Can anyone tell me what the central theme of Ralph Waldo Emerson's speech he wrote regarding "The Fugitive Slave Law"?This article from the book "For The Record A Documentary History of America"...

Can anyone tell me what the central theme of Ralph Waldo Emerson's speech he wrote regarding "The Fugitive Slave Law"?

This article from the book "For The Record A Documentary History of America" written David E. Shi & Holly A. Mayer. I would like to know what this document says about slavery and why. I also want to know what the document says about slavery's place in America.

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teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Many abolitionists, such as Emerson and Harriet Beecher Stowe, were inflamed by the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, thinking it a step backwards into barbarity. Many, such as Stowe, thought slavery was withering on the vine and would eventually disappear. The new law was a wake-up call that that would not happen. Emerson called it a disgrace and said it had

the illuminating power of a sheet of lightning at midnight. It showed truth [of the country's support of evil].

It legislated stiff fines and jail time for anyone caught helping a fugitive slave, and denied any black person apprehended as a runaway slave from a jury trial to determine whether he actually was a runaway and not a free black. It also offered bounties to those who rounded up fugitive slaves. It is all too easy to see how blacks who were free could be sold into slavery. It is also easy to see how those whites who in good conscience wanted to help blacks to freedom would be outraged at having their actions harshly criminalized. 

Stowe wrote a wildly successful novel in response, and Emerson wrote this essay. In it, he attacks the new law, asking:

What is the use of admirable law-forms, and political forms, if a hurricane of party feeling and a combination of monied interests can beat them to the ground?

Emerson also states that passing such an immoral law, all on a party-line vote, will lead to bad consequences: 

 In every nation all the immorality that exists breeds plagues. But of the corrupt society that exists we have never been able to combine any pure prosperity. 

He then proposes that the United States buy all the slaves in order to compensate the owners for the loss and set them free:

It is really the great task fit for this country to accomplish, to buy that property of the planters, as the British nation bought the West Indian slaves. I say buy,—never conceding the right of the planter to own, but that we may acknowledge the calamity of his position, and bear a countryman's share in relieving him . . .

He argues that the country has the resources and the ingenuity to do this, even though it will be very expensive. The US only needs the will.

In sum, he contends that slavery is a great moral evil, that its continuation will bring misery on the nation as a whole, and that the United States should buy all the slaves and set them free. 

dbello eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Ralph Waldo Emerson's speech regarding The Fugitive Slave Act was delievered in accordance with his transcendalist beliefs. The Transcendalist Philosophy fostered the idea that American society needed to re-evaulate itself by returning to a natural state of being. Emerson and other transcendalists, such as Henry David Thoreau believed that only with a reconnection with God and nature would American society be able to see the errors of their ways.The Futigive Slave Law Speech supported Emerson's argument that society was on the edge with regard to America's slave issue, and the dangerous legislation being passed in its defense. The central theme of Emerson's speech suggested that man made legal laws fall into two categories, 'just' and 'unjust' laws. Emerson argued that for a law to be 'just', it must be in sinc with 'moral law'. If the law disregards its moral counterpart it is an 'unjust' law and as such must be broken by those governed by it. In order for a law to be moral it must be applied to everyone equally. The law must not counter any other law in order to survive. In his speech Emerson argued that there was potential danger making it Constitutionally legal to kidnap or otherwise kill escaped slaves for a reward. Just as horrible was the notion that 'free blacks' from the north were subject to capture and passed off as escaped slaves for the reward. This speech has had an impact on the philosophies of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as well as the nationalistic leader of India, Gandhi.

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