“Flip-flopper” is a term thrown around frequently in today’s political discourse. Americans seem to want a President who makes a decision and stands by it, demonstrating strength of will and therefore great character. So we should not find it surprising when there was a public backlash against Barack Obama when he announced that his views on marriage equality had changed and he now believed same sex couples should have the right to civil marriage. Yet, as a developing historian, I find this a very curious phenomenon; the line of “flip-flopping,” or as Obama more appropriately said, “evolution,” traces back to the origins of the United States. When modern politicians make claims about their rivals’ lack of character for changing their views, they are abandoning a proud tradition of soul-searching, careful research, and a willingness to acknowledge past mistakes and do what is right.
James Madison, the father of the Constitution, was one of the most monumental flip-floppers in American history. He helped develop the first political party, the Federalists, to build national support for the new Constitution; this new Constitution did not include a written Bill of Rights, and Madison wrote that it was unnecessary. As a member of the First Congress from Virginia in 1790, however, Madison’s first order of business was to propose a national Bill of Rights, which he saw as necessary to unify the country. (Interestingly, while Madison initially believed the states could adequately protect individual rights, one of his failed amendments actually denied states the right to deny certain rights to citizens, setting the stage for what would later evolve into the 14th Amendment after the Civil War.) Later in his career, as Federalist President John Adams restricted free speech and free press with the Alien and Sedition Acts, Madison helped form a new party, the Democratic-Republicans, in response. I sincerely doubt Madison’s “flip-flopping,” based on one of our history’s most brilliant minds working through complex issues, would be viewed as a lack of character.
Another great American hero, Abraham Lincoln, experienced a dramatic evolution in his political thought that ultimately saved the nation. Lincoln originally expressed that his ultimate goal was to save the union, and he didn’t care whether that meant maintaining slavery. Later, as he realized that he could no longer support slavery morally or politically, he considered colonizing newly freed slaves in Latin America so they would not live among whites in the U.S. As the Civil War went on and continued to shape his psyche, he would later support emancipation, allow black regiments to serve in the military, and write the brilliant words of the Gettysburg Address which finally began to connect the African American population to the Declaration of Independence. This evolution helped shape Lincoln’s legacy as one of our greatest Presidents.
This brings us to President Obama and the same sex marriage debate. When campaigning in 2008, Obama said he supported equal rights through civil unions for same sex couples, but that marriage was between a man and a woman. I disagreed with this stance and still do, believing it to be a new version of separate but equal. As times have changed over the last few years, including the Supreme Court of our great state recognizing that a ban on same sex marriage was a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, President Obama has changed, or “evolved,” to realize that civil marriage and all of its legal implications is a right that should be protected for same sex couples as well; his executive order to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act in court was a step in the right direction toward promoting the equal rights proclaimed in the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence and protected against state intrusion by the 14th Amendment.
When President Obama explains that he has evolved on the same sex marriage issue, he is showing greater strength of character in his ability to think through issues, recognize mistakes, and grow as an individual and a leader. Marriage equality is under attack by the conservative wing of the Republican Party for reasons that have nothing to do with the Constitution, and the results are an affront to anyone who claims to support American principles of liberty and equality. Let us hope that those who would deny equal civil rights to fellow citizens have the ability to evolve as well.
By Jason Danielson
Tue, July 31, 2012
by Jason Danielson