In which we see a crime wave involving property with a distressing tendency to go underground and run away
Brianna, your name is Robert Baron. It’s 1849, you have a plantation in Mississippi and you own 200 slaves. You’re one of the great planters in the state, and your mansion, Twelve Oaks, is regarded as among the most beautiful. You’re legendary for your hospitality.
—Oh that’s just great. I’m so proud.
Well, I can understand your enthusiasm. A lot of people think you have reason to proud. After all, you came to this county thirty years ago with little more than a strong back. You worked hard, saved up some money, and used it to buy a farm. When the farm started to prosper, you bought slaves. As you continued to succeed, you added land, and slaves, and, eventually, overseers. Your shrewd investments have made you rich. Your friends call you a self-made man.
—More like a self-made slaveholder.
As you wish. Of course, part of what makes you successful is the way you take care of the small things, because the small things, good and bad, have a way of becoming big things. And right now you have a small problem that seems to be growing larger. That problem is runaway slaves.
—Can’t imagine why that would be a problem.
Well, a lot of your friends would agree with you. You’re known as a kind master. Your slaves are well fed and housed. You’ve instructed your overseers not to use force unless they really need to—not like those “white trash” types, wretched brutes who, drunk with power, are prone to crack the whip (one reason why they’re known as “crackers”). Actually, there’s some speculation that your slaves are running away because you’re too kind to them.
—Well of course I am. We slaveholders are a very, very gentle group of people.
Not sure I can agree with you there. Seems to me there are two types: slaveholders who regard, and treat, their slaves as savages, and those who treat them as children. You apparently fall into the latter camp. Of course, in the end, I’m not sure how much it matters. Some would say that the real problem is abolitionist agitators who keep making noise and whispering in the ears of northern negroes, who of course whisper into the ears of the ones down here. That’s bad enough. What’s even worse is this so-called Underground Railroad, which actively aids and abets runaway slaves through a series of checkpoints and safe houses until they reach Canada, where they can’t be retrieved. It’s rumored that Paolo here—a.k.a. Robin Capeheart—is a member of the Underground Railroad, though we can’t prove that. Would you care to comment, Robin Capeheart?
Didn’t think so. You folks keep a low profile.
But let me turn back to you, Robert Baron. Clearly, you have a problem. What do you think the best way is to deal with that problem?
—Free the slaves.
Well, for one thing, you’ll go broke. Your whole economic way of life is leveraged on slavery.
—Fine. I’ll go broke.
Which brings us to the second problem. You can’t free your slaves by going broke. They’ll be sold to settle your debts (that’s what happened to Thomas Jefferson, and why George Washington was so ruthless about keeping his finances in good order so that he could free his slaves when he died, something he knew would anger his relatives). I hear the slaveholder down the road is legendary in his severity. You want him to get yours?
—Well then I’ll help them escape.
Good luck with that. A runaway slave is one thing; a clutch of them another. But you really think 200 runaways are going to go unnoticed? Or a steady stream that you release gradually? And who do you think your fellow slaveholders are going to blame when they find out ? How do you think they’re likely to treat a peer who does something like that? Friends, I’m afraid Robert Baron isn’t thinking too clearly. He needs help. Does anyone else have a suggestion?
—I think he needs you to turn her into an abolitionist.
Huh. Funny how that didn’t happen. My magical powers are curiously limited. Who woulda thunk Brianna's classroom destiny would be a plantation owner named Robert Baron? Chalk it up to the ironies of history, I guess. As it turns out, we do have abolitionists in the room.
Yes. A couple. We’ll get to them. But first we need to come up with a proposal to assist poor Robert Baron. Channel your inner slaveholder, kids. What will help him?
Hmmm. A fascinating idea. Elaborate, Sadie. Or, should I say, Hank Evinrude.
Yes. You’re a small farmer in Missouri. You don’t own slaves—yet. But you have your dreams, just like Robert Baron. You clearly think law enforcement would be a good approach. Here’s the problem with that: when slaves run away, they don’t stay within state lines. They in fact cross a bunch of them on their way to Canada. So local sheriffs, or even state ones, aren’t really a solution, because of the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which protects states' rights. There is a fugitive slave provision in the Constitution that says errant property has to be returned, but clearly that isn’t working. So maybe we need a new federal law, a national approach to this crime wave.
—Sounds good to me.
I imagine it does. There is wee bit of a problem, in that Southerners like yourself don’t typically like a powerful federal government. But I guess in this case you’re willing to make an exception.
Can’t resist asking: how does your wife, Kylie, a.k.a. Amanda Evinrude, who’s sitting right next to you, feel about this fugitive slave law idea?
—My wife doesn’t trouble her pretty little head about politics.
—Oh, Hank is right. I always do whatever he says, the way a woman should.
—That’s right, my dear.
Well, Mrs. Evinrude, there are some who say that slavery is wrong, and that since a woman is the repository of moral values in any household, she has an obligation to speak out for what is right. What do you say about that idea?
—Well, like Hank says, I stay out of politics.
But I’m not talking politics. I’m talking morality. Do you believe slavery is wrong?
—Look, Mister, whoever you are. Leave my wife alone!
My apologies, Mr. Evinrude. I didn’t mean to be too aggressive. I was just trying to ask a question I know has multiple answers. There are those who say that slavery violates Christian teachings. And there are those who say that the Bible sanctions it. Saint Paul said, “Masters, obey your slaves.” In the Old Testament, Ham sees his father, Noah, naked, and God condemns his heirs to be servants. But I will respect your and Mrs. Evinrude’s wishes. Maybe this would be a good time to turn our attention to Jonah, who we will now know as Frank Berger. Frank is a farmer not far from Hank Evinrude. Hank, as I mentioned, is in Missouri. But Frank here comes from the other side of the Missouri River in Kansas. He doesn’t own slaves. Missouri is a slave state. But is Kansas?
—I think that’s a trick question.
Excellent, Ethan. Now tell me why.
—Because Kansas isn’t a state at all, Ethan.
—What do you mean?
—He asked if Kanas is a slave state or a free state. You’d think that it would have to be one or the other. But if he also said it’s a trick question, it means it isn’t a state at all.
Bravo, Adam! Excellent reasoning. So if Kansas isn’t a state, what is it?
Correct. Have a look at this map, which shows the Kansas territory. Based on what you know, do you think Kansas is positioned to be a free slate or a slave state?
—Hmmm. That’s a tough one.
What did you say, Yin?
—There’s the Missouri Compromise, right? Kansas is above the line, so it’s free.
Well, well, well. You kids really are cooking with gas!
—Cooking with gas? What the hell is that supposed to mean?
It’s an old expression from about 60 years ago, Emily. I like it, but I never really have occasion to use it.
—Mr. K., you are a serious dork.
Thank you very much. OK, back to Frank Berger. Mr. Berger, you don’t own slaves, and it doesn’t look like you’re going to be able to. How much does that matter to you.
—I dunno. Not much, I guess. I guess if it did I’d move to Missouri or something.
Makes sense to me. So if you don’t have slaves, but Hank Evinrude across the border gets them, how are you going to feel about that?
—Well, I don’t like slavery, I think it’s wrong, but it looks like it isn’t any of my business.
Funny you should say that. Because while you’re a farmer, you are also, to some degree, in business. You raise food for yourself, but you hope to raise more than you need so you can sell it. And you may be able to run the farm for yourself, but chances are there will be times you’re going to need help—for getting in the harvest, for example. How are you going to do that?
—Hire someone, I guess.
Probably. Here’s the thing: If Hank has slaves, he doesn’t have to hire anybody. And he doesn’t have to pay anybody. Think about Robert Baron with all those slaves. He doesn’t pay any of them. Gives him a pretty big advantage, dontcha think?
—Well, if you put it that way, I guess it does.
Frank Berger, there are more and more people who are coming to the same conclusion. As you said, guys like you don’t like slavery, though you haven’t really felt you can (or, in truth, want to) do much about it. But now you’re more and more concerned about the economic problem with slavery, the way it gives a big advantage to the people who have a chunk of cash they can use to buy their way out of the labor market. In a way, the objection to the slaveholders is a little like contemporary objections to bankers and other kinds of big businessmen, who can use their access to money to set up a system that really makes it hard for the little guy.
—Yeah, but isn’t it expensive to buy the slaves, and then feed and house them? A person who hires workers doesn’t have to worry about that.
That’s true, Adam. As a matter of fact, it’s actually quite difficult to finally determine if slavery really pays or not as an economic system from the point of view of the people in power. There are lots of pros and cons, and there was a lively argument about this by the time the nation reached 1850.
But of course the argument over slavery wasn’t only an economic one. So the next thing we’re going to do is shift our gaze to those abolitionists I mentioned.
Let’s weigh how good.
Next: The other side of the runaway problem