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.