Sunday, April 11, 2010

"And is This Massachusetts Liberty?" An Update [Anthony McCarthy]

Today’s paper carried what could be an update on my post yesterday, an account of one of the most shameful episodes in Boston history, the arrest of Thomas Sims and his return to slavery in 1851, fully authorized and executed with the full backing of the law. Since Newt Gingrich has proposed a return to that decade, maybe we should note what it with special attention to how the contemporary left acted. Passages have been put into bold by me,

Boston abolitionists were furious about the law, which they viewed as one of the great outrages in the history of the republic, and were perhaps even more furious that their own senator - Daniel Webster - had played a key role in crafting it. They vilified him, often personally, with the venom reserved for traitors and turncoats.

Yet despite its expressions of outrage, Boston's abolitionist community did little more than watch unhappily after Sims was captured on April 3. Higginson, urging some kind of militant action to free Sims, pronounced himself disgusted by his fellow citizens' unwillingness to act. A handful of individuals had tried in vain to spearhead rescue attempts - including a failed plot to help Sims escape by jumping from his open third-story window onto a pile of mattresses - but most of Boston's leading abolitionists took no concrete action.

During secret abolitionist meetings to discuss ways to free Sims, "where everyone present had to be identified and every window closed," Higginson wrote, passiveness, inertia, even timidity, prevailed. Most members discussed the fugitive slave's predicament in academic, even hypothetical tones. Even the redoubtable Garrison, who had railed against Daniel Webster in The Liberator and launched a petition against the senator, seemed more concerned about "preparing next week's editorial" than actually acting to rescue Sims. Brave pronouncements and a "dedication to the cause" filled the small room, Higginson declared, but the group could not bestir itself to actually do anything.

Legal efforts failed, too. A Massachusetts judge refused to rule the Fugitive Slave Law unconstitutional. Later, the court issued a certificate attesting that Sims was indeed the property of James Potter of Georgia, and identified the former slave as "a chattel personal to all intents, uses, and purposes whatsoever." The legal proceedings in the case were over. Despite Sims's protestations to his lawyer - "I will not go back to slavery" - he was ordered back to Georgia.

Thomas Sims was sent back to slavery by the city, state and the federal governments in the form of a large group of armed men in the early hours of the morning.

At about 4:15 a.m., police officers and volunteers assembled in the double-filed hollow square formation, and marched to the east door of the courthouse. "The dreaded moment was at hand," historian Leonard Levy wrote. "The authorities meant to sneak Sims back into slavery while the city slept. It was not the bravest way to uphold the constitution, but it was the safest."

Nearly 200 horrified abolitionists looked on as the main doors of the courthouse opened and a tearful Sims appeared. Abolitionists accompanied Sims and his armed guards down State Street, hissing and shouting "Shame!" and "Infamy!" but one witness noted that, even now, "no other attempt at disorder was made."

The entire mass finally arrived at Long Wharf, near the site of the Boston Tea Party, where once Colonists disguised as Indians had dumped tea into the harbor to protest oppression, the irony of which was not lost on the abolitionists. The brig Acorn, its sails unfurled, was ready for sea. The ship stood in the glimmer of dawn just breaking across Boston Harbor, prepared to transport its human cargo to Georgia.

As Sims was led to the Acorn's deck, a man standing on the wharf cried out, "Sims! Preach liberty to the slaves!" With the last words he uttered in Boston, Sims answered with a sharp rebuke to his captors: "And is this Massachusetts liberty?"

Within two minutes, at just after 5:00 a.m., the Acorn was moving.

Sims's capture and forced return were bad enough, but Boston abolitionists were further outraged when they received word one week after the fugitive's departure that, upon his arrival in Savannah, Sims was whipped in the public square. He was administered 39 lashes across his bare back.

Grief-stricken, former slave and prominent black abolitionist Frederick Douglass expressed his fury: "Let the Heavens weep and Hell be merry!"

That is how the decade Newt Gingrich proposes we relive started. Of course, it ended in up with the Civil War. A large difference between then and now is that the Union troops were largely experienced in the use of guns. I’m certain that a lot of the people reading this will be horrified by my pointing that out, but it is a real difference between the side that ended slavery then, and the side that would be defending freedom now. When it’s a matter of which side is armed and which side is not, that’s about as big a difference as you could possibly have. The Supreme Court, conservatives in the legislative and executive branches and the organized gun lobby have created the situation that fascists here have run with. We didn’t create it, but we would be insane to ignore that it is as real as can be.