Wednesday, December 7, 2016

King's Survey: Dred Logic

In which we trace the reasoning of the worst decision the Supreme Court ever made

DredScott
Dred Scott, by Louis Schultze (1888).
What are we going to do, kids? How are we going to prevent a Civil War that seems like it’s heading straight toward us?
—I don’t think we can, Mr. K.
We’ve got to keep trying, don’t we?
—I’m not sure we do. Slavery is wrong. We need to dig in and end it.
Hmmm. You might be right, Sadie. In any case, we have another situation to look into. It involves a slave named Dred Scott.
—I’ve heard of him.
Right. Here’s the thing. Scott’s case is a little complicated, but basically it comes down to this. He’s the property of an army surgeon named John Emerson, who acquires Scott in Missouri, a slave state. But because he’s an army guy, Emerson moves around a lot. He gets reassigned, and is sent to Illinois. Dred Scott goes with him.
—Is Emerson allowed to do that?
 Why wouldn’t he be?
—I think you said a while back that Illinois isn’t a slave state.
 Right. So?
—How can you have a slave in a non-slave state?
Well, that’s easy, Ethan. Illinois has transit laws. You’re allowed to move your property across state borders.
—Yeah, but you said the surgeon guy moved to Illinois. Like now he lives there. So Scott should be free.
Emerson is stationed there. I believe that transit laws are good for up to a year. Should we be expecting you to squawk to the authorities on day number 366?
—I probably will.
Do you expect them to act immediately?
—Worth a try.
Probably not. Because by the time you would get any wheels in motion, Dr. Emerson and Scott would be gone. Emerson would have been ordered to Fort Snelling, which is in modern-day Wisconsin. Back then it was in the Minnesota territory.
—Minnesota. Too cold for cotton. And just about anything else, as far as I’m concerned. That can’t be slave territory. Scott is free as far as I’m concerned.
It isn’t and he isn’t, Em. And Dr. Emerson is willing to go with the flow: when in Rome, do as the Romans, or in this case, the Northerners, do. He hires Dred Scott out to other white men for pay—pocketing Scott's pay. But it isn’t an entirely bad deal for Scott. He gets married (for the second time; his first wife was sold away from him, and the marriage had no legal standing). Scott’s new wife, Harriet, had been the property of another man, but becomes Dr. Emerson’s property. When Dr. Emerson gets reassigned back to Missouri, he leaves the Scotts behind. Here things start to get complicated. Emerson himself gets married to a woman named Irene Sandford. They set up a household in Louisiana. They send for the Scotts. They’re on their way down when they have a daughter on a steamboat along the Mississippi River between Illinois and Iowa. That means she is free even if her parents aren’t. The Scotts are down in Louisiana, but then then Emerson goes back to Missouri. Serves in the Seminole War. Dies. Now the Scotts are the property of Mrs. Sandford—or at least by some reckonings they are. Scott has made many friends over the years, and have received financial and legal advice from them. In 1846, he sues for his freedom essentially using Ethan’s argument: that Dr. Emerson abused his slaveholding privileges and forfeited them. This is a legal case, and legal cases take time—like a decade. Dred Scott v. Sandford reaches the Supreme Court, where it’s finally decided in 1857.
—And?
Roger_Taney
Roger Taney
Well, this brings us back to the question I posed at the start of class: how are we going to avoid a Civil War? The chief justice of the Supreme Court is a guy named Roger Taney. I believe I’ve mentioned him before. Anybody remember?

No? OK, here’s a hint. John Marshall: he somebody I have mentioned.
Marshall? Anybody?
—Supreme Court.
And Yin comes through again in the clutch. Right: Marshall was the chief justice of the Supreme Court from the Jefferson through Jackson administrations. Once Marshall finally retires in 1835, his place gets taken by Taney (pronounced “Tawney”). By 1857, Taney’s been on the court for over twenty years, and he’s still got another seven to go. He’s seen all the controversies over Mexico, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act. And now this. So it’s time to resolve this whole sectional crisis once and for all. And so this Maryland slaveholder leads the way in a 7-2 majority decision that goes against Scott.
—God. That’s awful. How does he justify that?
Bascially two ways, Sadie. The first is to deny that Scott really had any right to bring a suit in the first place—in legal terms, he has “no standing.” In the famous words of his decision, he’s got no rights a white man is bound to respect.
The second part of his decision involves the nature of slavery itself, as far as Taney is concerned. It’s a property right, and as such is protected by the Fifth Amendment. You can’t take away someone’s property without due process. So it doesn’t matter where you take your human property—or maybe I should say human property—regardless of where you go or how long you stay. Freedom is national.
—That can’t be legal.
He just made it legal, Sadie. What he did, in effect, is strike down the Missouri Compromise. You can’t draw a line creating free states and slave states, because citizens (which doesn’t include black people) always keep their constitutional rights in any of the United States. The people of Vermont, for example, might decide they don’t want to buy, own, or sell slaves. But they can’t stop someone from Alabama from bringing their slaves there.
—That’s just a horrible decision.
Well, it’s the law of the land. You will be obeying it, won’t you Kylie? Forgive me for asking, but you’ve made some mighty subversive suggestions in recent days.
—I don’t know what to think, what to obey.
Well, you’re not alone there. A lot of people are vowing to defy the law. Interestingly enough, one person who isn’t is that Abraham Lincoln guy.
—Him again.
Yeah, Em, him again. Even though he really blew it back in 1846 over the Mexico War, the guy won’t quite go away. He lay low for a while, getting rich as a lawyer back in Springfield, Illinois. But the Kansas-Nebraska Act seemed to set him on fire. Started speaking out about it like nobody’s business, like a man afire. For a while back in 1855, it looked like he might achieve his lifelong dream of becoming Senator. That fell through. But now he’s looking to challenge Senator Douglas for his seat. Long shot. Don’t think it will amount to much.
—Yeah, right.
Whatever, Em. Got more important things to talk about. Amid all these frustrations, it’s clear that more and more people are taking the law into their own hands. One crazy guy in particular. His name is John Brown.
Next: The freedom-fighter/terrorist

Monday, December 5, 2016

King's Survey: The PopSov Bubble

In which we see the limits of democracy in a democracy without limits

Stephen_A_Douglas_private_collection
Senator Stephen A. Douglas (Illinois)

Once upon a time, kids, there was a grand compromise to avoid a civil war. The man who tried to make it happen failed. And then another man swooped in and made it happen. And then the very man who made it happen destroyed that compromise. That’s the story I want to tell you today.
—OK. So who destroyed it?
—Henry Clay.
—No, not Clay. He was the guy who failed. It was the other guy.
—Which guy?
—Douglas something.
—No: I have it here in my notes: Stephen A. Douglas.
—Oh yeah. Him.
—Who was he, again?
—It says here he was “the little giant.”
I need to partially take back what I said. When I say the man made it happen
—Which man? Is it Stephen Douglas?
Yes. You kids figured it out. Douglas did make it happen. Clay couldn’t get the Compromise of 1850 through as the Omnibus bill, and then Douglas broke it into pieces and got it passed that way. Crisis averted. But as I already explained to you, it’s not like that Compromise of 1850 made everything just fine.
—Right. That fugitive slave law and all that.
The fugitive slave law and all that. Some people are angry about the obligation to return escaped slaves, and other people angry that they’re potentially liable if they don’t say something if they see something. And of course there was all the hoopla around Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote in response to the fugitive slave provision in the Compromise of 1850. Still, the whole thing might have held if it wasn’t for Senator Stephen A. Douglas’s real estate speculation in Michigan.
—All right, Mr. K. I’ll take the bait: what’s the deal with the Michigan real estate?
Funny you should ask, Em (bless your heart). So you all know about the railroadsInternet of the 19th century, and all that.
—Yeah, we did all that.
So the big question now is where to build a transcontinental railroad. Everybody wants oneDemocrat, Whig, Free Soiler, abolitionist, woman suffragist. And why not? A wonder technology that will literally stitch the nation together. Everybody understands that the government is going to have to get involved; it’s too big a project and requires too much money up front for the private sector to handle it single-handedly, even if it’s expected the private companies will do it.
—Why doesn’t the government just do it?
Well, Adam, I hear two questions there. One is, “why doesn’t the government simply commit to the project?” And the other is “Why doesn’t the government itself build the railroad?”
—Well, yeah, when you put it that way, I guess it is two questions.
I’ll address the second one first. The government itself doesn’t have the resources, the labor force, technology, or business acumen to actually launch a major capital project like that. That’s a matter of logistics. But it’s also a matter of philosophy: every since the settlement of the Ango-American colonies, English speaking peoples have favored the private over the public sector more than other people in Europe or the rest of the world. So it was that when Samuel Morse developed the new technology of the telegraph, and offered it to the U.S. government in the 1840s, Congress turned him down. Instead, it was private companies that built the telegraph business. Which, as we’re speaking, are in the process of laying a cable across the Atlantic Ocean. Soon there will be virtually instant communication across seas and continents. We live, truly, in an amazing world, don’t you agree, Chris?
—Yeah, I guess.
You guess! This is the 19th century, Chris! Has there ever been a time of greater moral and scientific progress?
—Yeah, sure. Whatever.
I can hear the awe in your voice. Anyway, to the second half of Adam’s question, or, I should say, the first half: “Why doesn’t the government simply commit to building the railroad?” And the answer is that while everybody wants a railroad, the railroad actually has to go somewhereit actually has to occupy a stretch of territory. But which stretch? You’ll be shocked, shocked to hear that Southerners want that railroad to run something like Georgia to California, while Northerners would like it to take a route that runs from Massachusetts to California. (California? Does that mean San Francisco or somewhere else? Certainly not Los Angeles. That's a desert.) Anywhere the railroad does run gets an economic bonanza. You can see how this whole thing turns into a political nightmare.
—Maybe they should have a lottery or something.
Maybe they should, Sadie. But Senator Douglas owns some real estate in Michigan. And he’d really, really like it if that railroad happened to run through that land he currently ownswhich of course he would be delighted to sell to the government at an appropriate price, something which, as a lawmaker he is, shall we say, uniquely qualified to do.
—Is that legal?
Sure. The problems posed by these development are only being invented now, so the solutions don't exist. Anyway, Douglas may want this. But he knows he can’t necessarily get this unless he plays ball with his friends in Congress. As we know, playing ball is something he’s very good at. And so he goes to his Southern friends, the friends he’s going to need to make this deal happen, and he says, “Boys, what will it take for me to get the votes I need?” And do you know what they say?
—“Funny you should ask.”
Excellent, Em.
—It's a line I've heard a few times before in this room.
That is, figuratively speaking, exactly what they say. And then they go on to note there was an interesting concept in the Compromise of 1850 involving the future states of the New Mexico and Utah territories. That concept is “popular sovereignty”: the idea that the people actually living in a territory, not the politicians back in Washington DC, should make decisions about the future of that territory. In particular, they should decide about slavery. In the case of New Mexico and Utah, this is all pretty theoretical, since it was obvious that it would be decades before those territories ever had enough people to become states. Still, the Slave Power liked the idea, because they believed slavery had to expand in order to survive, and they wanted to keep their options open, even if they were long term.
But what about the short term? This is where Senator Douglas’s request becomes interesting. New Mexico and Utah’s admission to the Union is far away, but that of the territories of Kansas and Nebraska are not. What if they were to be admitted on a basis of popular sovereignty? What do you say, Senator Douglas? Give us popular sovereignty there and you’ve got yourself a railroad where you want it.
Before I tell you how he replied, let me ask: what do you say?
—I don’t like it.
But why not, Kylie?
—Because I don’t like slavery.
Do you like democracy?
—Yeah, but….
But what?
—It doesn’t seem right.
—Democracy for who is the question.
Democracy for the voters, Adam.
—But who gets to vote?
Well, that depends a little on the location, but basically, the answer is white men.
—Well, that’s not really democracy, then.
Why not?
—Because a democracy means everybody gets a vote.
No, Adam. In fact, that’s not correct. No democracy has let everybody vote. In ancient Athens, usually cited as the prototype of democracy, only citizens could vote, and they were a tiny portion of the overall population. (Slavery was common in ancient Greece, by the way, as indeed it was in a great many societies, ancient and modern.) Women almost never voted in democratic societies. Children still don’t. So the fact that the franchise, as it is known, was limited doesn’t really work as an argument. So if you’re going to come up with an argument against popular sovereignty, you’re going to have to approach it from a different direction.
—What did Douglas say?
Douglas wanted that railroad. Douglas was also a Democrat, and a democrat. “I don’t care whether slavery is voted up or voted down,” he often said. What he did care about was that the people—which for him meant white people—got to choose. So he accepted the deal and shepherded it through Congress with those great legislative skills of his. The Kansas-Nebraska Act became the law of the land in 1854. Douglas is looking more and more like a future president of the United States, after James Buchanan, Democrat who gets elected in 1856.
—So did the Kanas-Nebraska thing work?
It was a disaster. Truly catastrophic. Now try to figure out why.
—They couldn’t agree.
—Duh. The question is why they couldn’t work it out.
—Slaveholders brought their slaves in whether the law allowed it or not.
That’s not quite right, Yin, but you are on to something. You’re not right because there was no law regarding slavery in the territory. That’s the problem. Slaves are flooding into Kansas before there’s a vote on statehood. The people who are bringing them are known as “bushwackers.” They’re coming from Southern states, especially Missouri. But there are also antislavery peoplestrong antislavery peoplecoming into into Kansas, too. They’re known as Jayhawkers.
—That’s the name of the University of Kansas basketball team.
Well, how about that, Jonah. The bushwackers and and jayhawkers really go at it. There’s widespread violence. In one famous case a man named John Brown—you’ll be hearing about him again—and his sons ambush a group of slaveholders when they emerge from a bar. They hack the slaveholders to death with broadswords.
—Wow.
Amid all this violence—the situation there in 1856-57 is known as “Bleeding Kansas”—a vote is organized on statehood and a constitution. But the antislavery forces think the election is rigged, and they boycott it. The vote and document that results are known as the Lecompton Constitution. There are widespread reports of violence and intimidation. A lot of people don’t think it should be accepted as legitimate.
—So what happens?
Well, the Buchanan administration is stacked with proslavery advocates; the Secretary of War, for instance, is a man named Jefferson Davis. They push the president to accept the Lecompton Constitution, and he does. But the decision on Kansas statehood becomes a political football in Congress, and its application stagnates. Now, here’s a question: what you do you think Senator Douglas does?
—Why do you ask?
Here’s the thing: If Douglas accepts Lecompton, he compromises his reputation as an honest broker, especially since he’s a senator from a non-slave state. But if he rejects Lecompton, he angers the people with whom he made is deal.
—Sounds like a no-win situation.
It is, Em. Turns out the Little Giant might have been too clever by half.
—So what does he do?
—What would you do?
—I’d probably reject the deal. I mean, I’m like Kylie in that I think slavery is wrong. But just on the politics, it’s a bad idea to push what you’re saying was a bad deal.
Well, that’s what Douglas said, too, Em.
—I guess that makes me a giant too, then.
Well, maybe; you're certainly taller than he is. But both of you just got a whole lot less electable as president. Still, there’s hopeafter you get re-elected to the Senate.
—Will that be hard?
Hard to say. Depends how easy it will be to minimize opposition to his candidacy. But there is a guy who wants to run who worries Douglas a little bit.
—What’s his name?
Abraham Lincoln.
—Oh, him again.
Next: Dred’s prospects

Friday, December 2, 2016

King's Survey: Testing Patience

In which we wonder how much responsibility we have to uphold bad laws
800px-Harriet_Tubman_Civil_War_Woodcut
Harriet Tubman

OK, kids, so where are we?
—Well, you just finished the Compromise of 1850. You said it was a deal for “peace in our time.”
—But we know that it wasn’t true because there was a Civil War.
—Also, you said there was one part of the Compromise that you didn’t want to get into, but said that you would later.
I’m impressed, gang: you’ve retained a lot. Should I go ahead and give you that quiz I promised right now?
—I think you’re drawing the wrong moral from this story, Mr. K. We’re so quick and smart that you should see that we don’t need that quiz. You can just go ahead and forget about it.
You know, Emily, you’re right. I’m going to cancel that quiz.
—He’s joking, right Em?
No, Kylie, I’m not. Em is right. We don’t need that quiz. I’ll put off an assessment until later and I’ll do it in the form of an essay. I was thinking about doing that anyway.
—An essay? What’s the question?
The question will be “What was the Civil War?”
—“What was the Civil War?” What kind of question is that?
Well, Sadie, I hope it’s a good one.
—It seems impossibly broad, Mr. K. How on earth are we supposed to answer a question like that?
Well, it’s a matter of deciding what kind of event you think the Civil War was. An inevitable conflict? Something for which one side or the other was to blame? (Who? How so?) Was it tragic, unnecessary? I’m basically asking you to synthesize information and distill it to what you think its essence is.
—Oh my God that sounds so complicated.
I understand you find it daunting, Sadie. I want you to be a little afraid—not indifferent, not very afraid, but a little afraid. But it’s something you can do. In fact, you do it all the time. Someone will ask you “What’s he like?” or “How was it?” and you’ll think for a moment and then give an answer that sorts through lots of details and renders what you think is most important. (“He’s a jerk.” “It was great until the end, when this thing happened that led me to question the value of the whole thing.”) My goal is to help you get better at performing this useful skill, something you do without but something you can get better at when you do think and get in the habit of thinking.
—I dunno, Mr. K. It still seems really hard.
Well, you have time to think about it—and to you can keep it in mind as we go forward. But let me get back to our main storyline.
So as Ethan pointed out, I didn’t get into one key provision of the Compromise of 1850, and that was the new fugitive slave law. As you know (as I hope you remember), there was a fugitive slave provision in the Constitution “shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”
—That sounds kinda confusing and vague.
It was meant to be. The Founding Fathers didn’t like to talk about slavery, and as you’ll recall, the word isn’t even in the Constitution. But however elliptical, the meaning of these words is reasonably clear. But it’s also clear that there wasn’t all that much effort to enforce them, especially after the efforts of the Underground Railroad intensified. But this new law was different. It had real teeth.
—How so?
Allow me to illustrate. Adam, you are an escaped slave. Yin, you are Harriet Tubman.
—Really? Me? I’m so honored, Mr. K.
—Who is Harriet Tubman?
—Really, Jonah? You’ve never heard of her? She’s going to be on the $20 bill.
—Oh yeah, her.
Harriet Tubman was a legendary conductor on the Underground Railroad. She helped hundreds of fugitive slaves escape to freedom. And she’s helping Adam. Actually, she’s squired him to Brianna’s house. Brianna is harboring a fugitive in her attic. Now as it turns out, Kylie lives next door. Now, we all know that Brianna is breaking the law. And what she’s doing has been against the law since 1789. But under the new law, if Kylie knows what Brianna and Harriet Tubman are doing, and she says nothing, the local authorities can arrest her.
—Wow. Harsh.
Well, yes, Ethan. But these are the times in which we live. Rampant criminality. Bad things happen when people stand aside and let evildoers triumph, am I right?
—I really don’t think that’s fair.
Why not, Kylie? If Jonah was cheating on that quiz I’m no longer giving you, wouldn’t you have a moral obligation to report him to me or the assistant principal?
—You mean tell on him?
—Don’t be a rat, Kylie!
—I don’t think it’s right for me to tell on other people, Mr. K.
Hmmm. So if you saw someone committing a crime, you would just look the other way?
—I dunno. But I think this is different.
Why?
—Because I don’t think what Harriet Tubman is doing is wrong.
You don’t, huh? Do you think as a citizen you should be deciding which laws you should and shouldn’t follow?
—I don’t think I should look the other way if someone is murdering someone.
What about if someone is stealing something?
—But this is not some “thing.” This is some one.
Kylie, are you an abolitionist? Are you one of those Garrisonian crazies?
—I don’t know if I’m one of those crazies. I don’t know if they’re actually crazy. But I do think slavery is wrong.
—Yeah, my problem is that even if you don’t think slavery is wrong, they’re going too far. I think this law is going too far.
466px-Anthony_Burns_1
Anthony Burns poster
Well, Adam, so much for your assigned role as escaped slave that I gave you a minute ago. But the truth is that you’re making an important point. There were a lot of people—my guess is the majority of the American people—didn’t care all that much about slavery. But a lot of them really did feel like this law was going too far. The phrase “the Slave Power” became more widespread: people feeling that a powerful minority was imposing its will on the majority, including those who saw themselves as having no stake in the controversy. This really intensified the tension. When an escaped slave in Boston named Anthony Burns was ordered to be returned to slavery after a long legal case that culminated in 1854, there were large demonstrations to prevent that. Federal troops had be brought in to take him back (supporters eventually bought his freedom).

The Fugitive Slave Act also led a little woman to write a really big book.
—What was it called?
It was called Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It was the Harry Potter of the 19th century—but Harry Potter with politics. Huge bestseller. Actually, think Harry Potter and Star Wars combined. Like those blockbusters, it became a multimedia thing—plays, songs, posters and the like.
—What was it about?
Well, like those examples I gave you, it had a bunch of different plot lines. But the key one was that of a selfless Christian slave named Tom, who sacrifices himself for the greater good.
—Does he lead a slave revolt?
No. Actually, he’s very close to his slave family.
—Sounds icky.
It does, Sadie, which is one reason why the phrase “Uncle Tom” became a byword for embarrassingly subservient African Americans. But the book was more complicated to that. Actually, in an important sense, Tom is a man after Kylie’s heart. He dies because he refuses to reveal the illegal behavior of slaves who have run away; he’s beaten to death for this by Simon Legree, an evil slaveholder from Vermont. (Worst of all worlds: Yankee capitalist rapaciousness in a ruthless Southern slave driver.) The most insightful man in the book is the kindly Augustus St. Clare, a Louisiana slaveholder, who’s emotionally crushed (as is Tom) by the death of his angelic daughter Eva in one of the most famous scenes in American literature. They have a New England relative who says all the right things about slavery but is reflexively racist. So the author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, strived for a balanced picture. As well as a strong storyline.
—Was it as popular as The Scarlet Letter, which we just read in English?
Ha! Nathaniel Hawthorne could only wish for the kind of audience Stowe had. The kind of book you read in English class today are not really what as popular back then. Everybody—and I do mean everybody—knew Uncle Tom’s Cabin for over fifty years after it was published. It was also a staple of the early film industry.
—So why did it fade out?
Well, Sadie already indicated why: the politics of the book became too old-fashioned. But in a larger sense it faded because pretty much everything does. In the words of one of my favorite rock stars of my youth, Elvis Costello “You may not be an old-fashioned girl, but you’re gonna get dated.”
—Not me. I’m not getting dated.
—Oh no, Em. Not you. Not ever.
—You’re already an old man, Adam.
Now, now, kids. You’ll always be young in my heart.
Next: The PopSov Bubble

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

King's Survey: Compromising Situation, 1850

Compromise1850map

In which we view a nation teetering on the edge, and pulling back (for the moment)  

OK, kids. So I think we need to take a little stock of where we are in the United States of America in the Year of Our Lord 1850. Texas is securely in the Union as a slave state. The Mexican War is over. Gold has been discovered in the newly acquired territory of California. It appears that the manifest destiny of the nation is indeed to stretch from sea to shining sea, and amid a booming economy, there are efforts afoot to stitch it together with an transcontinental railroad. You might say things really couldn’t be better.
And yet the national mood is miserable. Tell me why.
—Because of slavery.
Yes, Jonah. But what about it?
—Well, people can’t agree on it.
Agree on what?
—Where it will go.
Yes: where it will go. You make a very important point. Where slavery is—and isn’t—is regarded as settled. The argument is over the future of slavery. Proslavery advocates are becoming more and more convinced that the peculiar institution, as it’s known, must expand, which is why they’re hatching schemes like taking over Cuba or founding a colony in Nicaragua. Antislavery activists are becoming more and more convinced that it must not. Both agree, largely implicitly, that if slavery stops growing it will die. There are also some curious tensions, contradictions, hypocrisies. As we discussed, proslavery advocates have long been suspicious of national government power for any reason except the protection of slavery, because they fear that power could be used to regulate or destroy it. Antislavery advocates have generally favored a stronger federal government, except when it comes to things like enforcing the return of fugitive slaves. The effect of all of this has been gridlock: it’s getting harder and harder to get anything done.
—Maybe we need a war.
Now Ethan, that’s really offensive. War talk is sensational and inappropriate. I demand that you apologize right now, young man.
—Are you serious?
—Really, Ethan. Don’t you know by now when Mr. K. is in drama mode?
I have no idea what Emily is talking about, Ethan, but I do apologize. I guess I just got carried away. It’s just that there’s been so much irresponsible talk lately. All the abolitionists on one side, fire-eaters on the other. People tend to forget that both sides are really minority voices. Most of us don’t care about slavery one way or another. We just want peace!
—Fire-eaters?
—Probably means proslavery people.
—Sounds like Harry Potter.
—Cool term.
—Cool fire-eaters. Brilliant, Jonah.
So what are we going to do, kids? How can we break the gridlock?
—I have no clue. But I have a hunch you’re about to tell us.
HenryClay
Henry Clay
Well, yes, I am. But first I want to bring back our old friend Henry Clay.

—Jeez, Mr. K. You’re obsessed with that guy.
Yeah, well, Em, a lot of us are. But in 1850, Henry Clay is an old man. He’s been dominant force in American politics for over forty years. He’s an antislavery slaveholder from agrarian Kentucky who seeks to promote the industrial revolution
—That doesn’t make any sense.
What? You're confused by the notion of an agrarian industrialist?
—Nevermind that. Antislavery slaveholder?
Well, he’s not an abolitionist, for God’s sake, Em. Yes, he owns slaves. But he’s looking forward to the day when slavery is gone.
—What a hypocrite. How can you be for something and against something at the same time?
Kylie, are you an environmentalist?
—Me? Sure.
Then why are you drinking whatever that is from a plastic bottle? You say you’re in favor of saving the environment at the very moment you’re destroying the environment!
—Oh, c’mon, Mr. K. That’s unfair to Kylie. You’re being ridiculous.
Am I, Em? Or am I simply pointing out that people are complicated?
—No. You’re just being ridiculous.
So says a former supporter of Andrew Jackson. I know where you’re coming from Em.
—You are impossible.
Why thank you, Emily. Anyway, Henry Clay is old, and he’s dying, but he’s still a patriot. And he’s been thinking very hard about what might save the country from disintegrating. He’s put together an interlocking series of proposals known as the omnibus bill.
—What does omnibus mean?
—Isn’t it like a bus?
In a way, yes. “Omnibus” basically means multiple. Like kids on a school bus. The idea here is Clay’s bill consists of a set of proposed laws. If you vote in favor of it, you get the whole thing. It will have stuff you like, but also stuff you don’t.
— Like a streaming service. You pay for all the shows, but only watch some.
—Or a combination plate at a food court. You get a good price on the whole thing, even if you don’t eat everything.
Right. Clay figures that’s the only way to get the job done. In a spirit of a compromise. Here are the highlights of the bill:
  1. California comes into the Union as a free state.
  2. The slave trade ends in Washington DC (a lot of people really hated the fact that slaves were bought and sold in the nation’s capital).
  3. There’s a new stronger fugitive slave law. I’ll talk about this in more detail later.
  4. Rather than decide now what will happen to the Utah and New Mexico territories (a whole bunch of future states there, but not for a long time—Arizona, for instance, doesn’t enter the Union until 1912a new principle, known as “popular sovereignty” will be used to determine whether such states will be slave or free. The voters will choose rather than Congress deciding.
  So, what do you think?
—The first two ideas seem to favor the North. The third one the South. The last one breaks even. So the overall law seems pro-Northern.
A reasonable assessment, Ethan. But point number three is a big one. Again, I don’t want to get into it right now. But suffice it to say that in Clay’s mind, at least, the overall package was truly balanced. What do you think, Sadie?
—Sounds reasonable. Does it work?
No.
—Oh. Why not?
Well, that’s complicated, by which I mean you ask ten people you’ll get ten different answers. I will tell you that old man John Calhoun, who had been at it as long as Henry Clay and was in fact on death’s door, told his fellow Southerners to reject the bill, and he had a lot of influence in the Senate. Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts—remember him? We talked about the big speech he gave, “Liberty and Union, now and forever” a while back—came out in favor of the bill, and got a lot of grief over it. Clay was known as “the Great Compromiser”—remember, he’s the guy who got the Compromise of 1820, a.k.a. the Missouri Compromise through Congress—but he just couldn’t summon the old magic.
—So what happened next?
Stephen_A_Douglas_private_collection
Stephen A. Douglas
What happened next is counter-intuitive. Remember that the whole basis of Clay’s approach was compromise: you take a little, you give a little. He assumed the bill had to work as a package. But in the aftermath of the vote, another senator came forward, a younger man named Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. (You haven’t heard the last of him.) Douglas was a Jacksonian Democrat. But like Clay, he considered himself a patriot. What he did was break up the Omnibus Bill into separate pieces. An he got them passed one by one.


—How did he do that?
A very good question, Yin. The short answer is horse trading. So take the California piece for example. He’d go do you, a Southern senator, and say: Hey, I know you hate this bill. But if you pass it, I’ll make sure you get that bridge you want for your state. Or the railroad going through your town. That kind of thing. It was very complicated, and exhausting, but it worked. And before the year was over, President Millard Fillmore—the non-entity who followed the forgettable Zachary Taylor, who died a few weeks into office—signed the Compromise of 1850 into law.
—So what happened then?
Peace in our time, of course. Crisis averted.
—Well, we know that didn’t happen. So what went wrong? Who blew it?
Stephen A. Douglas did. But a few things had to happen before he could. We’ll get to them.
—Such drama!
All in a day’s work, kids.
The compromised compromise

Monday, November 28, 2016

King's Survey: Runaway Policy (II)

In which we see that one man’s crime wave is another woman’s path to freedom. (Note: this is the second of two posts on the subject, which can be read independently or as a pair.)
The_Underground_Railroad_by_Charles_T._Webber,_1893
Charles T. Webber, "The Underground Railroad" (1893)

O.K. kids. So we’ve been looking at the issue of runaway slaves, and whether on not we need a stronger fugitive slave law, from the point of view of slave owners. Now let’s shift our gaze to those who aren’t. Chris, we’ll start with you. Your name is Joshua Freeman, and you live in Toronto. Actually that’s your name now. Previously you were known as Cicero. You lived on Robert Baron’s plantation in Mississippi. How does it feel, Chris, to be living in freedom.
—Pretty good. Cold, though. This place is freezing.
—Yeah, well, Mississippi was hotter than hell, wasn’t it, Chris? I mean Cicero. I mean…
Joshua Freeman. By the way, what to you make of that name?
—Duh. “Freeman.” Real subtle, Mr. K.
Fair enough, Emily. But what about “Joshua”? Anybody know where that comes from?
—The Bible?
Well, yes. But where in the Bible? Does anybody know?
Nobody? Ouch. Here’s a hint. Think Book of Exodus.
—Oh, well, now it’s obvious! Book of Exodus! Of course!
You have no idea.
Correct.
Ugh. You’ve heard of Moses, yes?
—Yeah. Promised Land.
Right. But here’s the thing: Moses never actually made it to the Promised Land. God wouldn’t let him go. That job was given to Moses’s successor, whose name was….
—Joshua.
Brilliant.
—Heavy on the symbolism there, Mr. K.
Hey, it isn’t me. Joshua Freeman himself chose the name. He’s a devout member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Cicero here has been reborn a free man. Seems only natural to give himself a new name. Right, Mr. Freeman?
—Whatever you say, Mr. K.
Well, I admit, I have been saying a lot. Let’s get some other voices in here. Brianna, you’re Robert Baron. How do you feel knowing that your former slave has escaped to Canada?
—Hey. Fine with me. Truth is, I was never comfortable with the slave owner thing you assigned me.
I understand. But we all have roles to play, Mr. Baron. And we don’t always get to choose what they are.
—Yeah, well, I want to write my own play.
A good idea. Go right ahead. Let me turn my attention here to Emily, who is actually Charity Wright of Cincinnati, a member of the American Tract Society, which as we all know publishes religious tracts by the millions (Cincinnati, by the way is an important publishing center in the United States). Miss Wright, we all know you to be a shy, retiring soul. So we’re glad you’re willing to talk with us.
—That’s me. Ms. Shy.
Well no, that’s Miss Wright. How long have you been a member of the ATS?
—Oh, I reckon twenty years now.
I had no idea it was that long.
—Well, you wouldn’t now, would you. I look very young and beautiful, I know.
Indeed. However there is something about you I do know, Miss Wright, that I’m now going to reveal to the class: you are a conductor for the Underground Railroad!
Go ahead kids, you can gasp.
—Oh!

—I’m horrified!
—I’m impressed!
—What’s a conductor for the Underground Railroad?
Good question. If you walk into the main parlor of Miss Wright’s Cincinnati home, you’ll see a rug in the middle of the floor. Lift that rug, and you’ll see a panel you can pull up. It leads to a small cellar with a bed, shelves, and a chamber pot.
—What’s a chamber pot?
—A place to pee.
—Or poop.
None other than our friend Joshua Freeman made a stop at Charity Wright’s home on his way from Mississippi to Toronto. Anything you want to say to Miss Wright, Mr. Freedman?
—Thanks.
That’s it? This woman risked her life for you.
—Thanks a lot.
—That’s all right, Mr. K. I’ll send him a bill.
Well, Mr. Freeman’s wife is pregnant. Maybe she’ll have a daughter and name her “Charity.” In any case, you’re among friends here, Miss Wright. We won’t reveal your identity as a conductor, as we know you want to continue freeing slaves.
Keeping a low profile is not a goal for our friend Jonquil, who we will now know as Fred Burns. Mr. Burns is a Garrisonian abolitionist, which is to say that he’s a follower of William Lloyd Garrison, a militant opponent of slavery. Back in 1844, a mere four years ago, Mr. Garrison stood on the steps of Faneuil Hall in Boston and burned a copy of the Constitution, saying Massachusetts should not belong to a Union of slaveholders. You were there, weren’t you, Mr. Burns?
—Yeah, I was.
And you endorse these radical views? You would secede from this Union?
—Yes, I would. Slavery is evil.
Hmmm. Miss Wright, I wonder what you make of Mr. Burns. Do you endorse his radical views?
—As we all know, I’m sby and retiring. But yes, I agree with Mr. Burns.
—Damn straight. I’m down with Burns.
No shock there, Mr. Freeman. Ah, I see Mr. Evinrude has something to say. As you will recall, kids, Sadie is this small farmer from Missouri.
—I am sickened by this extremism. No respect for authority. They keep this up and there will be a Civil War.
—Calm down, honey. No need to get excited.
Glad to see Mrs. Evinrude try to calm you, sir.
—Shut up, woman!
—Hank! I am your wife! Treat me with respect!
—Sorry, sweetheart. It’s just that these abolitionists get me so mad sometimes.
—I understand. They are perfectly awful. Miss Wright, you should be ashamed of yourself. Breaking the law by helping the slaves escape. It’s wrong, gosh darn it!
—Gosh darn it? I think marrying this guy has messed up your brain, Kylie—I mean Mrs. Evinrude.
All right, all right no more name calling. We have one other person to hear from. And that’s Adam, also known as Alphonius Green. Mr. Green runs a New York insurance brokerage with a large Southern clientele.
—Alphonius? What kind of name is Alphonius?
It rhymes with “felonious.”
—What does “felonious” mean?
It means “criminal.” But never mind that. Mr. Green, you issue insurance policies to slaveholders that pays them back if their slaves run away. I wonder if you would be in favor of a stronger fugitive slave law.
—Of course.
And why would that be?
—It’s obvious. Runaway slaves cost me money.
Would it be fair to say, Mr. Green, that you are a New Yorker with Southern views?
—I’m a New Yorker with money views.
Understood. It has been estimated that forty cents of every cotton dollar comes through New York City. New York banks lend slaveholders money. New York newspapers take advertising for lost slaves. New York shipping houses arrange for the transportation of cotton across the ocean to Great Britain. And of course New York brokerages like yours insure slaves. Under such circumstances, Mr. Green, do you think slavery will ever end?
—Not if I have anything to say about it.
There you have it kids. But one more voice. Yin here is Mary Deed, a free black woman from Philadelphia. Hello, Mary.
—Hello.
Mary, I understand your family has lived in Philadelphia for for many generations.
—That’s right.
And what do you do for a living, Mary?
—I’m a teacher. I teach Negro children.
Wonderful. We’ll give you the last word, Mary. What should we do about a fugitive slave law?
—Nothing.
Next: Compromising situation