Tuesday, January 20, 2009

We promise not to look at their tails or incisors when they come into company - Emerson on the Fugitive Slave Law

"We shall never feel well again until that detestable law is nullifed in Massachusetts & until the Government is assured that once and for all it cannot & shall not be executed here. All I have, and all I can do shall be given & done in opposition to the execution of the law." (p. 420)

This is Emerson on the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Emerson's journals contain plenty of politics, mostly regarding abolitionism, but nothing before 1850 had got him so worked up. Emerson in His Journals, the selection I'm reading, has five pages, basically all of April and May 1851, of nothing but anger and bitterness and first-rate rhetoric.

Note that the use of the word "nullified" is pretty radical, a reference to the Nullification Crisis, when it seemed possible that President Jackson would use the Federal military to enforce a tariff law in South Carolina. Emerson is playing with the idea of the breakup of the United States. He's prescient, and in despair.

"Let Mr Webster for decency's sake shut his lips once & forever on this word. The word liberty in the mouth of Mr Webster sounds like the word love in the mouth of a courtezan." (p. 421)

Senator Webster was not just a hero of Emerson's - Emerson thought Webster was a Carlyle-style Great Man of History. But not after Webster supported the compromise that included the Fugitive Slave Act:

"Against this all the arguments of Webster make no more impression than the spray of a child's squirt. The fame of Webster ends in this nasty law." (p. 422)

Unususally scatological for Emerson. He may have had Jonathan Swift on his mind. Here he is a few days later, playing with Swift's "Modest Proposal" - slavery is cannibalism, and slave-owners are devils:

"It was a little gross, the taste for boiling babies, but as long as this kind of cookery was confined within their own limits, we could agree for other purposes, & wear one flag... though they had tails, & their incisors were a little long, yet it is settled that they shall by courtesy be called men; we will make believe they are Christians; & we promise not to look at their tails or incisors when they come into company." (p. 423)

Emerson here acknowledges that slavery was an evil with which he had to some degree made his peace - as long as it was kept down there. The Fugitive Slave Law returned the evil to his hearth, and shook him out of his complacency. His journals are rarely so fiery. This reminds me of what I was trying to say about Roberto Bolaño. Emerson is forcing himself to gauge his own hypocrisy. How unpleasant and difficult; how often do I do that?

Perhaps often enough, actually. Too much of that sort of thing and a person could hardly function. Tomorrow, then, Emerson the comedian.

All page references are to Emerson in His Journals, 1982, ed. Joel Porte.

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