As a lifelong Civil War buff, I reckoned I knew a bit about the slave-catching agenda, but this was enlightening indeed.
We open on South Carolina in 1700 where an experienced slave-catcher engages with his prey - a well-known repeat-runaway - and kills him in the struggle. This will cost him his generous fee, payable only when the slave is returned alive. A generation or so later, though, the law has changed, and a dead runaway will also fetch a handsome reward, this time subsidised by the state.
This reflects the gradual tightening-up of the policing that was needed to keep the slave system intact. The huge advantage to the slave-owner was not as unassailable as it had been. Insecurity was creeping in. The state militia now had to help out with slave-catching, often inspecting slave quarters to check for arms, or that even more dangerous weapon, the book. These new patrols became a close brotherhood with a lively social life as the families came to know each other (a natural nucleus for the future KKK). But the slaves, many from the same part of Africa, were often able to communicate in their own tongue, all unknown to the authorities, and what looked like tribal dances might actually be military drill.
By the time of the Revolution, the British added their bit - "Escape and fight with us." Thousands did. But it was the new Fugitive Slave Act that really raised the temperature. It was part of the uneasy Compromise of 1850, when Congress had nothing much to offer the south, except a lot of bluster about hunting down more runaways. It had the effect of turning the entire white population into slave-catchers, liable for heavy fines if they failed to report anyone who just looked as though he might be a runaway (not much fun for the large free-black community). As we know, this so outraged Harriet Beecher Stowe that she sat down and wrote 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'...
This major 100-minute video from the History Channel manages to combine straight historical narrative with a useful overview of the changing dynamics of slavery and even the psychology of the slave-owner, perhaps unconsciously aware that he was doing Faustian deals with the devil. All of this is presented in an admirably disciplined way. Which makes it all the more disappointing when we are repeatedly reminded that slavery was an 'immoral institution' (as though we hadn't gathered that) - a clumsy intrusion, presumably by some diversity editor, like an irritating advertisement, certainly not from the same pen that wrote the rest of the splendid script.
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