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A picture of slavery, for youth. Jonathan Walker.

[Detail] A picture of slavery, for youth. Jonathan Walker

Historical Issues Analysis and Decision Making: Persisting Issues in History

A document dealing with slavery in the northern colonies, "The Trial and Execution for Petit Treason, of Mark and Phillis, Slaves of Capt. John Codman," demonstrates that some contemporary issues have been under debate for many years. The document is a paper written in 1883 about a 1755 Massachusetts case in which two slaves were executed for the murder of their owner. The executions were by hanging and burning, the latter of which shocked the sensibilities of the paper's 19th-century author, who discusses the death penalty at some length. Read the author's discussion (found near the end of the document) to identify arguments that foreshadow contemporary debates on this topic. For example, the author examines the death penalty's efficacy as a deterrent, providing a 1761 quotation from Massachusetts Governor Barnard (who believed the death penalty was a deterrent) and then refuting it by drawing on the British experience that "all who considered the subject thoughtfully found that the increase of capital crimes more than kept pace with the increase of laws creating them." For each argument for or against the death penalty provided in this document, try to find a quotation from a 21st-century advocate or opponent of the death penalty making the same point. What does this exercise tell you about the persisting nature of some issues?

Consider the qualities that make an issue persist over time, rather than one that is solved or simply fades away. List some qualities (an example might be the issue affects many people). Identify other issues that emerged from your analysis of documents in Slaves and the Courts, 1740-1860 (examples might be race relations and states’ rights). Which of these issues fit your list of qualities of persistent issues? Recognizing that some issues persist across time and space and comparing how people responded to the issues at different times and in different locations can help us better understand both the past and the present.