In which we wonder how much responsibility we have to uphold bad laws
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.
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.
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.
—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.
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.
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