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Fugitive Slave Law

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Underground est une série télévisée américaine créée par Misha Green et Joe Pokaski, et diffusée sur la chaîne WGN America.

Underground saison 1 photo

La série se déroule au XIXème siècle, pendant ce que les historiens appellent l’Antebellum Era ou encore Plantation Era. Elle suit à la fois la quête de liberté d’un groupe d’esclaves travaillant dans une plantation de coton et la mise en place du chemin de fer clandestin (“Underground Railroad”).

Un groupe d’esclaves planifie une échappée téméraire, délaissant leur plantation de Géorgie pour aller se réfugier à plus de 600 miles de là.

En chemin, ils sont aidés par un couple d’abolitionnistes secrets qui sont en charge d’une station de l’Underground Railroad. Le groupe tente par tous les moyens de fausser compagnie aux gens chargés de les ramener à la plantation – morts ou vifs.

Dix épisodes sont prévus cette saison et une seconde saison de dix épisodes également est déjà programmée pour 2017.

J’ai regardé Django Unchained avec mes Premières la semaine dernière et dans la bande originale du film, j’aime beaucoup le morceau Too Old to Die Young de Brother Dege, un artiste du deep south des Etats-Unis :

C’est catchy !

J’ai bien aimé le film aussi, pas aussi violent qu’annoncé, surtout si on le considère comme un western (qui par définition est violent).

Le traitement de la question raciale et du racisme aux USA aide bien à la prise de parole. Je m’arrête là, sinon je vais faire la critique du film ;-)

Introduction

Most slaves were forced to work long hours under close supervision. Most slaves could rely on their master for basic welfare: clothes, food and shelter. On many plantations, slaves grew their own garden and some even enjoyed a few holidays or received some rewards.

Subjugation and resistance

Concerning the problem of subjugation, the slaveholders tightly circumscribed the world of their slaves: they had to carry passes with them when they were off the plantation and were forbidden to go out at night. There were slave patrols, vigilant in finding offenders. Punishment was severe and quick. As a means to prevent communication, the Slave Code forbade teaching slaves how to read and write; but about 10% of the slaves risked punishment to achieve literacy: the ability to read and write was understood to be the key to freedom.

Concerning resistance, the degree to which slaves resisted their subjugation reinforced the police state (1831: Nat Turner”s rebellion). Either they resisted or ran away. Successful escape was very difficult. Despite the number of punishment, there were always runaways willing to take the chance of risking escaping and reaching the North.

Among the laws, the Fugitive Slave Law. Resistance could take many forms: the sabotage of plantation property, the abuse of farm animals or feigned sickness. On occasions, slaves murdered their masters. But that was from the part of a tiny minority. Religion gave them a sense of community: slaves were strengthened by religion (singing to bear labor).

Freedom and Code

Free blacks were 250 000. Many of them or their parents had been freed by their masters for acts of nobility. They held property and some owned their own slaves. But legally, they were denied all civil rights by the Virginia Black Code. Free slaves were in constant danger of being kidnapped and forced to work again. That is why many of them decided to go to the North.

The Black Code existed very early and has been declined in several versions: in 1622, 1668 and 1705. In 1705, any master was free to kill any slave and would not be prosecuted for it. In 1819, the Virginia Black Code reduced free slaves to a mere property (no rights at all).

The laws became stricter and stricter as the South was more and more afraid of possible revolts. Yet, 76% of the Whites did not own slaves in the South. But any white man was entitled to be ipso facto an auxiliary of justice, slaves being considered as cattle

Cotton was the main crop in the South and the first industry in Georgia. Georgia planters exported their cotton to England but the cotton was not treated. Thanks to Whitney”s invention , the “Cotton Gin” (Cotton Engine – 1793), which separated the seeds from the fibers, a huge increase in the amount of cotton produced was made possible. In 1820, the output was 8 000 times higher than in 1791.

The increase was achieved by bringing in more slaves to pick the cotton. The prosperity of the planters depended more and more on slavery and Southerners broke away from the US. Slavery is the root of Southern wealth and industry. It is an institution in the South, as well as their peculiar way of life.The “Cotton Gin” brought about slavery and civil war.

In 1810, there were 7,2 million people in the USA and among those people 1,2 million black slaves.

Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, owned slaves himself and had a black mistress with whom he had children. G. Washington, as a land owner, owned slaves too. Southerners defending the right of slavery asked an unanswerable question: how could they cultivate their fields of tobacco, rice and cotton without slave workers ?

The situation was different in the North: the climate was cooler and the farms were smaller so there was no need of slaves. Many Northerners were abolitionists. By the 19th century, many Northern states had passed their own laws to abolish slavery inside their own boundaries. In 1808, they persuaded Congress to male it illegal to bring in new slaves from Africa. Gradually, North and South opposed each other.

In the 1830’s, Northern and Southern politicians kept arguing: is slavery permitted in the new territories being settled in the West ? The discussion aligncenter on Missouri, which was part of the Louisiana purchase. Southerners argued that slaves should be allowed (will to expand slavery). Northerners objected strongly to it for moral and economic reasons: competition would be unfair between Northern and Southern farmers (easier with slaves). They finally reached a compromise: the Missouri Compromise:

  • slavery was permitted in Missouri and Arkansas territories
  • but banned in the West and North of Missouri

It did not end the dispute. The South began denying the right of slaves to own land and the threats of secession on both sides foreshadowed the secession of the South, prefiguring the Civil War.

In the early 1830″s, another argument was going on about import duties, the North standing for it and the South opposing it because they were afraid of competition (it would rise the price of Southern goods). The Southern politician JC Calhoun claimed that a “state had the right to disobey any federal law if the state believed the law should harm his interests”. This was supported by the Southerners and it became known as the “States’ rights doctrine”.

That claim was strongly denied by the North and by Webster, senator of Massachusetts who answered that “the power to decide if federal authority is right or wrong belongs to Supreme Court and not to independent states”. Webster warned the Americans that the States “rights doctrine could be a serious threat to the unity of the USA.

In the 20 years afterwards, the USA grew much bigger. In 1846, it divided the Oregon territory with Britain and in 1848, it took vast areas in the South-West from Mexico. Obtaining these new lands, raised again the question already asked during the Missouri Compromise of 1820: should slavery be allowed on new American territories. North refused, South agreed.

In 1850, Congress voted in favor of another compromise:

  1. California was admitted in the US as a free state
  2. people living in Utah and Mexico had the right to decide by themselves whether or not to allow slavery

To persuade the South to agree to these arrangements, Congress passed a law: the Fugitive Slave Act. That new law made easier for Southerners to recapture slaves who escaped and fled for safety in free states. The new law called for “severe penalties for anyone assisting Negroes to escape from bondage. Slave owners had long offered rewards to get their slaves back. This has created a group of men called bounty hunters, who searched escaped slaves in free states. This law angered many Northerners and some northern judges refused to enforce it. Some Northerners provided hiding places for fugitives, mapped out routes and moved runaways slaves by night from one secret hiding place to another. The final stop was Canada where fugitives could be pursued neither by federal laws nor by bounty hunters. As the railway was the modern way of traveling at that time, they modeled their vocabulary on it: the “underground railroad” represented the people, people providing money were “stock-holders”, guides were “conductors” and hiding places were “depots”. Many conductors were former slaves and they often traveled deep into slave states to get in touch with runaway. If captured, they ended up as slaves again or dead. the number of slaves increased.

In 1854, the senator Steven Douglas persuaded Congress to end the Missouri Compromise. There was no slavery in the West of Missouri and in Kansas, people were free to decide to permit or not slavery. A “race” between pro-slavery and anti-slavery began: pro-slavery immigrants poured from the south and anti-slavery immigrants poured from the North to outnumber the other group. Result: fightings and killings.

Pro-S raiders from Missouri burnt a town called Lawrence and killed part of the population. In reply, the abolitionist John Brown led a raid in which supporters of slavery were killed. We were in 1859.

Some said that Brown was a madman. A Virginia Court trialed Brown for treason: he was hanged with 5 other men. The South was horrified by the threat of a slave revolt and blamed the North for it by calling the North “Black Republicans”. American began referring to it as “Bleeding Kansas”. Neither side controlled Kansas and Congress delayed its admission in the US.

In 1858, the pro-S won a victory of another sort, the Dred Scott decision. Dred Scott was a slave who had been taken by his master to live in a free state. He asked the Supreme Court to declare this had made him legally free. The Supreme Court refused because:

  • Black slaves had no rights as American citizens
  • Congress had gone beyond its constitutional powers in claiming the right to prohibit slavery in the Western territories

This was quite a stir in the US: the South was delighted and the anti-slavery were horrified. The Supreme Court seemed to say that free states had no right to forbid slavery within their boundaries: slave owners could put their slaves to work anywhere. The anti-slavery created a party: the Republican Party.