Life cycles of American legal history through Bob Dylan's eyes.

Author:Serafino, Laurie
Position:Bob Dylan and the Law

Introduction I. First Crucifixion: The Pre-Civil War Period II. First Death: The Civil War and the Birth of the Modern Corporation III. Reconstruction I: The Resurrection of America During the Post-Civil War Period IV. America's Second Crucifixion: The Post-Reconstruction Period A. Jim Crow B. The Growth of Corporate Influence V. America's Second Death: The Immigrants, Workers, and Joe Hill VI. Second Reconstruction: The Early 1960s VII. Third Crucifixion: The Riots VIII. Third Death: Corporate Influence in the Debate About the New Immigrants and the Anti-Union Movement A. Corporate Grip on Politicians B. Corporate Participation in the Battle over Illegal Immigration C. Corporate Muscle in the Public Sector Union Battle D. Public Sector Union Disputes in Wisconsin Show Corporate Involvement in Government Conclusion INTRODUCTION

"[T]hey try to turn a man into a mouse." (1)

"Lessons of life can't be learned in a day." (2)

Bob Dylan believes that America passes through cycles of change that correlate to patterns of discrimination and revolution.

The time surrounding the Civil War is an example of a cycle of revolution in Dylan's eyes. In his autobiography, Chronicles, Dylan states that, during the Civil War, "America was put on the cross, died and was resurrected.... The god-awful truth of that would be the all-encompassing template behind everything that I would write." (3) Dylan continues:

As for what time it was, it was always just beginning to be daylight .... It was always the same pattern. Some early archaic period where society grows and develops and thrives, then some classical period where the society reaches its maturation point and then a slacking off period where decadence makes things fall apart. I had no idea which one of these stages America was in. There was nobody to check with. (4) This quote reveals Dylan's disheartenment as patterns in history affirm to him that real, substantive change cannot be maintained. He refrains from stating what "stage[] America [is] in" (5) because he knows that society will end up back at the beginning, albeit, perhaps with some improvement.

This Article will examine, from a legal perspective, Dylan's ideas on social policy and change. I have identified periods in American history during which our nation "was put on the cross, died and was resurrected." (6) I chose to discuss these specific periods because of Dylan's intense interest in them.

Despite his frustration with America's inability to sustain lasting change, Dylan has a particular admiration for some of the leaders whom he believes improved America because they were honorable and fair, stood up for the underdog, and fought hard against their enemies. This Article examines Dylan's views on American legal history with an emphasis on those key players.

This Article begins with an in-depth look at the treatment of African Americans before, during, and after the Civil War by looking at relevant legal statutes and Supreme Court cases. From this period, I examine Dylan's particular interest in abolitionist and human rights activist Thaddeus Stevens.

The second cycle of revolution to gain Dylan's attention is the struggle of the worker and immigrant during the twentieth century. Here, Dylan is impressed with Joe Hill, an immigrant leader of the labor movement. The story of Joe Hill illustrates the trampling of the traditional worker in America, from after the Civil War up until the mid-twentieth century. With the rise of unions and improved working conditions came the formation of a middle class. This altered social structure resulted in greater intolerance for discrimination toward African Americans, leading the United States into the Second Reconstruction during the 1960s--the civil rights movement.

The Article concludes by examining current domestic issues in the third cycle of revolution--specifically, how corporations exert significant domination over the political process. Corporate influence on issues of illegal immigration and public sector union rights in contemporary America is evident. Like the earlier periods in American history, this Third Death is perpetuated by corporate self-interest.


    "To see him obviously framed couldn't help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land where justice is a game." (7)

    The quote above is taken from a song about Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, a man Dylan felt was wrongly convicted of a triple homicide in 1966. The song's lyrics illustrate Dylan's lack of confidence in the integrity of the United States legal system and its failure to provide justice to persons who are discriminated against, a sentiment he expresses particularly about the Civil War.

    The analysis will begin with what I call America's "First Crucifixion." It was the period directly before the Civil War when extreme racial discrimination was the social norm. A close look at legislation and domestic disputes during this period illustrates the crucifixion of American society.

    The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 provided for the legal return of runaway slaves to their owners. (8) Crucially, this law provided that federal fugitive slave laws superseded state fugitive slave laws, (9) which essentially mandated the enforcement of slavery in the entire country. The United States Supreme Court first interpreted this statute in Prigg v. Pennsylvania.lo Edward Prigg was a Maryland citizen who arranged for the capture from Pennsylvania and return to Maryland of a fugitive slave and her children. (11) Prigg was initially convicted in Pennsylvania for violating the state's statutory ban on the return of fugitive slaves to their owners, (12) but the Court found the Pennsylvania statute to be unconstitutional and overturned Prigg's conviction. (13) The Court ruled that slavery was protected by the United States Constitution; (14) that the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was constitutional; (15) that state laws interfering with the return of fugitive slaves were unconstitutional; (16) and that slave owners or their agents could return alleged fugitives to slavery without an oral testimony or a written affidavit. (17) The Court clearly asserted its support of slavery and diminished the rights of individual states to speak on the matter.

    While the Court ruled that the Pennsylvania law was unconstitutional, Justice Story's (18) majority opinion included this statement:

    As to the authority so conferred upon state magistrates, while a difference of opinion has existed, and may exist still, on the point, in different states, whether state magistrates are bound to act under it, none is entertained by this Court, that state magistrates may, if they choose, exercise that authority, unless prohibited by state legislation. (19) Thus, while individual states could not outlaw the return of slaves, the Court could not force them to affirmatively act to return slaves. In response to Prigg, many states redrafted their personal liberty laws. (20)

    Ironically, the ruling in Prigg was used both to support the return of runaway slaves and a state's right not to return runaway slaves. Anti-slavery advocates opposed the ruling in Prigg, they saw the opinion as a victory for slave-holders. Pro-slavery advocates opposed Prigg as well: anti-slavery lawyers and judges used Justice Story's language in Prigg to prevent the return of fugitives to slavery. (21) Thus, the ruling in Prigg caused even more dissension between the Northern and Southern states and was one of the factors that necessitated the federal government's enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. (22)

    Dylan was fascinated by one of the key political figures willing to speak out in opposition to slavery before the Civil War. Representative Thaddeus Stevens embodied Dylan's views and was the foremost anti-slavery advocate of his time. Of Stevens, Dylan said, "He made a big impression on me, [and] was inspiring." (23) Stevens was one of the country's most prominent anti-slavery lawyers, and perhaps the most powerful American political leader of his time. (24) Dylan said:

    He grew up poor, made a fortune and from then on championed the weak and any other group who wasn't able to fight equally.... He got right in there, called his enemies a "feeble band of lowly reptiles who shun the light and who lurk in their own dens.... " [He] could have stepped out of a folk ballad. (25) Dylan not only admired Stevens' dedication to the abolitionist movement and the attitude Stevens took toward his adversaries; he also integrated Stevens into his own work by saying Stevens "stepped out of a folk ballad." (26) Dylan viewed Stevens as a figure that epitomized the individual struggle to rise up against challenges and champion the overlooked.

    Stevens' most prominent role was as the Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. (27) A radical Republican, he was bitterly opposed to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. (28) Although the Act was intended as a compromise between the North and South, it led to riots, deaths, trials, and upheaval. (29) There were many reasons why Stevens and other Abolitionists were so vehemently opposed to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Under the Act, as part of the Compromise of 1850, a slave catcher could obtain an order of removal authorizing the return of a runaway. (30) This power threatened the integrity of laws in states where slavery was illegal by allowing the arm of slavery to reach into free territories. As Larry Gara explains, "Returning men to slavery was nasty business and a measure which attempted to require it was very much out of step with public opinion in the states where slavery itself did not exist." (31)

    Stevens called the Act an "extraordinary conspiracy against liberty," that would "compromise away the Constitution[,]" and predicted it would become "the fruitful mother of future rebellion, disunion and civil war." (32) Stevens' strong, uncompromising stand against the Act upset those in favor of slavery; Stevens...

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