Popular Sovereignty Now

A reader writes:

Just last week I finished teaching the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and when I read the Rod Dreher post you linked to, I immediately thought of Stephen Douglas's arguments for "popular  sovereignty" -- the notion that states, especially former territories entering the Union,  could vote slavery "up" or "down" as they saw fit.

456px-Abraham_Lincoln_head_on_shoulders_photo_portrait Lincoln saw what a fatuous argument "popular sovereignty" was -- that it really is the destruction of self-government to allow fundamental rights to be determined by the whims of a majority. The Declaration precedes the Constitution. "All men are created equal" is the necessary preface to "We the People."

Equal rights and the consent of the governed are the principles that make self-government intelligible in the first place. Without them, of course, there are no real limits to what majorities can enact, including doing away with democratic rule. This is why Lincoln repeatedly said that lurking in Douglas's doctrine of popular sovereignty were the same arguments used to justify the divine right of kings. Once "all men are created equal" is dispensed with, once it is no longer held to apply to a certain group of people, what might limit the arbitrary rule of a few, or one, over other groups without their consent?

I understand, of course, the "legitimacy" victories in the democratic process confer on any movement. But for me, the legitimacy of the love and relationships of gay couples already is there. It's a right, grounded in our basic equality. And no majority should be able to take that away. So there's a real ambivalence here.

Here's one of my favorite Lincoln quotes, from an 1855 letter to Joshua Speed:

"I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that 'all men are created equal.'  We now practically read it "all men are created equal, except negroes." When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read 'all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.' When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty -- to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy."

Insert "gay" for "negroes" in the above and my point is made. His logic resonates still.

No historical analogies are perfect, of course. But this is a great irony, no? The Party of Lincoln is now aping the discredited arguments of Stephen Douglas (and for that matter, John C. Calhoun).