Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Seward's Successful Defense of an Insane Black Man

Photo: William Seward, from his own Wikipedia page

After watching Spielberg's Lincoln, I bought the book much of the movie is based on, Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Because I'm nerdy like that.  On page 85 is a true account of William Seward's defense of William Freeman, a former slave (last name ironically notwithstanding) who, after years of extreme mistreatment in jail, was released and almost immediately broke into the home of a rich white man--a friend of Seward's, in fact--and killed him, his pregnant wife, their little child, and his wife's mother.  This was undisputed during the whole trial.

The amazing thing about the trial is that, after Freeman was found guilty of the murders, Seward chose to defend him, for free, during the penalty phase.  Long a supporter of prison reform and reform for the mentally ill--and long an abolitionist--Seward realized that Freeman, who was deaf, dumb, and, according to Seward himself, an "imbecile" and a "maniac"--committed those crimes because of his maltreatment in jail for a crime that, it turned out, he never actually did to begin with.  (This case reminds me a bit of Murder in the First, an 80s movie with Christian Slater and Kevin Bacon, and Gary Oldman as a sadistic warden).

And so Seward, who had already served twice as Governor of New York, and who would soon run for president and lose the nomination to Lincoln (partly because of this case), defended him, this black man, who in March of 1846 wiped out a family of Seward's friends.  I found, free on Google Books, Seward's entire closing argument for the case--all thirty-one pages of it.  (!!!)  Full title: Argument of William H. Seward, in defense of William Freeman, on his trial.  In it is some fantastic stuff, including--

--Seward's insistence that Freeman belonged in an asylum, not "on the scaffold," because he was insane.  This was practically a brand new defense at the time.  In fact, though relatively new, Seward reminded the jury a few times to not consider the overuse of the insanity defense against his own insane client.

--A very strong argument against capital punishment itself.

--A very strong argument against the treatment of the insane.

--A rebuke about the bias accorded to the "negro" and to the insane.

--An impassioned stance against the slavery Freeman had lived under, and the mistreatment in jail he had incurred.

--A reminder that had Freeman been white, and the murdered family black, there would have been no trial.

--A warning to the jury to put aside their bias against "the negro" and "the infirm."

--A reminder that, although the murdered family's family and friends were all over the courtroom, the defendant's family was not, because they were slaves, and nobody could track them down.

--The oft-repeated quote: "The color of the prisoner’s skin, and the form of his features, are not impressed upon the spiritual immortal mind which works beneath. In spite of human pride, he is still your brother, and mine, in form and color accepted and approved by his Father, and yours, and mine, and bears equally with us the proudest inheritance of our race—the image of our Maker. Hold him then to be a Man."

And many more things.  And he won!  After a successful appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court (apparently the well-written argument given to the case's jury had no effect), he was spared from the scaffold and died of consumption in a cell somewhere.  An amazing thing, for one person to defend a person of a race oppressed by his own society, who killed a family of his friends.  Seward had everything politically to lose (and he feared for his safety and that of his family, too, from an enraged local populace during the lengthy trial), and he had the bias against the race and the insane to overcome.  All to save a man who never had the sense to know what was going on, to thank him or to pay him, who was never going to see the light of day, even if victorious.

I wonder if any politician today, with the public the ravenous and rabid dog that it is, would have the courage of his own beliefs to defend a man who had done this, who was as hated by his society as he was, who had killed a family of friends, solely because of Seward's beliefs against capital punishment, against slavery, and against bias against blacks and the insane.

I wonder if many of us would, even those of us outside the public eye.  Would many of us even take such a stance against someone at a social gathering?


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