Monday, February 14, 2005

The misfortune end here

After the Revolutionary War ended, Alexander Hamilton served in the New York Assembly. Chernow mentions a couple of Hamilton's votes that seemed relevant to his horrendous childhood. Hamilton "supported a bill making it impossible for people divorced due to adultery to remarry" although such a law back in the West Indies had kept Hamilton's parents from being able to legitimize his own birth. His second vote also addressed a situation women such as his mother could find themselves in and it reminded me of a recent bill in the Virginia legislature.

Remember the furor at the beginning of the year over Representative John Cosgrove's bill to require any woman who suffered a miscarriage at any point in her pregnancy to report the miscarriage to the police within 12 hours or else be guilty of a misdemeanor offense? After a deluge of email and bad publicity Cosgrove said he would include language that would indicate that the bill applied only to those babies that are claimed to have been stillborn and that have been abandoned. The bill is an attempt to determine if an abandoned baby was born alive so that the mother could be charged with more than improper disposal of a human body. (Democracy for Virginia)

When Hamilton was in the Assembly there was a similar bill, "a bill that aimed to deter mothers of illegitimate children from killing them at birth. One controversial clause stipulated that if the child died, the unwed mother had to produce a witness who could corroborate that the child had been stillborn or died from natural causes. It bothered Hamilton that the mother would have to admit openly that she had given birth to an illegitimate child."

Why have we lost the compassion and empathy Hamilton expressed for such women? This is the account The Daily Advertiser gave when Hamilton addressed the Assembly:

"Mr. Hamilton observed that the clause was neither politic or just. He wished it obliterated from the bill. To show the propriety of this, he expatiated feelingly on the delicate situation it placed an unfortunate woman in. . . . From the concealment of the loss of honor, her punishment might be mitigated and the misfortune end here. She might reform and be again admitted into virtuous society. The operation of this law compelled her to publish her shame to the world. It was to be expected therefore that she would prefer the danger of punishment from concealment to the avowal of her guilt."

Wow. Not only wow because of what Hamilton understood, but because the Assembly sided with him.

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