Subordinate clause: a sentence for the party of states’ rights and family values

At 5 PM on October 1, 1851, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal:

Just put a fugitive slave, who has taken the name of Henry Williams, into the cars for Canada. He escaped from Stafford County, Virginia, to Boston last October; has been in Shadrach’s place at the Cornhill Coffee-House; had been corresponding through an agent with his master, who is his father, about buying himself, his master asking $600, but he having been able to raise only $500. Heard that there were writs out for two Williamses, fugitives. . . . Accordingly fled to Concord last night on foot. 

In mid-nineteenth-century American English, “into the cars” meant “on the train.” However, the terms “agent” and “writ” haven’t changed since Thoreau’s time. They still have the social meanings now that they possessed in 1860, when

the South’s 4 million enslaved human beings were worth between $3 billion and $4 billion: the largest single asset in the entire United States, representing more than the value of all the nation’s railroads and factories combined. Slaves, even more than land, were Southern planters’ safest and most lucrative investment. Prices had been skyrocketing — doubling in the 1850s alone. Natural human reproduction ensured a further return. Slaves could easily be rented, mortgaged, or liquidated. A planter’s slaves were often, in modern terms, not just his work force, but also his stock portfolio.

(Adam Goodheart, “The Color of Money,” New York Times Online 21 June 2011)

With that transactional economics in mind, look at the little phrase I’ve printed in red above: “who is his father.” Grammar calls such an array of words a subordinate clause, meaning that it’s a statement of doing, being, or occurring which depends for its meaning on another statement of doing, being, or occurring. The word “because” in “Because I could not stop for death” changes a complete sentence into a subordinate clause. It’s an agent, like the man in 1851 who presumably charged a fee for trying to change Henry Williams’s relationship with his father from servile to independent.

The transaction wasn’t completed in Thoreau’s lifetime, but for a while in the twentieth century it seemed that the period at the end of the sentence could be in view and it might one day be possible to think of people as priceless. However, the grammar of politics is stubborn and conservative. Perhaps the family history of slavery and freedom is only a cyclical narrative after all, like Walden or the twin narratives of Isaac and Ishmael. If it is, the party of Ayn Rand may understand the idea of subordination better than the party of Henry David Thoreau. For the father and son in Thoreau’s little tale, at any rate, subordination is the basis to which words always return when they need to represent people in relation to other people. That power transaction is language at its ground state: the fathering grammar of what the New England conservative Emily Dickinson called (in “There’s a certain slant of light”)

internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –