Editor’s note: Robert George made the following comments as he was presented with the Alliance Defense Fund’s Edwin Meese Award at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington, DC, on Oct. 26, 2011.
In the middle of the 19th century, a new political party emerged dedicated to two great moral struggles. The Republican Party pledged in its original platform to fight the “twin relics of barbarism”: slavery and polygamy.
By then, slavery was deeply entrenched in the culture of the American south. What some had regarded as a “necessary evil” that would gradually die out, had been given a new lease on life by technological developments and the emergence of profitable overseas markets for cotton. An entire social and economic system was built on slavery. No longer was it reasonable to hope that the “peculiar institution,” and with it the moral controversy convulsing the nation, would quietly fade away. Powerful interests had a stake, not only in maintaining the slave system, but in extending it into the western territories of the United States.
So the Republicans faced a daunting challenge. Pro-slavery Democrats condemned them as “fanatics” and “zealots” who sought to impose their religious scruples and moral values on others. Slaveholders demanded that they “mind their own business” and stay out of the “domestic” and “private” affairs of others. Defenders of the “right” to own slaves pointedly invited northern abolitionists to redirect their moral outrage towards the “wage slave” system in the industrial north. “If you are against slavery,” they in effect said, “then don’t own a slave.”
By the mid-1850s, polygamy, which had originally been the largely secret practice of the Mormon elite, had come out of the closet. Of course, the LDS Church has long since forbidden the practice of polygamy and is today nobly in the forefront of defending marriage as the permanent and exclusive union of one man and one woman. No religious community deserves higher praise for its defense of marriage and the family. But polygamists of the time, like renegade polygamists of today, claimed that attacks on “plural marriage” were violations of their right to religious freedom. Some would bring lawsuits (as some are doing again today) asking judges to invalidate laws against polygamy as unconstitutional. One of these cases would make it all the way to the Supreme Court. Apologists for polygamy denied that plural marriage was harmful to children, and challenged supporters of the ban on polygamy to prove that the existence of polygamous families in American society harmed their own monogamous marriages. They insisted that they merely wanted the right to be married in their own way and left alone.