Abraham Lincoln told an 1864 audience that “the world has never had a good definition of the word ‘liberty.’”
Different people can define liberty in different, even contradictory ways, so that both sides in a conflict can claim to the mantle of liberty.
That was exactly the situation in the Civil War: Slaveholders defined liberty in such a way as to make themselves the guardians of liberty. Lincoln continued: “The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as a destroyer of liberty.”
The South’s liberty was the liberty to hold other people as chattel slaves. What the slaveholders called liberty, the North quite rightly called tyranny; namely, the systematic deprivation of the natural rights of other persons.
Lincoln recognized and eloquently denounced tyranny, seeking to restore the nation to its foundation in “the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” which he recognized as the only sure foundation for liberty, equality, and justice. He also understood, in a way that few American statesman ever have, the tyrannical impulse that underlay the affirmative defense of slavery.
Before the war, Lincoln spoke about this impulse at New York City’s Cooper Institute. He demonstrated that the Republican Party had never done anything to threaten slavery in the South, and that Republicans had never stated any intention of so doing. The South, however, remained unconvinced, and continued to agitate for further protections for their “peculiar institution,” threatening disunion if their demands were not met.
Lincoln asked, “What will convince them? This, and this only: “Cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right.” The opponents of slavery must abandon their opposition, turning their backs on their basic moral principles, and wholeheartedly adopt the ideology of slavery as a positive good. No one may be allowed to question slavery. The North must enthusiastically participate in the recovery of fugitive slaves, which it had hitherto resisted. In the end, the free constitutions of the Northern states must be repealed, and slavery must be nationalized.
This was the inexorable impulse of the ‘slave power’—the political power that sought the expansion and perpetuation of slavery in the United States. Convinced as it was of its moral rectitude, the slave power sought to transform American society from top to bottom for the sake of preserving slavery.
The moral perversity of slavery is so comprehensive that it can tolerate no hint of opposition. Law, religion, and public and private discourse have to be thoroughly cleansed of any taint of opposition to slavery. As Lincoln noted, “They will continue to accuse us of doing, until we cease saying.”
This impulse is central to the movement for same-sex marriage and transgender rights. Like the slave power, the LGBT movement seeks to silence all dissent and reshape the institutions of society to conform to its worldview.
Both define “liberty” in such a way as to suppress the rights of others. Before the Civil War, slaveholders maintained that their liberty allowed them to hold their fellow man as chattel property, depriving them of their liberty. Today, the LGBT movement maintains that its liberty requires and allows the criminalization or ruin of anyone who disagrees, such as bakers, florists and photographers who refuse to service same-sex nuptials.
As with slavery, acquiescence in the new morality is not enough. Wholehearted support is required. As Lincoln noted, “Silence will not be tolerated. We must place ourselves avowedly with them.”
This is the tyrannical impulse: The desire to reshape society and crush dissent, all in the name of a liberty that claims for itself the freedom to deprive others of their freedom.
For instance, Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich was forced from his position, because he made a contribution to the effort to preserve traditional marriage in California, a measure which won the support of the majority and which was consistent with centuries of all-but-universal opinion in the Western world.
Independent wedding photographers and the owners of small, local bakeries have been driven from business and persecuted by governments, not for actually violating anyone’s inherent natural rights, but merely for adhering to a conception of marriage that is suddenly obsolete.
Recently, the federal government determined that a male-to-female transgender student must be allowed to use the women’s restroom, placing the rights of the transgender student above the privacy rights of numerous young women.
The city of Houston passed an ordinance making sexual orientation and gender identity protected categories under the law, and making “discrimination” on these bases illegal. The mayor of that city attempted to subpoena the sermons and correspondence of local ministers in an attempt to suppress opposition to the ordinance.
Though Lincoln would be astonished by our world and our politics, he would recognize the tyrannical impulse that animates the slave power in today’s LGBT movement.