Dred Scott, Abraham Lincoln, and John Brown

Although many events led up to the final outbreak of the Civil War in 1860, three of the most important, which occurred in successive years before 1860, are the Dred Scott Decision of 1857, the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859. These three events combined, and each coming upon the heels of the other, led to an exacerbation of the tension between the North and the South, heightening feelings on both sides. Although the Civil War had become a near-inevitability by the time that these events occurred and due to the ideological rift between North and South, these three events are important link in the chain of events that led to the outbreak of conflict.

The Dred Scott Decision in 1857 decided the case of Dred Scott, a slave who tried to claim his freedom on the basis that he had been taken and lived with his owner in a state in which slavery was illegal. The Supreme Court’s decision was that Dred Scott was not only not made free by virtue of having been taken into a non-slave state but in fact did not have the legal standing as a person according to the Constitution to even have brought his case to court. This decision was a shock to many Northerners and a major blow to the abolitionist cause.1 Abraham Lincoln was particularly incensed at the decision and reinvigorating in his zeal of stopping the expansion of slavery throughout the United States.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 occurred the following year. In the debates, Lincoln, a member of the Republican Party, represented the free labor ideology of the Republican Party, and Douglas, a Northern Democrat, reflected a belief in the primacy of States’ Rights. These debates were widely attended at each location at which they occurred and the full texts of the debates were published in newspapers across the country and read with great interest. It was largely on the basis of his performance in these debates that Lincoln was nominated for and elected to the presidency the following year. Many of his words in these debates were also used against him by his Southern opponents in their attempts to paint him as a radical abolitionist.

The straw that broke the camel’s back in the lead up to the Civil War is probably John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859. John Brown led a group of both blacks and whites in a raid on a federal arsenal in an attempt to encourage a general slave insurrection throughout the South. Although John Brown’s raid failed to accomplish its intended effect and John Brown himself was hung for leading the raid, Brown can be seen as ultimately victorious in his goals. His raid increased the tension between North and South and led many in both regions to believe the ideological differences between the regions could only be decided through armed conflict. His raid, then, can be seen as one of the important causes of the Civil War.

Although the ideologies of North and South had created an ever-growing rift between the two regions, and conflict was nearly inevitable by the late 1850s, the Dred Scott Decision, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry are three events which exacerbated the tensions between North and South. These three events, which occurred in successive years leading up to 1860 and the outbreak of the Civil War, can be seen as steps that led to the process of secession. In this sense, they can be seen as three important causes of the Civil War.

1 Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 292-3.

The Character of Bartleby

In his short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Herman Melville presents the reader with a main character, Bartleby, who is simultaneously bizarre and relatable. The character of Bartleby was perhaps designed by Melville to in some ways represent Melville himself and his reception by the literary critics and reading public of his own day. No matter how personal the character may have been to Melville, Bartleby is also a character with a nearly universal appeal. Even while remaining somewhat perplexing throughout the story, Bartleby is a character to whom, in his rejection of the stifling social expectations of the modern world, many modern readers must feel a certain attraction. Though the reader never enters directly into the mind of Bartleby himself, and so Bartleby in one sense remains disconnected from the reader, the reader is nonetheless led by the growing sympathy of the narrator, an employer of Bartleby who becomes nearly obsessed with the man, to develop a close identification with Bartleby as a symbol.

One of the most remarkable features of the story of “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is that Bartleby is, in a sense, a minor character in his own story. Although the story is named after and ostensibly revolves around Bartleby, Bartleby says and does remarkably little in the story. This scarcity of deed and word, of course, is what makes Bartleby important. He stands out precisely because of his destitution of action and language. What makes him noteworthy is that he refuses to interact with others in the usual way, to follow the customs and conventions dictated by mainstream society with its social demands and cultural norms and mores. The phrase Bartleby repeats with the greatest frequency is the simple statement, “I would prefer not to,” his answer to nearly every request or question posed to him (Melville 304). Bartleby, though, makes very little fuss about his preferences. Typically, he informs his interlocutor of what he prefers and exits the scene, refusing to argue the matter even when directly confronted. It is, in fact, the narrator of the story who makes the most ado about the word “prefer,” detailing how others around Bartleby, including the narrator himself, had acquired the unconscious habit of frequently using the word.

This is the way that Bartleby is experienced throughout the story. The narrator leads the reader through his own experiences of Bartleby, bringing the reader to feel the same successive puzzlement, sympathy, irritation, revulsion, and, finally, a kind of identification with Bartleby which the narrator experiences and details. In this way, Bartleby remains a figure of mystery to the reader, a symbol rather than a person. Had Melville chosen to tell his story from the perspective of Bartleby, whether in the first person as Bartleby himself or in the third person as a disembodied voice with omniscient access to the feelings, motives, and thoughts of even Bartleby, Bartleby would have become a person and lost the ability to function as a symbol for the reader. As it is, the reader interacts with Bartleby as another person would interact with Bartleby, allowing Bartleby to maintain his autonomy and independence. Ironically, it is easier to identify with and experience empathy for a distant and mysterious figure than for one whose most intimate and personal feelings and thoughts are made evident.

With this in mind, I think Melville would have done better to end his story with the death of Bartleby rather than continuing, as he does, to conclude with a postscript in which the narrator reports some rumor he had heard which apparently explains Bartleby’s motivations. By adding this postscript, Melville made the character of Bartleby, hitherto a pathetic figure in the sense of that word which indicates a figure that arouses pity or empathy into a pathetic figure in the negative sense of the word. In other words, he is not someone with some special insight into the human condition who has triumphed over the pettiness of the everyday but he seems instead to be a pitiful depressive nihilist who is unable to cope with the facts of life. It is noteworthy here, however, that this seeming insight into the psychology of Bartleby is only, as the narrator explicitly states, “one little item of rumor” and a “vague report” by an unnamed third party (Melville 321). Even at the close of the story and in the moment of greatest revelation about the character of Bartleby, the reader is not given insight into Bartleby the man but instead is led through another’s perspective on Bartleby to further regard Bartleby the symbol.

The saying that “familiarity breeds contempt” is a very old one with which Herman Melville was probably familiar. He certainly applied the wisdom of this aphorism in composing his story of “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Rather than allowing the reader to get close to Bartleby through a first person narration or some other direct means of contact with the person of Bartleby, the reader is kept close enough to Bartleby to develop some notions about him but distant enough to never gain a comprehensive familiarity with him. In experiencing the words and deeds of Bartleby through the observations of the narrator, and in allowing that narrator to play a great role in digesting and interpreting those words and deeds, Bartleby is a character who becomes a symbol with which the reader identifies rather than person with whom the reader interacts.

Works Cited
Melville, Herman. “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Volume E. 3rd ed. Gen. Ed. Martin Puchner. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. 296-321. Print.