokes Paulsen and MercatorNet.com under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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