Chapter 9: Comment by Gregg Crane

Worn out by the “tiresome business” of legislating, Senator Bird has returned for some “good, home living.”  Senator Bird’s relaxation is broken by his wife’s inquiry about the Fugitive Slave Act.  While she does not normally “trouble her head” about the affairs of state, the moral issues raised by the new law compel Mary Bird to interrogate her husband.  Senator Bird replies, “Your feelings are all quite right, dear . . . I love you for them; but . . . we mustn’t suffer our feelings to run away with our judgment; you must consider it’s not a matter of private feeling,–there are great public interests involved.”  Mrs. Bird’s answer—“I don’t know anything about politics, but I can read my Bible; and there I see that I must feed the hungry, clothe the naked and comfort the desolate”—is disingenuous to the extent that it seems to separate the moral and legal areas of expertise.  Her objection to the Fugitive Slave Act accords with the Founding Fathers’ belief in a legal system grounded in virtue and sanctioned by the citizenry’s moral sense.

Mrs. Bird’s higher law argument is decisively advanced when Eliza Harris appears at their door, a veritable picture of “the real presence of distress”—“a young and slender woman with garments torn and frozen, with one shoe gone, and the stocking torn away from the cut and bleeding foot.”  Punctuated by the emotionally compelling appearance of Eliza and her son, the Birds’ debate closes with a new consensus between husband and wife, and Senator Bird’s ideas of law are re-grounded in the moral sense expressed by Mrs. Bird.  Far from representing an opposition of law and morality, the Birds’ dialogue embodies the process of inspiration and conversation through which the public conscience is animated and the law is revised.

However, by rooting this consensual process within the family and the domestic setting, the original site of status-based relations, Stowe restricts the potential of consent to function as an open-ended mechanism of moral reform and civic relations.  Instead of acknowledging the fact, as George Fitzhugh (a Southern apologist for slavery) would insist, that human beings can agree to anything, even monstrous forms of social innovation (Fitzhugh cites the practice of polygamy), Stowe’s vision of consent is comfortingly predetermined and limited by status.  Moral sentiment and spousal negotiation flow in the channels provided by their respective roles as husband and wife.  Senator Bird brings his worldly experience and rationalist argument to bear on the topic of the fugitive slave law, Mrs. Bird responds with the moral intuition and sympathy native to women, and as parents they are both particularly susceptible to the Eliza’s appeal on behalf of her son.  The happy outcome of their discussion depends in part on each performing his/her role.  Mrs. Bird’s moral intuition, her birthright as a woman and a mother, must trump Mr. Bird’s worldly experience and professional expertise for the latter to be legitimate.

Like the seal of the antislavery society—slave in manacles, kneeling on one knee, hands uplifted in a prayerful pose of supplication, asking “am I not a man and a brother”—the appeal to conscience made by Eliza’s appearance does not disrupt status or verge on contract.  Eliza asks for charity not partnership, and charity does not necessitate any renegotiation of civic values.  In planning the next leg of Eliza’s escape, the Birds do not need to seek her consent, despite the substantial evidence of Eliza’s agency as the author of her own bold escape.  As a woman and a supplicant, she must take what they give.  The passage thus advances and withdraws consent as a guide for human relations, pushing simultaneously toward the higher law mix of conscience and consent (within the white National Family) and the paternalistic ethics requiring the strong (white Americans) to care for the weak (black Americans), which is as Fitzhugh points out the ethical basis of slavery.  Focusing solely on this scene, one might suspect, that for Stowe, moral feelings and the legal and political consensus they inspire are innately connected to and derive legitimacy from the participants’ adherence to role or type.

But this impression is qualified when we turn to another scene—the conversation between Mr. Wilson and George Harris (Eliza’s husband and a fugitive slave) in chapter 11.  Harris and Wilson meet in a tavern, a place of business and politics (just pages earlier we witness the tavern negotiations between Haley, the slave trader, and Tom Loker, the slave hunter).  In their discussion, Harris and Wilson seek to persuade each other of the propriety or impropriety of Harris’s plan of escape.  Harris begins with the tools of logical argument.  He offers Mr. Wilson an analogy:

“I wonder, Mr. Wilson, if the Indians should come and take you a prisoner away from your wife and children, . . .if you’d think it your duty to abide in the condition in which you were called.”

Harris suggests an imagined reversal of positions, but analogy—the forte of lawyers and judges—is not Wilson’s strong suit (in a neat, though incomplete, reversal of racial types).  When Wilson responds that Harris’s desperate state of mind drives him to break “the laws of your country,” Harris sounds a theme taken up by Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” address:

“My country again! Mr. Wilson, you have a country; but what country have I, or any one like me, born of slave mothers? What laws are there for us? We don’t make them,–we don’t consent to them,–we have nothing to do with them; all they do for us is to crush us, and keep us down.  Haven’t I heard your Fourth-of-July speeches?  Don’t you tell us all, once a year, that governments derive their just power from the consent of the governed.”

Harris’s conclusion is inescapable, by the founders’ own principles, the duty to obey is predicated on the right to participate.  The nullity of the latter voids the former.  To drive home the point of his rational argument, Harris speaks to Wilson’s heart, reducing the latter to tears with a vivid portrait of the cruelties inflicted on his family by the system of slavery.

As with the Birds’ debate, this scene ends in consensus, but it is a different kind of consensus.  Separated by racial and legal status as well as differing views of religion and civic duty, Harris and Wilson manage to come to terms, and the two men become, in effect, co-conspirators defying the Fugitive Slave Act.  Even though Harris’s independence and intelligence—his competence to enter into contract—is figured as an inheritance from his white father, this scene comes close to suggesting that the processes of consent may enable people to decide what is right rather than simply referring moral questions to intuitions and feelings which Stowe overtly connects to status.  One result of George’s successful participation in this debate is his transformation.  As Mr. Wilson notes at the conclusion of their discussion, “George, something has brought you out wonderfully.  You hold up your head, and speak and move like another man.”  The figure of George’s transformation connects contract with change and change with value; George’s mutability is a sign of the mutability of ethical consensus, which gives the higher law tradition its continuing power.  In connecting the new ethical/legal consensus between Harris and Wilson to George Harris’s new manner of being, Stowe’s novel suggests not only that values may shift or receive new impressions but also that transformation may itself be a gauge of ethical and aesthetic value.

Chapter and Commentary Table of Contents

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