Excerpt from The Light

Editing and revising The Light, it’s interesting to see how the arguments of the day find themselves in the mouths of my characters.  One that was dear to the hearts of the Quakers who form the central figures in this story, and which, with our knowledge of what was to come later in history, is that of slavery.

“The sheer, unmitigated gall of that man, who styles himself as the ruler of all Englishmen.   He is not fit to rule a chamber pot, much less these colonies!  Submit or triumph, says he?  Well, I for one know which I believe it will be.  How will an independent Republic on these shores strike him, one which answers not to his dominion, but which may at some date in the future deign to have relations with him for the sake of trade alone?”

“I fear that he will find out, William, if he does not repeal these intolerable acts.  These Colonies have been stretched to the breaking point by his disregard for our position in his empire.  What will happen if he persists in these provocations fills me with unease for the future.”

Shaking his head, Robert continued, “Can these Colonies indeed form a nation independent of the protection of Britain?”  He paused for a moment, then plunged on with his thought, come what may of his neighbor’s untested position in the question he was moved to raise.  “Can we indeed form a nation at all, when half of the self-styled ‘states’ tolerate and support the abomination of one man claiming ownership over another?   How can any nation claim to have a foundation in liberty while tolerating such a practice within its borders?”

William nodded thoughtfully.  “‘Tis a problem, Robert, though one that we may be able to leave for some future generation to face, with the greater wisdom of their time.”

Robert replied, “I think not, William.  If thou witnessed a man robbing someone, wouldst thou turn aside, and leave it to someone else to stop the thief?  Or wouldst thou apprehend him and see justice done as swiftly as possible?  And how much worse is it to steal a man’s whole life than a loaf of bread?”

The older man was taken aback at the vehemence of Robert’s tone, but paused a long moment before responding.  “And if the law said that the thief were justified in taking that loaf of bread, how then would you propose to address that injustice?”

Robert raised his finger pedantically.  “Ah, but dear neighbor, if we are to form a new nation, might we not have the opportunity to enshrine true justice in the laws of that nation?”

William’s eyes narrowed in thought.  “Indeed such laws might well be possible, but would they be practical?  Will not the thief resort to violence against a citizen who attempts to restrain him?  I fear that the same would be the outcome should these colonies attempt to enforce justice in this matter.”

“So shall we just permit injustice to live among us, because we fear those who commit those injustices?  Is that any basis for a nation of virtue?”

“We shall be, as we are now, a nation of humans, Robert, in all our imperfections and glory, regardless of what high ideals we may subscribe to.  I agree with you that slavery is an abomination, and indeed, like you, I would see it abolished throughout these colonies tomorrow, were I granted that power.  But I know, too, that virtue and reality do not always get along in this world of sin.”

Robert sighed.  “I do understand what thou art saying, William, but this is not a matter of mere expediency.  Hast thou ever seen these miserable people working in bondage?  When I started as an apprentice to George at the smithy, he held a slave to work in the shop, primarily employed at the forge, keeping the bellows.  This man worked harder than any other three men I’ve met, and when I spoke with him, and asked him how he could possibly work so hard, he just smiled and said that George was the easiest master he’d ever known, and he was glad to be here.”

Robert looked William in the eye, staring hard at him for a moment before continuing, “William, this man owed nothing of his own, not even the clothes upon his back.  He could be sold like a steer or whipped like a dog, and nobody would raise a hand in his defense… and this was the best life he had ever known?  I shudder to think of what his brethren in the southern colonies endure.”

William regarded Robert, his lips pursed in thought.  Finally, he shook his head slowly, saying “I agree with you, Robert, but I do not see how we can solve this problem today, you and I.   We can but pray for wisdom among those who are charged with the responsibility of weighing such matters.”

Robert nodded in agreement.  “I do so, on a daily basis.”

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