Archive for December, 2016


A courtroom scene from Spielberg’s film

I’ve been reading about American history during the period immediately before Lincoln’s election and southern secession (1850-60). Specifically, I’m trying to find out how Congress finally got up the gumption to outlaw slavery by passing the Thirteenth Amendment in December, 1865.

In popular thought (if that’s not an oxymoron), Abraham Lincoln is ordinarily given credit for “freeing the slaves.” Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln certainly buys into that view;  it is a virtual hagiography of the sixteenth president. The problem with this reading, though, is that for most of his first term Lincoln was far more worried about keeping the Union together than he was about ending slavery. This is not to say that he condoned slavery but only to note that he took his primary duty as president to be the preservation of the country. (Lincoln’s serious commitment to his job seems like a fairy tale given our current situation).

The most powerful arguments for and against slavery were in wide circulation when Lincoln was elected, having been formulated thirty years earlier. By the 1830s most northern states had abolished slavery, and the arguments made by Abolitionists began to circulate widely and influentially enough that southern slave owners like James Henry Hammond were moved to formulate serious arguments in its defense. (By “serious” I mean “theoretical” or “philosophical,” not “true.”)

According to historians (cited below), the important distinction in arguments about slavery at that time was made between “natural law” and “positive law.” “Natural law,” as defined by philosopher John Locke among others, posited in its Enlightenment-ish way that freedom is the natural state of humankind. For slavery to exist, then, there must be “positive,” that is, man-made laws in place to support it.

This thinking was put to the test when the notorious Portuguese slave ship Tecora sailed to Cuba in 1839 with a hold full of African men and a few women stolen from villages near Sierra Leone. While there its crew sold the captives to a Spanish ship ironically named Amistad (friendship). The owners of Amistad procured fake papers which established that the prisoners had been born in Cuba where slavery was still legal. Thus, were their ship to be boarded by any power that had outlawed slavery (such as Britain) their captives could not be confiscated.

But the wily Spaniards did not count on the desperation of the men and women they were attempting to enslave. Once out to sea the Africans broke their restraints and killed all of the crew except for two sailors who were directed to return the ship to Africa. The sailors tried to fool the captives by heading east during the day and turning west at night. Provisions soon ran low, and the ship was captured by an American ship when it lay at anchor near Long Island, where a few captives had gone ashore to get fresh water. Soon the Africans, as well as the two Spaniards, found themselves on trial in American courts on a variety of charges.

Yesterday I watched Spielberg’s film about this event. It’s pretty damned good. My one quibble is that the argument I outlined above is never quite made explicit. The captives’ attorneys and friends convinced John Quincy Adams to represent the Africans before the Supreme Court, and Adams relied upon the natural law/positive law distinction to win their freedom. (You can read his arguments here: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/amistad_002.asp. The cool stuff starts on page 39).

Adams claimed that human beings cannot, by their very nature as free beings, be considered property. Thus he disposed of the claim made by the Spanish queen to “own” the Africans even though, were they in Spain, they might be so considered by positive law. Justice Story’s decision makes clear that the justices appealed to the “natural” side of the natural/positive distinction in deciding the case:

“It is also a most important consideration, in the present case, which ought not to be lost sight of, that, supposing these African negroes not to be slaves, but kidnapped, and free negroes, the treaty with Spain cannot be obligatory upon them; and the United States are bound to respect their rights as much as those of Spanish subjects. The conflict of rights between the parties, under such circumstances, becomes positive and inevitable, and must be decided upon the eternal principles of justice and international law.” (Wikipedia: “United States vs. The Amistad”)

The Africans were subsequently released from jail and a ship was requisitioned to take them home. Wow. Sometimes the good guys do win.

I recommend the following histories of these events:

William Freehling, The Road To Disunion: Secessionists Triumphant (if you are really gung-ho you can read the first volume as well: The Road to Disunion:  Secessionists at Bay. Freehling is a randy writer and fun to read).

Leonard Richards, Who Freed the Slaves? The Fight Over The Thirteenth Amendment (Richards is not real high on Lincoln’s contributions to the debate).

Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial:  Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery

James Oakes, Freedom National:  The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865  (The best history of the natural/positive law distinction).


Read Full Post »

My Newest Neighbor


I don’t think he/she has moved here due to climate change, but I think climate change may be helping him/her survive.  I first saw her last autumn, and figured she came up from Phoenix in the neighbor’s horse trailer.  I felt pretty bad for her then.  Thinking of the cold and the hibernated status of all the lizards to come, I didn’t think she’d survive. But here she is again, this autumn!  I’ve seen her three times in the last month or so, and this time managed to take some pictures.  dsc02146

As she demonstrates here, worms are a handy (hm…beaky?)  stand (uh…lie?) in for lizards.  I don’t know if she’s so round due to snacking on worms or from fluffed feathers.  It’s 40 degrees out and calm.  I think she may just be slightly plump.

Read Full Post »

Elite Eight!



Nebraska players rush the court when their team pulls out a miracle win

Wow! What a game! Penn State, ranked number 16, were not intimidated. Not by the fact they were playing the number 1 seed in the tournament, not by the fact that Nebraska beat them twice during the regular season, not by the fact that Lincoln’s Devaney Center was packed to the rafters with 8200 Big Red fans (apparently Nebraska’s governor asked bosses to allow workers a couple of hours off so they could attend the 11 am game).

As a counter PSU brought their own rowdy followers all the way from State College who created a small patch of blue in the sea of red. No, the Nittany Lions were not the least bit intimidated. They won the first two sets, 25-23. Their hitters seemed unstoppable, and they successfully blocked nearly everything that Nebraska’s big guns unloaded at the net. At that point my heartburn firmly reminded me that it’s still there in my innards. I thought for sure that Nebraska’s season and its run for a second consecutive national championship were over.

The third set was even more tense. PSU ran the score up to 24-23. That’s do or die in volleyball, folks. At that point Nebraska’s Kadie Rolfzen had apparently had enough of this shit. She blocked a powerful hit from Penn State’s Simone Lee, and put it down so hard and fast that nobody could lay a hand on it. Her teammates then followed suit, and Nebraska won that set 26-24.

Nebraska won sets four and five handily. PSU seemed to lose steam after losing the third as though they brought enough energy to win the necessary three sets and no more.

Nebraska’s coach looked a little stunned after the game was over. He said later that he caught himself watching the match as a spectator rather than as a coach–the play was that good.

I’m not sure about that. I’ll have to watch it again when my heart finally climbs back down into my chest where it belongs.

Read Full Post »



 The Rolfzen sisters, Kadie and Amber, block a hit

How cool would it be to play championship volleyball alongside your twin sister? Or even your regular sister? Two teams in the Big Ten, Nebraska and Minnesota, have twin-sister players: the Rolfzens for Huskers and Paige and Hannah Tapp for the Gophers. These two teams have been ranked 1 and 2 all season, so maybe having a pair of twins is a good idea?


 Paige and Hannah Tapp

Both teams are headed to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA championship tournament. Nebraska swept New Hampshire and Texas Christian in three sets apiece on successive nights. Minnesota, OTOH, beat North Dakota and Hawaii (a much tougher team) on their way to the semi-finals.

On Friday morning Nebraska meets Penn State, which owns some eight national championships–PSU is always a scary opponent. Minnesota will face Missouri, which didn’t win its conference but looks pretty tough nonetheless, having clobbered the Big Ten’s Purdue on their way to the Sweet 16. I’m hoping that Mizzou (or somebody) knocks off Minnesota before Nebraska has to face them, which would happen, if it does, in the championship game on December 17.


Read Full Post »