Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Bloodhound Law

That's the new title of what we have been calling simply Fugitive Slave, the fourth show of our five-play series of productions commemorating the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  Kristine Thatcher is writing it--she's City Lit's associate director and part of the playwrights ensemble at Victory Gardens--and she emails to say this:

 I'm still figuring out the chess pieces, the characters who will roam at large.   One is certainly Stephen Douglas. (Amazing how his lame centrist stand led to his defeat for president.) Another is Edwin Larned who heard Douglas and came out of left-field to quelch his reasoning just a few days later. The problem, at the moment, is how to recreate the Common Counsel without 17 guys on stage. Don't worry, I won't do that to you.  .  . .  There is also Frederick Douglass, John Jones and Mary Richardson Jones (black citizens) who were in Chicago at the time, but didn't appear before the council, but who were sending folks to Canada as soon as they appeared on the doorstep. John and Mary had also entertained both Fred D. and John Brown in their living room. Mary thought John Brown was nuts!

The more I read about that particular and ugly law, the more I understand how far we've come. The more I read about the ugly law and even Abraham Lincoln's guarded response to it, the more I realize we haven't come far enough.

The play will revolve around a series of 1850 meetings by the Chicago Common Council regarding the passage by Congress of the Fugitive Slave Act, which attempted to help solve the slavery crisis in America by essentially legalizing the kidnapping of African Americans.  The Act, brokered through Congress by Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas eight years before he trounced Lincoln to win his third term, ended Chicago's role as an important final destination for escaped slaves and made Canada the only safe haven on the continent.  Prior to 1850, attempts by slaveowners to recover their escaped slaves were frequently thwarted by Northern communities who passed local laws requiring that the proceedings involve such notions as due process, jury trials and habeus corpus.  Many Northern juries cleared a runaway's route to freedom by the simple expedient of voting against the slavehunter, no matter what evidence had been presented in court. 

The Fugitive Slave Act fixed this problem by doing away with local authority in the matter and establishing a federal magistrate with sole power to hear and decide cases.  There was no jury, the African American in question was denied the right to testify, and cases were as often as not decided on the basis of the slavehunter's word.  To streamline the process further, the magistrate was paid ten dollars if he decided in favor of the slavehunter, but only five if he found for the African American.  The slavehunter--a bounty hunter with no incentive to make sure the person he seized was really the runaway he was sent to chase, as he'd be paid the same money for having grabbed a suitable replacement--could now apprehend any African American he chose, in any American community.  His infamous motto--"The right nigger if you can catch him, but any nigger will do"--had the effective protection of federal law.

Voting with Douglas in favor of the Act was Illinois's other senator, James Shields (after whom the avenue that runs past White Sox Park is named), and five of the state's seven-member House delegation.  Chicago in 1850 was strongly abolitionist, and had a growing middle-class African American community, many of them escaped slaves, who owned homes and ran businesses.  The Common Council passed a resolution by a vote of nine to three condemning the new law, calling on the Chicago police department not to render any assistance for its enforcement, and offering this character reference:  "Resolved, That the Senators and Representatives in Congress from the free States who aided and assisted in the passage of this infamous law  richly merit the reproach of all lovers of freedom, and are only to be ranked with the traitors Benedict Arnold and Judas Iscariot."

Arnold and Iscariot were not to be ranked with Douglas as orators, however.   The Little Giant addressed the Council a few days later.  He defended his law for three and a half hours, and was so persuasive he won a unanimous resolution repudiating the Council's previous resolution.  The next day the Chicago Journal, no friend of either the senator or the Fugitive Slave Act, summed up his performance:  "Senator Douglas demolished the Common Council last night."

There's more to the story, but I won't spoil the play's ending.  The Bloodhound Law will make its world premiere at City Lit in April 2014.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Follow the Drinking Gourd

This is one of the Civil War songs that will be in Opus 1861, in a version--the song's first-ever recording, I believe--by The Weavers, to whom I could listen all day.

Profile in Caution

Now that President Obama has acquiesced to a fundamentally Republican plan to raise the debt ceiling, which means federal spending cuts that will contract the economy when it needs to be expanded, it may be worth pointing out a couple of Civil War connections to the whole fiasco.

One, of course, is the Fourteenth Amendment, much in the news lately as Obama rebuffed suggestions he invoke its clause that the “validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law . . . shall not be questioned” in order to keep paying the country’s bills no matter what the Congress did.  In a position to need all the leverage in his fight with Congress that he could get, he threw this lever away and had his spokesman say that he didn’t think the amendment applied in this situation.  He’s the constitutional scholar, not me, but there are plenty of other experts who thought he was wrong, and a look at why the clause was written suggests they might have been right.

The Fourteenth of course was one of the Reconstruction amendments, put into place as the states of the old Confederacy took their places again as part of the Union.  Fearful that Southern federal legislators might someday acquire a voting majority in Congress and get it to vote to refuse to pay the U.S. war debt, or to take on some or all of the Confederate debt, Section Four—forbidding both—was included in the amendment.  That is to say, one explicit reason it was written was to prevent Congress from taking a vote that would prevent the federal government from paying its bills. 

How is that different from the recent situation?  I dunno, but the question brings us to the other Civil War connection.  Obama’s hero Lincoln more than once took executive action that he believed crucially important to the nation even when he couldn’t have sworn he had a winning argument for the Supreme Court were he to be challenged there.  His biggest gamble was the Emancipation Proclamation itself.  He knew that as Commander in Chief of the military during a time of armed rebellion, he had the military right to seize private property that was necessary to the war effort, and that the legal status of enslaved blacks as property meant that he could seize them from their owners.  But with all other types of property, after the military necessity has passed, the property is returned to its owner.  The Proclamation declared that the slaves under its jurisdiction were “forever free,” which was essential but constitutionally suspect.  If, after the war was over, a plantation owner whose slaves had been emancipated were to sue the federal government for their return as property, and fought the case all the way up to substantially the same Supreme Court that had issued the Dred Scott decision, the odds might well have been good he’d be given his slaves back.  Lincoln might not have had the authority to make emancipation permanent. 

He was aware of this, and worried about it.  Thankfully, we’ll never know how that hypothetical former slave-owner’s case would have turned out, because Lincoln rushed to send to the states the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery; its ratification meant the Proclamation’s full legality never had to be tested. 

We’ll also never know if the Fourteenth Amendment gambit would have cut the Gordian knot in the debt ceiling crisis, because Obama declined to find out.

Lincoln's courage is part of  his greatness.  Obama, a profile in caution, cannot plausibly have been worried that he might be successfully impeached for continuing to uphold the nation's credit by paying its bills.  John B. Judis of The New Republic has an article online headlined "If Obama Likes Lincoln So Much, He Should Start Acting Like Him."  Well, yes.

First post: Welcome to our Civil War Sesquicentennial blog

The novelist Walker Percy called the Civil War the American Iliad, the epic struggle from which has emerged our sense of who we are.  The point of our Civil War Sesquicentennial project is to produce a show each season that pursues that idea.  One of the virtues of being a not-for-profit resident theatre is that we can undertake a project whose development and execution will span years (though we don’t know of another theatre that has undertaken a similar project). 

This blog is officially about City Lit’s Civil War project, but I intend to also write about other Civil War-related topics.   The central idea of our project, after all, is that the Civil War is still with us, and that means politically and culturally as much as anything.  The sesquicentennial provides a theatre company with a specific opportunity that will not come again in our lifetime: to explore the most transformational event in American history during these important anniversary years.   A blog provides a complementary opportunity.

The first production of the series was last season’s The Copperhead by Augustus Thomas, which opened on April 12, the precise anniversary of the attack on Fort Sumter.  Written in 1918, The Copperhead tells the story of an Illinois man who demonstrates Southern sympathies during the war, even in the face of his son's enlistment in the Union army and death at Vicksburg.  The play hadn’t been done anywhere since, oh, maybe the ‘40s.  Augustus Thomas was once upon a time a big-time popular playwright, but he and his work are pretty much forgotten these days.  Not many people came to see our production until the reviews came out and said it was something special; after that, we did quite good business.

The second show of the series, scheduled to start performances this coming April 13, is Opus 1861: the Civil War in Symphony, a world premiere music theatre piece devised by Elizabeth Margolius and me, to be directed by Elizabeth.  Set in present-day Afghanistan, Opus 1861 focuses on a group of American soldiers who find strength and solace in songs of the Civil War.   The evening will include approximately 20 songs, including many familiar to all, such as “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and “John Brown's Body,” as well as such lesser known songs as “When This Cruel War Is Over” and “Give Us a Flag.”   Rather than structure the show like a conventional revue—song, applause, song, applause, and so on—Elizabeth came up with the great idea of making it one continuous piece of symphonically structured music.  So the evening will have four movements corresponding to a classical symphony’s structure, as we watch the characters accompany themselves on instruments in a bombed out Afghan location.

One of the richest bodies of literature to emerge from the Civil War is its songs.  We want to connect that material to today and not be trapped into a standard historical music revue, which is why our characters are U. S. soldiers today, stationed in Afghanistan.  It reminds us of the political--not just the historical--context of songs like ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home.’ 
The third, planned for April in our 2012-2013 season, is the world premiere of Comrades Mine:  Emma Edmonds of the Union Army by Maureen Gallagher, based on the true story of the only woman to receive a U.S. Army pension for military service undertaken while disguised as a man.  Edmonds enlisted as Frank Thompson and served for two years.  She deserted when needed medical attention would have revealed her sex, and in the 1880s fought to have the U.S. Senate clear her record and authorize her pension. 

The fourth, planned for April in our 2013-2014 season, is the world premiere of Fugitive Slave by Kristine Thatcher, City Lit's associate director.  This play will explore Chicago's role as a haven for blacks escaping slavery in the years before the war.    Fugitive Slave will focus on the night black and white abolitionist Chicagoans descended in a fury on the Chicago Commons Council meeting to protest Senator Stephen Douglas's—and the Council's—support for the Fugitive Slave Act. 

The final production in the series, planned for April of our 2014-2015 season, will be my world premiere adaptation of Tony Horwitz's hilarious and frequently jaw-dropping Confederates in the Attic, in which the author tours the old Confederacy and examines the Civil War's lingering impact through a series of personal encounters with the likes of Civil War re-enactors, a Scarlett O’Hara impersonator, and quite a few unreconstructed rebels.