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Monday, April 14, 2014

12 Years a Slave- Reading Through Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe

Solomon Northup Kidnapped and Held As a Slave 1841-1853
In the beginning of this film  when drugged and kidnapped, Northup protests that he is a free man. He is accused by the auctioneers of being a runaway. He is not but perhaps they do think he is. There is no reason for these sleazy businessmen to believe him, to check to see if he is in fact a free man. That would take time eh. And a lot of money is at stake. So why would they let him go even if they believed him.

My perception always has a Foucault default. I am reading Richard Cote The Life of Dolley Madison, a sort of very readable biography of Dolley with lots of pictures of her homes in Philadelphia just a few blocks from where I used to live so that's why I picked up the book. 

It begins with her ancestry which was Quaker. Her father was disturbed by the fact that he owned slaves to work his plantation in Virginia. About 50 of them. He had converted to the Society of Friends after he married Mary Coles who had been disowned by the Quakers for marrying him, an Anglican. He becomes more Quaker than a Quaker as converts often are wont to do. And his conscience is troubled by the fact that he owns slaves. 

In 1760 in Virginia the Law as passed by the Virginia House of Burgesses read "that it was illegal to emancipate a slave in Virginia except by Government act. Virginia Quakers and their meetings could oppose slaveholding and support emancipation, but they were prohibited by law from freeing their slaves. If a slave was freed, by a Quaker or anyone else, he or she could be captured and sold as a runaway."

A paragraph that a reader could read and continue on to the next page. But with Foucault on default it stops you in your tracks. Foucault spent his life in archives reading tattered papers, partly illegible to uncover statements like this. It is a colonial law of the colony of Virginia. There are certainly similar laws in Alabama,Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, etc. But this is Virginia, the place where Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe all have family plantations with enslaved workers. 

That's 4 out of 5 of our first presidents, all from Virginia, all with family plantations going back to the 17th century. Yes we know they are racists but that is the tip of the iceberg here.

The Law reads what you can't do. You can't free your slave. Assuming you are a decent person if you want to free your slave, what are the consequences if you do this. Capturing/kidnapping and being resold to the highest bidder, and very likely a far worse situation from which you are freed. 

This Law also has an emptiness. The only thing you are not allowed to do is FREE your slave. 

You can beat, maim, kill, rape, torture, breed, set dogs on, force fights to the death, well just about anything the perverse imagination can come up with, you can do. 

The only thing you can't do is FREE  this slave. And if you do this slave will never really be free. This slave will always be looking over her/his shoulder as there are stories of abductions and disappearances. 

Switching my reading to Zizek/Lacan, the Big Other owns the slave you think you own. If you can only free this slave by government approval, then you really don't own the slave, do you? The Big Other owns the slave you think you own. You can do all manner of evil to this slave, BUT YOU CANNOT FREE HER OR HIM! (p.64)

At the base of our legal system by 1760 is pure sophistry. A Law by Pharisees. It contains a poison pill. It puts the person of integrity in a CATCH-22 situation. Unable to keep a slave or free the slave. It forces hypocrisy. 

Now who is responsible for this law? Does anyone think that the largest plantation owners in Virginia, the Washingtons, Jeffersons, Madisons, and Monroes were innocent of this law? We know James Madison's grandfather served in the Virginia House of Burgesses from 1761-1769. He would have had to have known of this law. Who formulated it like this?

And why this law at this time? Foucault teaches to look at what else is going on. To look at the intersections of different "comings to be" and in this case it is the influx of Quakers from Pennsylvania to the Carolinas (liberal Constitution) and Virginia to farm large tracts of cheap land through the use of slave labor. Quaker meetings are not about listening to someone give a sermon. They involve silence and the necessity someone feels to speak to the group. So one can expect there were many raised discussions about slavery, and surely the well known founding fathers of the Anglican persuasion knew about these dissenting discussions.

Virginia was a bastion of slaveholding.  In 1765, the Quaker minister John Griffith wrote that "the life of religion is almost lost where slaves are numerous....the practice being as contrary to the spirit of Christianity as light is to darkness." (p. 64) By 1769 the Paynes had come to believe that slaveholding was morally indefensible.  Three months after the Declaration of Independence was signed, John Payne, Dolley's father freed one of his slaves in a formal declaration leaving no doubt as to his intent. Then he freed the rest of them. In defiance of Virginia Law. 

But the legal tide began to change. In  1782 manumission became legally permissible. In Virginia.  Notice the wording. You are now permitted to free your slaves, meaning that someone who really owns them gives you that permission, the Big Other. of Lacan. (Only in Virginia that I know of. A liberal state.A great genealogical research topic for someone.)

The Virginia Legislature passed a law that gave all slaveowners the power to emancipate their slaves by will after death, "or by acknowledging the will while still alive, in open court, provided they agreed to support all the aged, infirm, and young persons thus set at liberty.  (p.68) And here we have another poison pill, another Catch-22 eh. Legally they cannot be kidnapped, captured and resold but of course it went on up to 100 years later - Solomon Northup. And how could a farmer, no matter how wealthy, take on the feeding, sheltering and care of so many people having lost a free labor force. John Payne tried sharecropping with the ones that stayed with him but that was not profitable for either the freed slaves or the former owner.

The great wealth of plantations depended completely on slave labor. Without the slaves the wealth was gone. 

Is it not wickedly ironic that the two areas of Western Civilization that produced democracy - Athens and the North American colonies - also produced the intellectual leisure of enough men to imagine freedom, buying the time for this by slave labor.

At the structural base of our judicial Law lies a terrible contradiction embedded in it. The Sophistry of a Law contradicted by its inability to be enacted and enforced properly. This is the reality. The word racism only conceals this deeper dirty little secret. (p.68)

And beyond this lies the REAL - the invisible REAL - of Zizek thinking through Lacan. Invisible is the early capitalism that inspires this disastrous hypocrisy of subterfuge and deliberate lies. 

Who are the legislatures that couched these two laws in such duplicitous language? Did our "forefathers" aid them. Here's an example of Jefferson's thinking worthy of a subtle Jesuit or ancient Chinese wise man on where to have the capitol city. Philadelphia wanted it - but do not forget the Quakers were there (a danger) in great strength of wealth and numbers - New York also but it was a center of commerce. The Virginians wanted the new city on the Potomac and here's how Jefferson got a go on that:

In June 1790 Jefferson called a meeting with Madison and Hamilton in New York. They struck a deal. Hamilton had proposed that the federal government pay off the federal debt and assume the debts incurred by the separate states during the Revolution. Madison opposed this. Jefferson proposed that Hamilton get the Pennsylvanians to vote for a permanent capitol on the Potomac in exchange for locating it in Philadelphia for a decade. Madison should not object too strongly to the debt assumption bill. Jefferson got what he wanted. This is the same kind of thinking in the earlier slave laws eh. Give them something they want so you can get what you really want. (p.83)

Notice who was paying for this.

Is it any wonder that Cumberbatch's character did not free Northup but resold him. That Pitt's character was afraid to write the letter he promised he would.

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