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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Angels, Animals, or Agents of Change

Wordsworth claimed that humans are fallen angels who come into the world "trailing clouds of glory," but some people think he was overly optimistic. Wisconsin's own Thornton Wilder had a different view. He wrote, "every good and excellent thing in the world stands moment by moment on the razor-edge of danger and must be fought for." Although we may not originally fall from heaven, we continually risk falling from grace.

One has to admit that prominent strands of cruelty and malice run through history, and Wisconsin has its fair share. Probably greed and fear lie behind most of this heritage of brutality, and ignorance and complacency have always been their close companions. At times they have even become enshrined in public policy. Are they simply part of human nature? They're certainly as common today as they were 65 or 165 years ago. On Holocaust Remembrance Day, it's easier to see our obvious depravity than our supposed divinity.

But each of us nevertheless has a choice, or perhaps more accurately a perpetual series of choices, to nurture the brutish or the civilized in ourselves and our world. Taking a stand for tolerance and compassion can be solitary or social, may try our soul or be easily embraced, may succeed quickly or consume long decades, but each individual always has the choice to act on behalf of civilization rather than barbarism.

Two hundred years ago Tecumseh came to Green Bay to enlist Menominee support for his popular alliance against white settlers, rallying Wisconsin warriors with visions of military glory. Their principal chief, Tomah, was against the proposal. He admitted to the assembled tribe that much of what Tecumseh said was true, and "while the deepest silence reigned throughout the audience, he slowly raised his hands, with his eyes fixed on them, and in a lower, but not less persuasive tone, continued 'but it is my boast that these hands are unstained with human blood.'" The Menominee Nation remained neutral.

In 1842, when 15-year-old Caroline Quarles, the first fugitive slave to escape through Wisconsin, was pursued by the authorities, few people cared or dared to help her. A reward of $300 was offered for her capture, and prominent officials helped in the search to expose her. She was traced to Waukesha County, where her owner's lawyers called on a well-known abolitionist named Deacon Mendall, who was hilling potatoes in his garden. "They asked the Deacon's opinion of his crime of law breaking," recalled an associate. "'Why,' replied the Deacon, 'I didn't know hilling potatoes was breaking the law.' 'You are harboring that slave girl which is against the law.' 'Well a bad law is sometimes better broken then obeyed,' said the Deacon glancing at his rifle, which lay nearby on the grass. The Deacon's glance at his rifle cooled the slave hunters somewhat but they finally summoned courage to ask permission to search his house. 'No, sir, you don't search my house for any slave,' said Deacon Mendall sternly and the group, afraid of the rifle, marched back to Prairieville [Waukesha]. A man over sixty years of age had frightened them away single handed." Quarles was successfully spirited away to Canada where, according to the family who hid her in Pewaukee, she married a man "who had been a slave and with his first wife had run away from the south, and she had killled herself on the way because her children had all been sold away from her." In Canada Caroline Quarles learned to read and write, and raised a family of six children.

Knowing the history of our lapses and our triumphs, seeing both our barbarity and our humanity, empowers us to create change. Knowing our history gives hope that we may continue to escape, as Wilder phrased it in the middle of World War Two, by the skin of our teeth.

:: Posted in Curiosities on April 22, 2006

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