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.

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