When Isabel, a 13-year-old enslaved girl, first arrives in New York, she cares little about the Revolutionary War brewing around her. All she cares about is protecting her five-year-old sister, Ruth, and securing their freedom as soon as possible. But very soon, Isabel is swept up in the rebel cause, as Isabel’s new friend Curzon promises her that his master will help free Isabel and Ruth if she spies for the Patriots. Isabel vacillates between supporting the Patriots and the British soldiers, depending on who she thinks can help free her—and the novel shows that Isabel isn’t the only person whose loyalty changes depending on which side seems likely to win, or which side’s win would be most advantageous. Politics, Chains suggests, isn’t as simple as one group of likeminded people versus a group of people who think the opposite—people don’t always fit neatly on one side or the other, since no person has the exact same concerns as anyone else. With this, Chains shows how personal politics can be and suggests that it’s impossible to simply ignore political goings-on—after all, they have the ability to seriously affect people’s lives, for better or for worse.
At first, Isabel doesn’t think politics should matter to her at all, but she soon discovers that politics isn’t something she can ignore. Isabel’s initial belief is reflected in the way she narrates the brewing Revolutionary War as she leaves Rhode Island and during her first few weeks in New York. When Isabel is in Rhode Island, the war doesn’t seem important to her—Pastor Weeks mentions that Miss Finch’s will isn’t accessible because the lawyer who wrote it left Boston during “the blockade,” but neither Isabel nor the white men she’s speaking with expand on what they mean by “the blockade.” In reality, they’re referring to the Siege of Boston, which was the opening portion of the Revolutionary War. But to Isabel, the fact that a war is taking place doesn’t matter, because all she cares about is her own freedom. But Isabel quickly learns that she can’t just outright ignore politics and the war. Within minutes of meeting each other, an enslaved boy, Curzon, asks Isabel to spy on the Locktons (who are Loyalists) for the Patriots (the Americans seeking freedom from the British). And not long after, as the paid maid Becky shows Isabel around the Lockton home, Becky insists that since the Locktons are Tories (a reference to their pro-British political stance), the household staff are all Tories too. At this point, Isabel doesn’t care about either side, or the war more generally. But she starts to suspect that political conflict is going to affect her on some level, whether directly if she agrees to become a spy, or by association since a Loyalist family owns her.
Isabel soon starts to see politics and the war as things that do matter and have the potential to impact her life—and she realizes that everyone, herself included, gets involved with a particular party or side because they believe it’s going to help them. Isabel agrees to spy for the Patriots, believing Curzon’s promise that his master, Bellingham, will be willing to help Isabel become free—in other words, Isabel only devotes herself to the Patriots because they’ll supposedly be able to help her attain her goals. But when the Patriots won’t help her, and she learns that British soldiers are the ones freeing enslaved people, Isabel’s loyalty shifts; she seeks out a British officer, Captain Campbell. Again, Isabel’s loyalty isn’t to the British cause—she only offers to serve the British because she believes they’ll free her. However, Captain Campbell reveals that the British will only free enslaved people whose owners are Patriots, which means he can’t help Isabel due to the Locktons being Loyalists. This is an earth-shattering moment for Isabel, as she realizes that neither the Americans nor the British care about helping her—and so politics and the war seem even more pointless to her than when she arrived in New York. The novel shows that the same general rules apply to other people, especially those who aren’t enslaved: a person’s political affiliation depends on which side they think is going to help them. Despite Becky’s insistence that identifying as a Tory will protect her job, she ultimately leaves the city when the British invade—she’s afraid of the supposedly violent British soldiers and presumably sees the Patriots as less dangerous. Master Lockton, as a wealthy merchant with ties to British aristocracy, has a vested interest in keeping the British in power: continued British rule is how he’ll stay powerful and continue to profit in the colonies. And Curzon remains dedicated to the Patriots, especially once Bellingham agrees to free Curzon if Curzon signs up for military service in his place; the Patriots seem more likely to give Curzon freedom than the British do. In this way, many characters in the novel align themselves with certain political groups primarily out of self-interest.
Ultimately, the novel seems to suggest that politics should be less about parties and sides, and more about helping people find a belief system that guides their actions and shows them what to fight for. Isabel comes to this realization after reading Thomas Paine’s political pamphlet Common Sense, which insists that Americans have a moral reason to oppose British rule. So at first, it seems like reading the pamphlet should push Isabel to affiliate with the Patriots. But Isabel still sees the Patriots as untrustworthy—and irrespective of its political position, the pamphlet encapsulates many ideas that resonate with Isabel. It proclaims that all people are the same, that no one person inherently deserves to have power over others, and that it’s important to stand up to injustice. These sentiments empower her to mentally resist the dehumanizing treatment she experiences as an enslaved person, and to recognize that she (and other enslaved people) deserve freedom and equal rights. In this way, Paine’s words help Isabel develop her own political philosophy and decide what’s important to her—and this personal growth and knowledge, the novel suggests, are far more meaningful than just choosing a side.
The Personal and the Political ThemeTracker
The Personal and the Political Quotes in Chains
“We don’t hold with slaves being auctioned on our front steps. Won’t stand for it, in fact.”
“I thought this was a business establishment,” Mr. Robert said. “Are you opposed to earning your percentage?”
“You want to listen to my Bill, mister,” Jenny said. “Advertise in the paper, that’s what we do around here.”
“I don’t have time for that. These are fine girls, they’ll go quickly. Give me half an hour’s time on your front steps, and we both walk away with heavier pockets.”
Jenny’s husband pulled out a rag and wiped his hands on it. “Auctions of people ain’t seemly. Why don’t you just talk quiet-like to folks? Or leave a notice tacked up, that’s proper.”
“You feel beholden to Lockton?”
“He’s going to feed you and your sister, give you a place to sleep. He can order you sold, beat, or hung, if the mood takes him. That could make a person feel a kind of loyalty.”
I stopped, considering this. “Someday I’ll find that lawyer and Miss Mary’s will and that’ll free us. Until then, we need to eat, work, and stay together. So yes, I guess I’m loyal to Lockton.”
The words tasted bitter. Being loyal to the one who owned me gave me prickly thoughts, like burrs trapped in my shift, pressing into my skin with every step.
“They won’t say anything in front of me.”
“You are a small black girl, Country,” he said bitterly. “You are a slave, not a person. They’ll say things in front of you they won’t say in front of the white servants. ’Cause you don’t count to them. It happens all the time to me.”
“Listen to me good. Them that feeds us”—she pointed upstairs—“they’re Loyalists, Tories. That means we’re Tories too, understand?”
“Yes, ma’am.” I nodded. “But…” I hesitated, not sure if I was allowed to ask questions. “Master Lockton claimed he was a Patriot on the docks.”
[…] “He was faking to protect his skin. Some folks switch back and forth. One day they’re for the king, the next, it’s all ‘liberty and freedom, huzzah!’ A tribe of Mr. Facing-Both-Ways, that’s what you’ll find in New York.”
As the crowd marched off to make bullets and celebrate liberty and independence in the taverns, I realized dark was fast falling, and I had tarried overly long. I picked up a sliver of lead that lay in the street. It was fringed with gilt; my own piece of majesty. Tyrants beware, I thought as I put it in my pocket.
The fire in my face burned on and on, deep through my flesh, searing my soul. Stars exploded out the top of my head and all of my words and all of my rememberies followed them up to the sun, burning to ash that floated back and settled in the mud.
A few people at the edge of the crowd had fallen silent. They walked away with their heads down.
My momma and poppa appeared from the shadows. They flew to me and wrapped their arms around me and cooled my face with their ghost tears.
Night crept into my soul.
“Listen,” he started. “Our freedom—”
I did not let him continue. “You are blind. They don’t want us free. They just want liberty for themselves.”
“You don’t understand.”
“Oh, no. I understand right good,” I countered. “I shouldn’t have believed your rebel lies. I should have taken Ruth and run the night we landed. Even if we drowned, we would have been together.”
A second man, this one with neatly trimmed hair, leaned on his shovel. “Dunmore freed the Virginia slaves so the crops would go unharvested and ruin the planters. The British care not for us, they care only for victory. Some Patriots own slaves, yes, but you must listen to their words: ‘all men, created equal.’ The words come first. They’ll pull the deeds and the justice behind them.”
“Please, ma’am,” I tried again. “How did you know?”
Her gaze returned to the logs in the hearth. “Take care how you go, Isabel. Many people think it is a fine and Christian thing to help the prisoners. I do not think my niece is one of them.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I whispered.
“You named him after the King?” Hannah asked.
“Perhaps,” Sarah said cheerfully. “We never figured the colonists would hold on this long. My man was saying the other night that mebbe the King should stop the war. Mebbe the babe and us might stay here, not sail home. ‘Plenty of room here,’ he said.” She kissed the baby’s nose. “A name like George is a good one on either side of the ocean.”
I laid down one long road of a sentence in my remembery: “For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others for ever.” Way I saw it, Mr. Paine was saying all people were the same, that no one deserved a crown or was born to be higher than another. That’s why America could make its own freedom.
Everybody carried a little evil in them, Momma once told me. Madam Lockton had more than her share. The poison had eaten holes through her soul and made room for vermin to nest inside her.
The evil inside of me woke and crackled like lightning. I could wrap my hands around her throat. I could brain her with a poker, thrust her face into the flames. I could beat her senseless with my fists.
I shook from the effort of holding myself still, clutching the crumpled paper. Momma said we had to fight the evil inside us by overcoming it with goodness. She said it was a hard thing to do, but it made us worthy.
I breathed deep to steady myself.
I threw the Captain’s note into the fire.