By George Hovis
Recently, my students in American Literature and I have been reading the 19th-century debates about slavery, including the positions taken by abolitionists and by those who called abolitionists bigots and extremists. We've also read examples of what were then considered moderate positions, such as John Pendleton Kennedy's "Swallow Barn," a novel that attempted to reconcile differences between these polarized camps and to reach some compromise. Unlike the more-rabid pro-slavery apologists, Kennedy felt that, in theory, slavery was wrong but that for a number of complicated practical reasons it was impossible to proceed in 1832 with universal emancipation. He believed that, in due time, of course slavery would be abolished, but he demurred to speculate about when precisely that eventuality would arrive. For a gradualist like Kennedy, the positions of fugitive slaves such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, who called for immediate universal emancipation, were rash and likely to end with devastating results.
From our 21st-century perspective, most readers praise the heroism of the abolitionists and see gradualists like Kennedy as at best blind to the sufferings of millions of human beings held in bondage. My students are often less frustrated with the southern planters directly responsible for their "peculiar institution" than they are with the northern businessmen who were reluctant to speak out against slavery for fear of raising the price of cotton. What perhaps gets my students most upset is the Compromise of 1850, including the infamous Fugitive Slave Law, which made punishable by up to six months in prison and a $1,000 fine anyone in the free north aiding or harboring a fugitive slave. As Harriet Jacobs laments in her "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," this law facilitated the efforts of southern slave owners to come north and recapture their stolen "property," including any children born in the north to a mother who had escaped from bondage in the South.
How, my students want to know, could the population of the free states stand idly by and allow such a compromise? It is very difficult for them to appreciate the nuances of the historical context -- how, for example, when Ms. Jacobs' owners traveled to New York to reclaim their property, they were on hard times, and their slave property constituted a majority of their total property. Or, reflecting on the perhaps regrettable fact that the southern agricultural system was thoroughly built upon the system of slavery, a universal emancipation would likely cause chaos throughout the national economy. Today, of course, such nuances disappear in light of the commonly held belief that human bondage is morally reprehensible and unacceptable.
There are those who will no doubt take offense at my comparison of the 19th-century effort to abolish slavery in the U.S. to a current debate that is seemingly without any possible connection: hydrofracking and the dangers it poses to the environment and particularly to our watershed. I by no means wish to equate these two issues but merely wish to focus on a few striking similarities in the ways the debates manifest themselves within the general public. I believe there is in most people a healthy mistrust of taking absolute positions and a belief that seeking compromise between competing ideas promotes the general good -- and in most cases this may be true. I also believe most of us wish not to give offense to our neighbors or to be perceived as rigid extremists. There are times, however, when, despite seemingly rational arguments to the contrary, the correct position is an absolute position.
There are some causes where neutrality and compromise merely enable exploitation. In the early and mid-1800s, when gradualists were arguing that slavery would, of course, eventually become obsolete, pro-slavery forces were expanding westward, working diligently to open vast new territories to human bondage. Today, many believe that gradually our dependence on fossil fuels will be replaced by renewable forms of energy and serious efforts at conservation, while meanwhile our consumption continues to increase, and the gas and oil industry makes use of dangerous technologies to drill in ever-deeper offshore water and increasingly ecologically vulnerable places like upstate New York. Someone has to draw the line and say "not here." We have to set limits on production before we will ever seriously invest in already available technologies for renewable energy. And we cannot wait for our elected officials someday to act on our behalf. We citizens must appreciate what Martin Luther King Jr., understood in the 1960s to be the "fierce urgency of now."
When students today look back to the often complex and nuanced debates about slavery from 150 years ago, all of the nuance disappears in light of the one fundamental truth that slavery is an abomination. One hundred fifty years from now, I believe students will be equally horrified by the way this generation treated our common environment, that we would show such reluctance to pursue aggressive development of renewable energy because it would mean shifting priorities. Today we see the economic challenges and all of the competing legitimate perspectives. One hundred fifty years from now, most of these complexities will disappear, and all that our descendants will see is whether or not we collectively allowed the gas industry to exploit and pollute our natural environment and possibly irrevocably damage our region's aquifer. It may not require 150 years for this radical change of consciousness. When a son or daughter comes to you as an adult unable to drink the water for a very rational fear of carcinogens, and she asks you, "Dad/Mom, when you had a chance to stop them, what did you do?" And you try to explain about the complex issues and how many of your neighbors were afraid of polarizing the community and how you tried to find some compromise because you didn't want to offend anyone, and how certainly the landowner coalitions had their valid arguments, and your child repeats, "But, what did you do?" I don't want to have to tell my children that what I did was nothing, because how would I live with myself?
For anyone wanting to take action, one place to start is to contact your local, state and federal elected officials. Make a phone call. Start with Gov. Andrew Cuomo at (518) 474-8390. Write a letter or e-mail. Attend a meeting or rally. Talk to a neighbor.
George Hovis is an associate professor of English at the State University College at Oneonta.