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The fugitive-act did not affect a foreign country, which Virginia claimed to be and that she must reckon it one of the infelicitous infelicities of her position that in so far at least she was taken at her word

This is a given example when I looked up "insofar" in a dict app. I don't know what exactly the origin is, since it doesn't matter anyway, I guess. The bolded part are those I find hardly comprehensible. Please help me restate the whole sentence into that I can readily understand.

With respect to the source: I'm sorry I really dont know, all that I can tell is that it is an randomly given example from an app"English dictionary--livio" when I searched word "insofar".

If someone does know about it, that would be very nice of you to help me edit and add the source to it as a matter of convenience.

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  • Do you mean you "don`t know what exactly the origin is" of the quotation? It certainly does matter. Several reasons are provided in this Meta post by one of this site's moderators. Please cite your source! Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 3:41
  • @MarcInManhattan Im afraid I cannot ,because the sentence here is just a randomly given example from "English dictionary-offline",which dosent even tell more than a simple sentence without any title or source of original quotation, and I just came across this one a little bit perplexing when I searched word "insofar",thus I came to ask for that. Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 4:32
  • Then the app is the source and should be cited. I see that you've identified it by name, which is helpful. (Now we know that it's probably contemporary English, people might know whether that app is credible, etc.) Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 5:09
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    I can't make any sense of it at all. I can't even parse it into English grammar structure. If your question is, "What does this sentence mean?" then the answer is "Probably nothing".
    – gotube
    Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 8:36
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    If that is typical of the examples the app uses I think it would be better to look for another app.
    – mdewey
    Commented Dec 15, 2022 at 16:21

2 Answers 2

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The context for this sentence is the early part of the American Civil War. Virginia is the American state, which has declared independence from the United States. The Fugitive Act is the Fugitive Slave Act, which requires slaves to be returned to their owners even if they are in a part of the United States where slavery is illegal. More background information on the sentence can be found here: https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2017/winter/summer-of-1862 (fifth paragraph: A lawyer before the war, Butler concluded that Mallory’s slaves were “contrabands of war” and could be taken from the enemy. Butler told Carey “that the fugitive slave act did not affect a foreign country, which Virginia claimed to be, and she must reckon it one of the infelicities of her position that in so far at least she was taken at her word.”)

So, with that background information at hand, we can actually try and understand the sentence. One way to do this is to expand it into several simpler sentences:

The Fugitive Slave Act does not apply to foreign (to the US) countries. Virginia claims to be (part of) a foreign country. Virginia must accept that it is unlucky for Virginia to be a foreign country in this instance, assuming that we accept Virginia's word that she is a foreign country.

Notably, the speaker doesn't accept that Virginia is in fact a foreign country, but knows that the person he is talking to (Major Carey, a member of the Confederate army speaking on behalf of Colonel Mallory) is quite insistent that it is. Thus, the speaker is trying to force a choice-either Carey and Mallory admit that Virginia is part of the United States so that the Fugitive Act applies (and they therefore stop fighting for the Confederacy), or they accept that they are not getting their slaves back by referencing American law.

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The first bold part means:
"Virginia claimed that the fugitive act DID affect a foreign country, while this is, in fact, incorrect".

The second bold part means:
"Virginia must acknowledge that, of her position, she should have known that, and it was very unfortunate she didn't. As far we we know, she was, at least, believed at the beginning".

The second part fuses two different unrelated events, thus making it a little difficult to grasp. I strongly believe that there are better transition words than insofar to be used here.

Though I'm quite confident about my reiteration, don't take me for my words.

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    "She was taken at her word" is a passive voice , so is there a possibility that it means that everybody else would believe that what she said is a actual fact for some reason even when she had herself acknowledged it as wrong ? also I wonder why the use of "infelicitous of position" here ,does it mean "a point of view or an opinion isn`t suitable for the situation" or just my imagination ,since it is in fact a "wrong" opinion,not an "unsuitable" opinion. Commented Dec 13, 2022 at 11:35
  • I definitely agree that what she stated was wrong, and there were people believing in her incorrect statements/ideas at the prior periods. I think "infelicitous of her position" simply implies that "The viewer here expected that she should've known that her statement was wrong, while she didn't know that".
    – Hung Vu
    Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 10:38
  • And you're right again. It was very clearly implied here that her initial statement was wrong, not "unsuitable"
    – Hung Vu
    Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 10:39

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