Monday, September 20, 2010

Insulting the Angels (with a hat tip to Alice Hoffman)

My colleague Dorothea Rees unearthed today's gem from our library's Brooker Collection of Early American Legal and Land Use Documents. Document #1824 is a brief handwritten agreement to arrange a substitute for a (presumably) wealthy man eager to avoid military service.

It states in full: "It is agreed between Amos W. Pike & Peyser Drake & Co. - that the latter furnish the said Pike a substitute either for the Army or Navy for the sum of eight hundred & seventy five dollars (875 D.) Portsmouth August 2 1864 Peyser Drake & Co. by W.M."

Until February 1824, it was perfectly legal to pay a $300 fee to the government to commute one's service, or to hire a substitute. After that time, legislation abolished commutation, so the only way to avoid service was to procure a substitute. The price for substitutes immediately skyrocketed - hence Mr. Pike's steep fee of $875. (This figure amounts to about $12,300 in today's dollars, using the Consumer Price Index.)

In her short story collection Blackbird House, one of my favorite books of all time, Alice Hoffman wrote movingly about this very issue in a story entitled "Insulting the Angels."

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