Bringing Old Orthodoxies To A Boil

I just finished reading Fergus Bordewich’s Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America, a history of the Underground told through a series of vignettes. I enjoyed learning about the unheralded individuals of all stripes who served on the Railroad as “stationmasters” or support staff along the way. But one particular passage stood out for its relevance in today’s tempestuous times.

Some context: The Fugitive Slave Law, passed in 1850, was part of Congress’ infamous compromise of that year and was arguably the most controversial part of an already contentious piece of legislation. The Act imposed legal consequences upon those who aided in the escape of fugitive slaves to the North in order to support Southerners’ legal right to their slave property. But the Act’s draconian measures perturbed even non-abolitionists outside of the South, so much so that the law, according to Bordewich, “became a virtual dead letter” in the North.

This spirit of civil disobedience was not unique to the 1850s, as the book thoroughly illustrates; rather, it was who was being disobedient that was novel after the Act passed. Benoni Fuller, a county sheriff in Indiana—a nominally free state with a proslavery bent – had this reply for proslavery citizens who complained to him about the hundreds of fugitives coming through: “Let ’em!” What made Fuller’s response unique was that he wasn’t an abolitionist nor Underground Railroad stationmaster, but a Democrat, a member of the party of the South and of slavery. Bordewich’s conclusion: “Old orthodoxies were boiling away.”

That last line is what stuck out to me. Even then, before the Civil War had even been fought, the antebellum orthodoxy that said slavery had been and ought to remain a protected social and economic institution was beginning to crumble. While in many ways the orthodoxy continued for decades after slavery was constitutionally disallowed through Jim Crow laws and state-sanctioned discrimination, the idea that a Democratic sheriff who most likely disagreed with abolitionism in a state that was sympathetic to slaveowners would openly balk at implementing a proslavery law demonstrated that the culture was being changed, at least partially, by the Underground Railroad and its lofty ideals.

This is significant because culture changes very slowly. Perhaps it was the animus produced by the Civil War and the events that preceded it that accelerated the culture change, or perhaps it was the overarching sense of divine destiny promulgated by the Quakers and evangelicals who founded and propelled the abolition movement. Whatever it was, it all contributed to the heat that, as per Bordewich, was boiling away the old traditions.

Which got me thinking: what are the beliefs and conventions our culture holds today that are in the process of being “boiled away”? The attitude toward gay marriage is the first one that comes to mind; like the slavery proponents of old, opponents of gay marriage often cite Biblical precedence and the importance of tradition as reasons for keeping the status quo (as Fox News’ [!] Megyn Kelly recently pointed out). But old assumptions about gay people and marriage, especially in the last decade, have been slowly boiling away.

On the issue of slavery, things began to change when regular people, who were neither abolitionists nor slaveholders, started becoming exposed to the horrors and humiliations of slavery (often because of the fugitive slaves that came through their towns on the Underground Railroad). Similarly, opposing gay rights likely becomes more difficult when you merely know a gay person as a friend and can empathize with their struggle to win basic civil rights.

I wonder if the average slaveholding Southerner, knowing now in hindsight that the institution for which he fought and died would crumble and that he would be viewed dismissively as an enemy of what we now consider basic human rights, would still cling tooth and nail to his (at the time) legal right to own a slave. With this in mind, what are the chances our great-grandchildren will look back on this decade and cultural era and judge us harshly for clinging to unjust or flat-out wrong beliefs and dogmas for too long? What sort of blind spots can we see, without the benefit of hindsight, in our own lives?

Will we, for lack of a better phrase, be on the right side of history? For some, that won’t matter: They believe what they believe and that’s that. But for others, it’s an important question to keep in mind when pondering what you believe, why you believe it, and what societal good you do to support those beliefs.

If you consider all of these things yet are not satisfied with the answers, perhaps that which you hold dear—for better and for worse—will one day be boiled away.

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