Grover Cleveland and the Same-sex Marriage Debate: State vs. Federal Power

As a historian of American politics, I am most often asked how this or that historical figure would think about modern political issues.  Many times the answer is an easy one, but others not so much.  The issue of gay marriage would certainly fall into the latter category.

So, you might ask, how would Grover Cleveland, as President of the United States, have dealt with the issue in the late 19th century?

The subject of same-sex marriage was certainly not on anyone’s lips in his day, nor can it be found in any letters or papers to my knowledge.  But we can ascertain Cleveland’s probable thoughts on the matter by understanding his political thought.  He was a steadfast Jeffersonian President who believed in the cardinal principles of that philosophy, two of which were the absolute will of the people and respect for the individual states.

As Thomas Jefferson had vowed in his first inaugural address in 1801, his administration would support “the State governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against anti-republican tendencies.” President Cleveland also swore, on numerous occasions, to maintain respect for the states in their independent and sovereign character.

The state governments control the process of marriage by issuing licenses and sanctioning the procedure.  Nowhere in the US Constitution is marriage mentioned, thereby making it off limits to meddling by Washington politicians.  So for Cleveland, the question should be left up to the people of the states to decide, expressing their will at the local ballot box.

And as of this writing, the people in 32 states have voted down same-sex marriage, many of them overwhelmingly so, representing every region in the country.  Where it has been put to popular vote, not one single state has accepted it.

Mississippi had the highest vote totals against the practice, with 86 percent.  Tennessee and Alabama also had vote totals over 80 percent.  That was to be expected in the Bible Belt South.  But other reliable Republican states have also voted, unsurprisingly, to forbid it, many with totals in the 60s and 70s.

Yet what has been surprising to many is the fact that the mostly Democratic states of Colorado (56 percent), Nevada (69 percent), Wisconsin (59 percent), Michigan (59 percent), and Hawaii (69 percent), overwhelmingly rejected it.  Even California, where one would think it had a fighting chance of passage, voted it down with 52 percent of the vote.

The people of the states have spoken on this issue, and the results of their suffrage should put an end to the debate.  Grover Cleveland would have wholeheartedly agreed.


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