Monday, November 30, 2009

Five Arguments Against Slavery

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin

[Analytical Essay written for a college US History class]

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin presented the thesis that Southern chattel slavery was immoral. To establish this assertion, Stowe incorporated the five major abolitionist arguments into the framework of her novel in order to reveal the impossibility of political compromise over something intrinsically evil.

The first major argument of the abolitionists was that slavery was anti-Christian. Genesis 1:27 stated that man was created in the image of God. Indeed, all of the heroes of Stowe’s tale are portrayed as devout Christians. Thus, Stowe essentially argued that the only way to be a good Christian was to be anti-slavery. Yet she went even further than that. Many abolitionists of her day would not have argued for the racial equality of the African, but Stowe did. In the character of Miss Ophelia, she developed a typical Northern woman of the 1850’s. Miss Ophelia considered herself a Christian, yet admitted she had a prejudice against the slaves and couldn’t bear to have them touch her. The young child Eva had no prejudice at all, however, which forced Miss Ophelia to comment, “She’s no more than Christ-like. I wish I were like her.” Stowe expanded this Biblical argument to contend that it was the Christian’s duty to oppose the Fugitive Slave Act, a law that mandated that Northerners could not help runaway slaves and must aid in their capture. The character of Mrs. Bird quoted Scripture to support her opinion that it was her Christian duty to oppose the Act. Her husband, a senator who voted for the Act, argued with her at first, but later when Eliza and her child (two runaway slaves) beg for their protection, he sided with his wife and broke the law. Thus, Stowe essentially argued that a person was anti-Christian if he acted in any way to uphold the institution of slavery.

Second, abolitionists supported their position by drawing on the ideals upon which the nation had been founded. Slavery (and especially race based slavery) denied that all men were created equal as stated in the Declaration of Independence. Thus, slavery was anti-American. This was a similar argument to the Biblical one, but it also touched on the topic of patriotism. Slavery had transformed America into a nation where men had to flee in order to gain their freedom. Stowe used irony to prove her point. When she illustrated the slave George’s escape to Canada, she noted that if he had been a Hungarian fugitive escaping for his freedom, it would have been seen as heroism, but “when despairing African fugitives do the same thing, —it is—what is it?” Earlier, however, when George noted that he would fight for his liberty, he stated, “You say your fathers [American patriots] did it; if it was right for them, it is right for me!” Thus, Stowe paralleled the plight of runaway Africans with one of the most momentous events in American history: the Revolutionary War. With the denial of the Africans’ liberty, Americans had become what they most hated— a tyranny.

Third, abolitionists attacked the economic benefits of slavery. They reasoned that the slave’s only incentive to work was out of fear for his master. Stowe illustrated this in the plantation of Simon Legree – a plantation ruled solely by fear. Slaves could not skimp on the cotton they placed in their baskets or they would face a fierce flogging. She contrasted this with St. Clare’s household where the slaves were generally left alone. St. Clare admitted that his slaves were like spoiled children, but commented that “whipping and abuse are like laudanum; you have to double the dose as the sensibilities decline” which ultimately led to a dehumanizing of slave and master. Indeed, George was one of the only slaves who did not work out of fear when he labored in a factory. But this was mainly because he was one of the most educated and desired to work to gain his freedom. Thus, Stowe contended that the African will only be the most industrious if he is educated, but such education will ultimately lead to the African seeking his freedom. Consequently, the slaveholder must keep the African debased and in fear in order to continue to enslave him.

This led into the fourth abolitionist argument. The institution of slavery put unlimited power into the hands of the slave-holder. There were no laws protecting the slave. A master could treat his ‘property’ with as much cruelty or benevolence as he saw fit. As a result, the institution corrupted the white slave-owner’s moral values. Stowe relied heavily on historical exaggeration to prove this point, especially with her description of the plantation of Legree. Legree was the most evil of all the characters in the book. He was stripped of any morals or ability to show kindness and worked his slaves to death in order to gain a profit. Historically, Southerners argued that this would not have been in the slaveholder’s best interest, but Stowe illustrated that there was nothing to stop them from doing it. Even further, Legree attempted to destroy the saintly Uncle Tom’s faith in God. Thus, the slaveholder became the ultimate picture of depravity. St. Clare sneered that slavery ultimately amounted to “Quashy [doing] my will, and not his, all the days of his mortal life, and [having] such chance of getting to heaven, at last, as I find convenient…The thing itself is the essence of all abuse!”

Fifth, and finally, abolitionists declared that slavery transformed the South into a perpetual state of fear and instability. This argument applied first to the Southerners themselves. Stowe included a conversation between St. Clare and his brother in which they talked about slave uprisings. St. Clare believed such an uprising was inevitable. Stowe, however, did not refrain from painting such a rebellion in glowing terms. After all, such an uprising would only be natural in a nation that upheld liberty as one of its highest values, even if it had degenerated to mean liberty only for the white man. Stowe expanded upon this argument, however, to refer also to the tragedy of the enslaved Africans. While the master lived in fear of his slave, the slave lived in fear of his master. Legree’s plantation was governed like a prison camp. Stowe also exaggerated the extent to which slave families were broken up and sold to different plantations, which ultimately led to the slave’s psychological torment and despair.

These five arguments of abolitionists were often viewed as fanatical. Yet, by presenting them through the vehicle of a story that appealed to the emotions and reason of her readers, Stowe was able to change the thinking of many Americans. Her compassionate portrayal of the Africans impelled Americans to look upon them as fellow human beings. Ultimately, her arguments proved that Southern slavery was inherently immoral. Previously, the institution had been regulated and compromised on by politicians like Stowe’s Senator Bird, but the novel brought the issue into American homes and forced them to rethink their Christian duty. Slavery was no longer the realm of politics but a moral issue.

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Posted by Nicole Bianchi at 2:05 PM |

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Living Dead

Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis

[Literary Criticism paper written for a college Western Literature class]

Ecclesiastes 6:12 asks, “For who knows what is good for a man in life, during the few and meaningless days he passes through like a shadow? Who can tell him what will happen under the sun after he is gone?” This verse sums up the heart of two famous novels of Western Literature: The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy and The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. Both deal with the inescapability of man’s mortality. And, reiterating the philosopher in Ecclesiastes, both ask what it means to be truly alive. Yet, while Kafka’s central character is doomed to be forever one of the living dead (a man who only attains to a shadow-like existence), Tolstoy offers his readers a glimmer of hope and a way by which they can leave an imprint on the world they leave behind.

Kafka’s novel deals with an unfortunate businessman (Gregor Samsa) who wakes up one morning to discover he has been transformed into an enormous insect, while Tolstoy’s novel centers on another businessman (Ivan Ilyich) who discovers that a minor injury has turned life-threatening and he has only a short time to live. The plots might seem extremely different at first, but this is actually where the similarities begin. Both have businessman as their main characters and both businessman are relatively satisfied with their jobs and their lives – at least they have found a way to put on the façade of satisfaction. Their very different injuries are similar in the sense that they force them to give up these jobs, to become alienated from their families, and face the question of their existence head on.

Interestingly, Samsa is not alarmed by his metamorphosis into an insect. Instead, he takes the transformation in stride, trying to figure out how to get out of bed and hurry as quickly as he can so that he can make his train. This is similar to Ilyich who ignores his injury for a while and refuses to believe that he is dying. Both Tolstoy and Kafka agree then that man often tries to avoid the truth of his mortality. Yet it is with each man’s response to his injury that the worldviews of Tolstoy and Kafka begin to diverge. Although they agree that man will fight to stay alive, they portray the conclusion of this struggle very differently.

Samsa is caught in a battle between the truth of his insect body and his still human soul. The insect desires to crawl along ceilings and eat rotten food, but his human soul desires beauty and, most of all, love. This is brought to a climax in the scene where Samsa is drawn to the music of his sister’s violin. Insects have no appreciation for art, but Gregor does. However, his family reacts with horror towards him. His sister denies his humanity, declaring, “You have to try to stop thinking this is Gregor. Our true misfortune is that we’ve believed it for so long. But how can it be Gregor?” With his family’s rejection, Samsa dies alone and his body is disposed of with the trash. Thus, Kafka reveals that man’s struggle to be more than an insect is utterly futile.

Contrast this with Tolstoy’s Ilyich. As Ilyich realizes that he is dying, he too longs for the love and sympathy of his family. Yet, Ivan has never shown such kindness towards anyone in his life (throughout the book he is continually portrayed as a particularly selfish person) – how can he expect such kindness now? It is this despair that leads him to contemplate whether he has “lived as [he] should have.” This is one thing Samsa never does, although if he had he probably would have reacted similarly with Ilyich – refusing to admit (as Ilyich does at first) that his life had been a lie, mere formality and convention. Yet, this is exactly what Ilyich comes to realize. Tolstoy noted, “As a student he had done things which, at the time, seemed to him extremely vile and made him feel disgusted with himself; but later, seeing that people of high standing had no qualms about doing these things, he was not quite able to consider them good but managed to dismiss them and not feel the least perturbed when he recalled them.” Indeed, Ivan has sacrificed his own conscious for earthly treasures – as Matthew 16: 26 warns, “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” To a certain extent, this is exactly what Samsa has done too – forfeiting his soul and becoming an insect in the process.

But while Samsa’s life ends in tragedy, Ilyich comes to the realization that he can reverse what his life has become even in the very seconds before he dies. When he realizes that his life has not been a "good one," he stops screaming and stops resisting death. He sees his family around him and suddenly feels truly sorry for them. No longer is he grieving for himself, but for them. No longer does he fear death for “there was no death.” As he asks God to “forgive” him, Ivan is reborn and able to die in peace. He is already alive in Christ.

Samsa, however, cannot find such redemption, even though it could be argued that he deserved the redemption more than Ilyich. While he had lost his identity to the business world, he still cared for those around him, even if he was unable to spend time with them. Throughout the story his selfless acts are constantly appearing, contrasted against his family’s selfishness. After being transformed, he continues to sympathize with them. Indeed, he hides himself under a sofa and covers himself with a sheet so that they would not have to see his hideous form.

In Tolstoy’s world, however, even these acts of Samsa’s would have fallen short of earning such redemption. The message of The Death of Ivan Ilyich is clear – no man deserves redemption. Redemption is not earned, but is a gift of God. Indeed, as a foil to Ivan is Gerasim, a servant boy who is not afraid of death. He is the only character in the story that is selfless and truly shows compassion for others. As Gerasim cares for the dying Ilyich, Tolstoy writes, “By this [Gerasim] meant that he did not find his work a burden because he was doing it for a dying man, and he hoped that someone would do the same for him when his time came.” Ivan, however, cannot look back on any moments of servitude in his life that might justify him a bit of kindness. And, yet, Gerasim is willing to care for him even though Ivan does not deserve it. This is a true reflection of Christ.

In Kafka’s world there is no such agent of redemption for Samsa. His sister at first cares for him, but gradually she grows to abhor him and is the first to deny his humanity. But truly there is no other answer for the people who hold to an atheistic worldview. If there is nothing after death, how can there be any meaning in life? What gives man worth if he is but dust and a passing shadow?

Thus, the similarities between The Death of Ivan Ilyich and The Metamorphosis are similar in that they are the representation of everyman, but their differences are those of two contrasting worldviews. Those who deny God can have no existence but that of an insect. They are alienated from the world and, especially, from their Maker. Death will be the most horrifying for them (Samsa’s body is treated as a piece of garbage). Yet, those who accept Christ, as Ilyich did, will be able to experience what love truly is and will no longer be one of the living dead, but truly alive. Their existence may be short, but it will have new meaning, especially in the eyes of God. Indeed, man is not an insect, but made in the image of his Creator.

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Posted by Nicole Bianchi at 2:32 PM |

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

"He Seen His Opportunities, and He Took ‘Em"

The Blessings and Curses of the Urban Political Machine

[Analytical Essay written for a college US History class]

William L. Riordon’s Plunkitt of Tammany Hall compiles numerous talks that New York Senator, George Washington Plunkitt, gave in defense of his political career as a ward boss in the political machine known as Tammany Hall. While progressive reformers decried this urban political machine as a cancer on American democracy, Plunkitt presents the thesis that the machine’s existence is justified because it never participated in illegal activities and actually significantly helped the struggling working class immigrants. However, this claim proves vacuous when it is revealed that Tammany Hall was actually rank with corruption and probably did more harm than good for the people of New York City.

First, the heart of a political machine is based on a patronage system. Special favors are performed for constituents who show their gratefulness by voting for the machine. In essence, they are bribed to vote. Progressive reformers saw this as anti-democratic. It directed the constituents’ focus away from the political issues of the day, using the people simply as a means to an ultimate end of political empowerment and wealth for those who ran the machine. Indeed, although all politicians court their voters to a certain extent, there usually still exists a dialogue on political issues. In Tammany Hall’s case, however, it was nearly nonexistent.

Second, although Plunkitt vehemently denied that he owned one “dishonest dollar,” the political machine did grow rich on graft. Plunkitt attempted to make a distinction between honest and dishonest graft, but he could not redefine the term itself. Graft is the abuse of one’s position of public trust for personal gain. Plunkitt admitted that, while he never used his political position to levy “blackmail on disorderly houses” or rob “the city treasury,” he had gotten “tips” from the inside. In other words, once his party was in power, he would find out that they were going to undertake numerous public works, perhaps a park or a bridge. He would then buy up all the land that he could in that neighborhood, making a large profit when the demand for that land skyrocketed after the public work was implemented. Clearly, this was an abuse of his political position. In the end, those who originally owned the land were disadvantaged because they sold it for less than it was really worth.

Third, positions in Tammany Hall were often gained by corrupt means. Plunkitt denied that they would actually “sell nominations” and attempted to draw distinctions by insisting that “There’s no auction and no regular biddin’. The man is picked out and somehow he gets to understand what’s expected of him in the way of a contribution, and he ponies up—all from gratitude to the organization that honored him.” However, whichever way the money was acquired, it was still a corrupt practice. Essentially, Tammany Hall “arranged” the nomination – they knew who would pay them back for a favor and they acted accordingly. This undermined the whole process of a democratic government. Organizations should not put a person in office, as Plunkitt seemed to believe, but rather the informed voter. Indeed, the politician should be indebted to no one except the electorate.

Fourth, and finally, Plunkitt wished for a monopolization of the political system in New York City. He admitted that his fondest dream was of the city becoming its own state. He commented, “The people wouldn’t have to bother about nothin’. Tammany would take care of everything for them in its own quiet way.” This was the kind of talk that probably alarmed progressive reformers. Plunkitt’s vision would have transformed New York City into an oligarchy. Once the other political parties were ousted, there would be no reason for Tammany Hall to even try to provide favors for its constituents. As Plunkitt observed, the people would not have to partake in the political system. Ultimately, rule by and for the people would be abolished and transferred into the hands of a governing elite.

Thus, the progressive reformers were correct in their assessment that men like Plunkitt were a cancer on the American government. The machine’s practices were eliminating the vision of the founders of America that the voters would be sufficiently represented by the politicians. Instead, machines like Tammany Hall blurred the lines between honesty and corruption.

Yet, it is important to consider whether the machine did any good for the electorate and whether this good outweighs its corruption. Plunkitt commented on the numerous favors he performed for the struggling poor in order to purchase votes, observing “What tells in holdin’ your grip on your district is to go right down among the poor families and help them in the different ways they need help.” Clearly, Plunkitt was a major benefactor to these lower class citizens. Before the emergence of the nationalized welfare state, this could be seen as a form of localized welfare. Plunkitt would secure jobs for the immigrants or provide them assistance if they lost their house and belongings to a fire or had problems paying their rent. Further, the machine made sure that the lower class immigrant vote was valuable, often times in defiance of the racist policies of many other political platforms of that time period. Essentially, political machines had to be attentive to the desires of their constituents or they would lose their votes. Yet, while Plunkitt’s policies may have benefitted the poor economically, he could only accomplish this by ignoring the needs of the general populace. In the end, an uneven favoritism would be exhibited towards one section of the electorate (the immigrant and working class) at the expense of the other (the wealthy).

To conclude, then, it would be unfair to state that Plunkitt and his political machine Tammany Hall did no good for the people of New York City. Indeed, the poor gained a much needed friend and political ally. Plunkitt helped to awaken politicians to the needs of their constituents and, ultimately, personalized the electorate. Yet, while these were certainly benefits to the machine, they could not outweigh its corruption and threat to democracy. These seeming ‘benefits’ were not the ultimate goal of politicians like Plunkitt. Rather, as he stated, he saw politics as a “game” and he was “gettin’ richer every day.” Ultimately, then, while the poor may have benefitted in the short term, they had no long term security. They were simply pawns in the hands of the bosses of New York City, men who abused their positions to slowly erode the foundations of democracy.

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Posted by Nicole Bianchi at 3:45 PM |

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Father and Son, Patriot and Loyalist

Critical Thoughts on Sheila L. Skemp's Benjamin and William Franklin

[Analytical Essay written for a college US History class]

Sheila L. Skemp’s Benjamin and William Franklin attempts to disprove the opinion that because Loyalists and Patriots had divergent political views they can simply be categorized into two parties: “good guys and bad guys.” Using the accounts of Benjamin Franklin (a Patriot) and William Franklin (a Loyalist), Skemp’s thesis demonstrates how both men wanted what was best for the colonies. It was their different perspectives of government, not their values, which collided.

The British government operated under a ‘checks and balances’ type system. Power was divided between the House of Commons, the House of Lords, and the Crown. If one of these sections of government attempted to encroach on another’s powers, colonists believed that either anarchy or tyranny would result. Thus, the Patriots saw parliament’s meddling in colonial affairs as tyrannous, but Loyalists saw the colonial assemblies’ desire for more authority as anarchical. Further, all colonists would have agreed that they possessed the rights of Englishmen. Yet, while Patriots would have argued that such rights could only be protected by rebelling against Britain, Loyalists stated that such rights would be threatened without a proper government to protect them.

Prior to the War, however, all colonists shared an integral belief – that they were Englishman. They were proud of their British heritage and of their King. Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Britain and her Colonies should be considered as one Whole, and not as different States with separate Interests.” (1) This was why Benjamin saw nothing wrong with and even helped his son to acquire the position of the Royal Governorship of New Jersey. The governor was appointed directly by the Crown (not elected by the colonial government). This meant that in order to keep his position, William would find himself having to consistently put the interests of the British government above that of the colonists. The Franklins, however, did not look upon these interests as conflicting. While both Britain and the colonies might have to make some compromises, the end result of their “close relationship” was “mutually beneficial” to both parties (2). As Benjamin and William began to follow very different political careers, however, this belief was continually tested. While his father eventually rejected it, William continued to cling to the traditional and long accepted view of the joint interest of England and its colonies.

Stationed in New Jersey, William’s experiences were shaped by direct involvement with colonial governments. At first, he had favorable opinions of the colonies. He grew angry over the “corrupt practices of England’s Board of Trade”, insisting that his “heart remained with the ‘Gentleman of America’” and decrying the British as having “little Knowledge of American affairs.” (3) However, while he found fault with the colonial proprietors, William still continued to cling to the belief that the colonies were dependent on the Crown. They could continue to exist in harmony by looking to the wellbeing of the empire as a whole. The wellbeing of the empire, however, was rooted in law and order. Even though William understood the colonial governments’ arguments against the various taxes that were being levied against them, he also believed that they were grasping for more power than was rightfully theirs. It was acceptable to criticize policy decisions, he argued, but the King and Parliament’s authority must still be respected. His experiences governing the colonies had shown him how “local jealousies” often undermined the public good. (4) Indeed, he and his father had already attempted once to unite the colonies with the Albany Plan of Union. The colonies had rejected it, however, fearing that it was a threat to their individual rights. This rejection, in William’s eyes, sacrificed their stability for idealist notions.

Essentially, William feared anarchy. As he observed the revolutionary activities, he wrote in a letter, “All legal Authority and Government seems to be drawing to an End here.” (5) William did not support the tyrannous acts of Parliament. Yet he also did not see them as a justification to completely dissolve colonial bonds with England. In his speech to the New Jersey Assembly on January 13, 1775, he warned against the convening of an illegal congress, stating that such an action would destroy “that Form of Government which it is your Duty by all lawful Means to preserve.” (6) Clearly, even though William did not share the sentiments of the Patriots, this does not mean that he was necessarily against their ideas of freedom, liberty, and self-government. In the same speech to the New Jersey Assembly, he agreed that the elected members of the assembly were “legal representatives” of the people of New Jersey and that they had been entrusted with “a peculiar Guardianship of their Rights and Privileges.” (7) He disagreed, however, that this self-government could be exercised without the oversight of a stronger and well-established British Empire. Independence from the Crown would result in political suicide and any “Rights and Privileges” previously enjoyed would be lost. (8) William (like so many Loyalists) did not know what the outcome of a Revolutionary War would be. He preferred to stand by a time tested system that offered stability over anarchy. The reasoning behind William’s stance proves that he was not an enemy to the colonies. Nor did he have to reject Biblical values in order to support his position. Indeed, William appears to have had a high respect for the Romans 13 command to respect the governing authorities.

Benjamin Franklin, on the other hand, as a representative of the colonies in England, came to understand firsthand the stubbornness and corruption of those in Parliament. Unlike William, he did not believe that independence would result in anarchy. Instead, he came to see the colonies as a rival power to that of England. He was cautious about revolution and at first advocated reform in the British government. Soon, however, he came to realize this was impossible. While his son urged the colonial assemblies to try to heal their rift with England peaceably, Benjamin Franklin understood how impractical this was. He saw that Britain refused to listen to the petition of the American colonies.

Neither William nor Benjamin made a decision overnight to join the Loyalist or Patriot camps. Rather, their beliefs developed as turbulent political events swirled around them. Ultimately, these decisions cannot be judged as necessarily morally right or wrong. William was just as much a patriot as his father. He loved the colonies and did not advocate a tyrannical government. Indeed, the ideas he clung to were ones previously shared by all colonists. Unfortunately, they had grown outdated and ultimately not viable. They could not survive the growing tensions between an Empire and her colonies.


1. Skemp, Sheila L. Benjamin and William Franklin. Bedford/St. Martin's, 1994. pg. 19
2. Ibid, 36
3. Ibid, 37
4. Ibid, 89
5. Ibid, 179
6. Ibid, 176
7. Ibid, 176
8. Ibid, 176

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Posted by Nicole Bianchi at 3:26 PM |

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