CAST OF CHARACTERS:
IRENE EMERSON CHAFFEE: Northeastern in voice and carriage (though formerly of Missouri), IRENE stands erect, speaks plainly and without temperance, has been involved with the Women’s Suffrage movement for the past eight years.
CALVIN CHAFFEE: Massachusetts Abolitionist. Mild looking, neither striking nor dull. Wants to make his mark, not at all sure if he can. Recently re-elected to the House of Representatives on the Republican ticket.
EDIE: Suffragette friend of IRENE.
AIDE: CALVIN’S clerical aide in the House.
WILLIAM H. SEWARD: Charismatic, forceful, darling of the Abolitionist movement; the kind of man CALVIN wants to be.
Irene Emerson Chaffee became the owner of Dred Scott in 1843 (upon her first husband’s death). She and her second husband, Calvin Chaffee, deeded the Scotts back to their original owners to be manumitted in 1857. Little is known about why the Chaffees deeded the Scotts back to the Blows, instead of manumitting the Scotts themselves. What is known is that Calvin Chaffee served in the United States House of Representatives from 1854-1858. Negative press forced him to retire from public office, rather than seek re-election.
The William Seward speech quoted below comes from his “The Higher Law” speech, given on the floor of the United States Senate on March 11th, 1850, regarding the admission of California into the nation. While Calvin Chaffee might never have heard this speech in person, given that he did not assume office until 1854, nor did he know his wife owned Dred Scott until the Supreme Court decision in 1857, I trust that audience members will forgive this historical indiscretion.
SCENE 1: CHAFFEE RESIDENCE, Washington, D.C., February, 1857, Moving-In Day. The flat is shaping up to be a modestly upper-class Victorian residence—resplendent rugs, elegantly-shaped tables and chairs, gas lamps and a fire in the fireplace. Servants flit here and there under IRENE’S direction, as IRENE struggles to attend to her own work with EDIE.
IRENE: Edie, I don’t know how I’m going to do it. Calvin has scheduled back-to-back dinners, first with the Abolitionists, then with the Republicans, and then with the Abolitionists again. We’ve barely have had time to unpack our bags, let alone put an entire house together.
EDIE: I’m sure you’ll get everything ready in time.
IRENE: As I have no other choice, I hope you’re right. Honestly, the things asked for by a spouse…
EDIE: But Calvin is such a good man.
IRENE: The very definition, yes. I just wish he were a prompt man. We should have arrived in DC a week ago, with all there is to do. (sighs) In any case, where are we with the march?
EDIE: Ethel is sewing banners, Mary is sewing sashes, Catherine’s husband is waiting to bail us out of jail.
CALVIN walks in like a sleepwalker, a NEWSPAPER hanging from slack fingers.
IRENE: Wonderful. Oh, hello Calvin, dear.
EDIE: Good afternoon, Mr. Chaffee.
CALVIN barely acknowledges the two women, sits down in a chair one of the servants just placed in the room.
IRENE: Edie, could you deliver more canvas to Ethel? Don’t let her skimp on the size. We want “suffrage” in big bold letters.
EDIE: I’ll go right away. Goodbye, Mr. Chaffee.
CALVIN waves half-heartedly as EDIE exits.
IRENE: Calvin, have you eaten lunch? You look pale.
IRENE: I wouldn’t want you catching cold, although I don’t mind telling you it would be a weight off my shoulders if you canceled dinner tonight.
IRENE: Not that I think it’s a good idea to cancel, but it would save me rather a headache. Calvin?
IRENE: How did your meeting go?
CALVIN: (taps NEWSPAPER against leg) It didn’t happen.
IRENE: Don’t tell me they’ve found someone else.
CALVIN: They have.
IRENE: I told you we should’ve gotten here sooner. They do realize how instrumental you’ll be to the vote, don’t they?
CALVIN: Less and less.
IRENE: They … realize it less and less?
CALVIN clears his throat, fidgets with NEWSPAPER.
CALVIN: No, I … as it turns out, I believe I will be less and less instrumental.
IRENE: But surely you forget Burden and Clayfield. Wither you vote, they vote.
CALVIN: (staring at NEWSPAPER) Not anymore.
IRENE: Calvin, what’s going on?
CALVIN: There was (clears throat) an article printed in yesterday’s Argus. I would have read it sooner, but we were on the road.
IRENE: What was it about?
CALVIN: …and me.
CALVIN tries to think about how to phrase this.
CALVIN (in a soft voice): Is it possible, Irene, is it, that in the seven years we have been married, you failed to mention the fact that you have owned—that you own, a family of slaves?
IRENE looks stunned.
CALVIN (now speaking a little more forcefully): Is it also possible, as I read in the paper, my hometown paper, that the slaves you own are involved in legal proceedings?
IRENE recovers, straightens up, and waits for CALVIN to finish.
CALVIN (really getting wound up now): And is it possible, is it conceivable, Irene, that this particular case, having gained momentum of purpose and national notoriety, has arrived at the Supreme Court, where all eyes now look to see if it will tip the scales of fate for this nation, this nation in which I am a democratically elected representative?
IRENE considers her position.
CALVIN: Yes what?
IRENE: I am technically a slave owner.
CALVIN: And who is it, technically, that you own?
IRENE: I own Dred Scott, his wife Harriet, and his daughters Lizzie and Eliza.
CALVIN: You own Dred Scott. You do.
IRENE: Yes. He was part of my first husband’s estate.
CALVIN: You. My wife. You own Dred Scott, the most famous slave in the nation.
IRENE: I do.
CALVIN: (shaking paper) You … have ruined me.
IRENE: (rolling eyes) I do not respond to hyperbole, Calvin Chaffee. You know that.
CALVIN: You have ruined me!
IRENE: He’s just one slave.
CALVIN: Four. Four slaves. You own four slaves.
IRENE: Four slaves. And what if it was forty? Jefferson owned 175.
CALVIN: I’m not Thomas Jefferson! History will not look upon me as it did him!
CALVIN: Great men are allowed all manner of sins, but—
IRENE: But you are a great man. Or you will be.
CALVIN: I might have been. But now? You have made me a footnote.
CALVIN: Why didn’t you at least tell me? When we were courting … or … even after?
IRENE: I don’t know. I assumed the occasion would inevitably arise and it just … didn’t.
CALVIN: It didn’t? For seven years it didn’t?!
Now it’s IRENE’S turn to get mad.
IRENE: Don’t look at me like that’s my fault.
CALVIN: You mean I’m to blame?
CALVIN: Well? Well? Because I never asked you the explicit question “Eliza Irene Sanford Emerson, do you perchance own the life and livelihood of another human being?”
IRENE: Well you never did, did you. You just assumed—
CALVIN: I assumed what?
IRENE: (coldly, like she’s getting ready for the big knock-down-drag-out) You assumed that because you are an Abolitionist, and you were courting me, that I was an Abolitionist as well. Or would become one.
CALVIN: You’re not?
IRENE: I own four slaves, don’t I?
CALVIN: (in disbelief) … yes you do. How can you?
IRENE: Thousands of people do.
CALVIN: But you! The most righteous person I know! You’ve been fighting for women’s suffrage for as long as I’ve known you!
IRENE opens her mouth to speak but CALVIN interrupts her.
CALVIN: (shaking NEWSPAPER) He tried to buy his freedom! He tried to buy, from you, an inalienable right endowed to him by God, and you refused!
IRENE: I take it back. You’re right.
CALVIN: About what?
IRENE: You’re not a great man. You’re a good man, but you’ll never be great.
CALVIN stares at her.
IRENE: A great man would take in the wider view, consider the whole landscape instead of narrowing his focus on one tiny pebble.
CALVIN: Are you calling a man’s life a pebble?
IRENE: You ask me how I could refuse a man his freedom, his “divinely endowed right.”
IRENE: I ask you in return: how can I grant a man something that I do not myself possess?
CALVIN: What are you talking about?
IRENE: Who inherited the estate of my late first husband?
CALVIN: You did.
IRENE: And yet who retains control over it?
IRENE: It is always the lesser man who falls silent in the face of the truth. The truth that I, Eliza Irene Sanford Emerson Chaffee, cannot grant Dred Scott and his family freedom even if I wanted to, because my drunken, crooked-hearted madman of a brother is the legal executor of my estate. (beat) You wrap yourself in this cloak of righteous fury, shouting about freedom for all men, and yet you never blink, never raise an eyebrow at your own wife’s indenturement.
CALVIN: But that’s … it’s for your protection.
IRENE: My protection? He skinned rabbits alive. We would find the remnants all over the house. And yet in the eyes of the law a lunatic, possessed of a criminally warped mind, is better constituted to execute my estate than I am.
CALVIN: I’m sure we can do something about that. I’ll write to the governor in Missouri.
IRENE: To what end? We’re married. All my property is yours anyway.
CALVIN: (hurt) That’s just a formality.
IRENE: As is Dred Scott’s liberty. He receives a wage under his leasing contracts, the same as any other man. How do you think he accrued the funds to buy manumission in the first place?
CALVIN: Keeping slaves is not the same as keeping a wife!
IRENE: Because I am less subjugated than they? Why is it that if a worse fate can be conceived to exist, my deprivations cease to?
CALVIN: You are being unreasonable!
IRENE: You are being blind!
The two storm out of the room, lights go out.
SCENE 2: FLOOR OF THE SENATE, Washington D.C., late February, 1857. CALVIN sits amongst the senators, his AIDE beside him; IRENE sits in an upper gallery; WILLIAM H. SEWARD has taken the floor to deliver his “Higher Law” speech.
SEWARD: I have heard here, almost for the first time in my life, of divided allegiance—of allegiance to the South and to the Union—of allegiance to states severally and to the Union. I know only one country and one sovereign—the United States of America and the American people.
CALVIN whispers something to his AIDE, who nods and sneaks up to the gallery, where he whispers something in IRENE’S ear.
SEWARD: And such as my allegiance is, is the loyalty of every other citizen of the United States. He has life, liberty, property, and precious affections, and hopes for himself and for his posterity, treasured up in the ark of the Union. He knows as well and feels as strongly as I do, that this government is his own government; that he is a part of it; that it was established for him, and that it is maintained by him; that it is the only truly wise, just, free, and equal government that has ever existed.
IRENE: (whispering to the AIDE) Yes, I do realize that my actions affect others.
AIDE whispers something else into IRENE’S ear.
IRENE: No, I do not think his career is over.
AIDE whispers again.
IRENE: Please tell the right honorable Representative from Massachusetts that patience is a virtue, and all he need do is wait for tempers to calm.
AIDE sneaks back down to CALVIN, delivering IRENE’S message.
SEWARD: You may tell me, sir, that the trial of faction has not yet been made. Sir, if the trial of faction has not been made, it has been because faction could find no fulcrum on which to place the lever to subvert the Union, and in this is my confidence.
CALVIN whispers in AIDE’S ear, AIDE delivers message to IRENE.
SEWARD: I would not rashly provoke the trial, but I will not suffer a fear which I have not, to make me compromise one sentiment—one principle of truth or justice—to avert a danger that all experience teaches me is purely chimerical. Let those who distrust the Union make compromises to save it.
IRENE: He knows full well I can’t.
AIDE whispers something else to IRENE.
IRENE: Ask him to send further inquiries to Shady Acres Sanitarium for the Criminally Insane.
AIDE delivers message to CALVIN.
SEWARD: For the vindication of that vote, I look not to the verdict of the passing hour, disturbed as the public mind now is by conflicting interests and passions.
CALVIN whispers to AIDE, AIDE delivers message to IRENE.
IRENE: That would be rash.
AIDE whispers something else.
IRENE: Tell him that if he avails himself of his right to do with my property as he will, he shall prove himself to be less of a husband and more of a tyrant, as I shall be less wife and more chattel, and as such, I shall see little occasion to speak to him or look upon him or have any more interaction with him than a horse would with its rider.
SEWARD: Future generations seem to me to be rising up, saying, “Waste your treasures and your armies, if you will; raze your fortifications to the ground; sink your navies into the sea; transmit to us a dishonored name, if you must; but the soil you hold in trust for us, give it to us free. Whatever choice you have made for yourselves, let us have no partial freedom; let us be free from the calamities and from the sorrows of human bondage.”
SCENE 3: CHAFFEE RESIDENCE, March 6th, 1857. IRENE sits in a chair reading a letter. CALVIN enters, stands in doorway. IRENE sees him and stands up, but does not go to greet him. It is clear that their relationship has frosted over a bit.
CALVIN: Have you heard?
IRENE: (holds up LETTER) I have just read the ruling. (she looks at the LETTER) They overstepped their mandate, I think.
CALVIN: The party is furious.
IRENE: I would be, were I them.
CALVIN: There were more letters to the editor this morning, in the Argus. They’re calling for me to resign.
IRENE: You’re not thinking—
CALVIN: No, but I do not think I shall run again.
They’re both silent for a moment.
IRENE: I’m sorry.
CALVIN: For what?
IRENE: For … the way things have turned out. For you.
CALVIN: And what about for Dred Scott?
IRENE: (looks at LETTER) They have no mandate to say that a black man is not a citizen. If I had known—if I had thought the court capable—I would have spoken to my brother long ago. (beat) They have no mandate.
CALVIN: And yet they have done so.
IRENE: But surely Congress can—
CALVIN: Congress will do nothing. The Democrats are overjoyed, the Republicans bereft, the Whigs, what’s left of them, are hiding under their chairs until it is all over, and the Union … the Union will tear itself apart.
IRENE: And what of us?
CALVIN doesn’t reply.
IRENE: Shall our union also be torn apart?
CALVIN: I don’t know.
IRENE: I propose a compromise. I will let you write to the governor of Missouri and transfer ownership of the Scott family to yourself, if in turn you will promise not to manumit them yourself.
CALVIN opens his mouth to object, but IRENE holds up her hand.
IRENE: I cannot abide it. I have contacted Dred Scott’s original owner, or rather, the son of Dred Scott’s former owner, a Mr. Henry Taylor Blow.
IRENE: No, no, you’ll like him. You and he are of like mind. I am sure, if you transfer ownership of the Scott family back to him, they will see freedom within the year.
CALVIN: (aghast) I will look like a coward.
IRENE: You said yourself, you aren’t running for re-election.
IRENE: I cannot stand the thought of you, my husband, doing for a man what you cannot do for me. Let another man take up that standard. I know it’s unreasonable, but that is how I feel. Please.
CALVIN thinks about this.
CALVIN: My reputation hangs by a thread. I could repair all if I, myself, manumit Scott.
IRENE: I know.
CALVIN: And yet you would have me hand that deed off, and let another man do what I already think is right. He will gain esteem in my place.
IRENE: Just as you would gain esteem in mine.
CALVIN: I see. This is a lesson you’re teaching me now.
IRENE: If it is something you have not already learned, then yes, you could take it that way.
CALVIN: And what would that lesson be?
IRENE: Oh, I don’t know … solidarity?
CALVIN: Solidarity in place of greatness.
IRENE: If you do this, the two will not be mutually exclusive.
CALVIN: History won’t see it that way.
IRENE: But I will.
CALVIN thinks about this, and nods, and embraces his wife. Curtains close.