The Future is Antislavery: Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part Ten

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Part 1, 2, 3 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 Text of the speech (page 140)

We left Charles Sumner positioning himself as a committed antislavery man in the realm of mainstream politics. His Free Soil party did not propose to blow up the Union over slavery. They did not plan to send an army of John Browns into Virginia, nor their legislative equivalents. His party would not demand that the national government force emancipation on anyone, except in the territories and District of Columbia where it had every right and power to do so. The movement’s success would require support from people of all political stripes, united to keep slavery in its Southern pen. Antislavery Democrats, Whigs, and Free Soilers must

If you are sincere in what you declare, if your words are not merely lip-service, if in your heart you are entirely willing to join in practical effort against Slavery, then, by life, conversation, influence, vote, disregarding “the ancient forms of party strife,” seek to carry the principles of freedom into the National Government, wherever its jurisdiction is acknowledged and its power can be felt.

Sumner concerned himself more with moderate to conservative opinion here, but he might well have said the same of the Garrisonian wing of the antislavery movement. In the name of moral purity, those worthies had written themselves out of politics and confined their challenge to slavery to the rhetorical plane. The disputes between them and the more mainstream antislavery element had split national organizations, often with considerable acrimony.

Conservative critics of the antislavery movement in the North often accused its adherents of unthinking radicalism. By making slavery an issue, they threatened the Union and caused the fraught politics that they then cited as cause for action. Sumner turned that around, arguing that by ending the slavery question as the free soilers wished, they would banish all the disturbing radicalism. With it penned up in the South, slavery could no longer make and unmake presidencies. It would continue there, true enough, but “we are in no sense responsible” for that.

Then Sumner returned to his dark times theme. Looking back on an almost perfect series of defeats, he consoled the faithful:

Amidst all apparent reverses, notwithstanding the hatred of enemies or the coldness of friends, he [the antislavery man] has the consciousness of duty done. Whatever may be existing impediments, his is also the cheering conviction that every word spoken, every act performed, every vote cast for this cause, helps to swell those quickening influences by which Truth, Justice, and Humanity will be established upon earth.

Politicians always say things like this after painful losses. They go on to add that history has taken their side and the future belongs to their policies, just as Sumner did:

Others may dwell on the Past as secure. Under the laws of a beneficent God the Future is also secure, -on the single condition that we labor for its great objects.

The future belongs to us, if we take it.




Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part Nine

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Part 1, 2, 3 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 Text of the speech (page 140)

Fresh off the band outside giving up, Charles Sumner proceeded to congratulate his constituents on existing. Their movement proved that Slave Power had become the great issue of the day, which no politician could adjust away with cunning “intrigues”. “[T]he subject of subjects” would sleep no longer, but must take its place in the halls of Congress. The Slave Power filled

the very halls of the Capitol, while it overshadows and darkens other subjects. There it will continue, till driven into oblivion by the irresistible Genius of Freedom.

A threat and a promise in one: if antislavery did not triumph than the dark reign of slavery would continue forever. But if good antislavery men kept up and -hint, hint– sent Charles Sumner to the Senate, then a new era may dawn. But Sumner could only hope, given the dismal state of the nation in late 1850. He knew it looked bad:

The wave of reaction, after sweeping over Europe, has reached our shores. The barriers of Human Rights are broken down. Statesmen, writers, scholars, speakers, once their uncompromising professors, have become professors of compromise. All this must be changed. Reaction must be stayed. The country must be aroused. The cause must again be pressed, -with the fixed purpose never to moderate our efforts until crowned by success.

Daniel Webster

All those Daniel Webster types who changed their stripes in the name of compromise had only turned traitor. Massachusetts could not let them get away with it, but must repudiate their politics for a new form. That meant setting the nation on the right course, “the side of Freedom” against “[t]he policy of Slavery.” Until free soilers routed that “fruitful parent of national ills,” they could not rest or the land would sink ever deeper under the Slave Power’s weight. To keep up the fight, patriotic American men “of all parties and pursuits” must join together:

Welcome here the Conservative and the Reformer! for our cause stands on the truest Conservatism and the truest Reform. In seeking the reform of existing evils, we seek also the conservation of the principles handed down by our fathers. welcome especially the young! To you I appeal with confidence. Trust to your generous impulses, and to that reasoning of the heart, which is often truer, and it is less selfish, than the calculations of the head.

The Free Soilers needed to take all comers anyway, so they may as well roll out the welcome mat. The Massachusetts right, particularly the textile mill owners who had a direct, financial interest in slavery all their professional lives, would take rather longer to get on board than the flower of the Bay State’s youth or its antislavery left. It took the Kansas-Nebraska Act four years later to convince many. The flower of the Boston aristocracy thought little of Sumner personally even then, making him a less than convincing recruiter for the cause, but new parties must accept any support they can get. If a few crusty Cotton Whigs came to overlook Sumner’s fiery rhetoric, then he would take them along with the starry-eyed young idealists.

An Interruption: Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part Eight

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Part 1, 2, 3 4, 5, 6, 7 Text of the speech (page 140)

When we picture Charles Sumner standing at Faneuil Hall on November 6, 1850, most of us probably picture a relatively sedate modern political rally. He has his applause lines and the audience plays along. The air might have more smoke in it than we would expect and Sumner would have made himself heard through the power of his lungs alone, but overall we might expect a controlled, orderly affair peopled by stiff Victorian men. At their most dashing an unruly, they might come off the cover of a romance novel.

Nineteenth century mass meetings got rowdier. As a practical matter, most anyone could come. If not admitted to the hall, they might crowd outside its open doors or windows to hear, observe, and disrupt. Though billed as a party meeting, such things could have a strong ecumenical cast. For a new party that lacked a built-in constituency as the Free Soilers did, universality became a theme of necessity as well as desire to operate within the political system as it then stood. Thus Sumner proclaimed the catholicity of the antislavery cause:

It is not sectional; for it simply aims to establish under the National Government those great principles of Justice and Humanity which are broad and universal as Man. It is not aggressive’ for it does not seek in any way to interfere through Congress with Slavery in the States. It is not contrary to the Constitution; for it recognizes this paramount law, and in the administration of the Government invokes the spirit of its founders. It is not hostile to the quiet of the country; for it proposes the only course by which agitation can be allayed, and quiet be permanently established.

A less universal view of antislavery then displayed itself just outside. Someone on the street got together a band who tried to drown Sumner out.

And yet there is an attempt to suppress this cause, and to stifle its discussion.

Vain and wretched attempt!

We can all look up disrupted town hall meetings and other political events on Youtube, but I don’t think many today involve someone hiring musicians to war with the sound system. But Sumner knew such things as the cost of doing business and had the sense of humor or quick wit to turn the interruption to his advantage:

I am willing to stop for one moment, if the audience will allow me, that they may enjoy the music.

The crowd, naturally, insisted Sumner press on. They claimed to have “better music” inside and Sumner continued with his speech. It seems either the band gave up or Sumner bested them, as he goes on for a fair while thereafter without further note of the disruption. Truly, Charles Sumner would never give Massachusetts up, nor let it down, nor run around and desert it.

Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part Seven

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Part 1, 2, 3 4, 5, 6 Text of the speech (page 140)

Charles Sumner moved on from distinguishing between moral duties to reject evil at home and political duties to oppose it from afar with a standard repudiation of designs to interfere with slavery in the slave states. He positioned himself on the antislavery left, but not so far over as to talk himself out of politics. He repeated the normal demands of late 1850: the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law, abolition for the District of Columbia, prohibition of slavery in the territories, no new slave states admitted to the Union, and then flirted with more. Sumner declared himself and his free soil party for abolition of the domestic slave trade, especially at sea where the US flag often sheltered it but also, by implication, between states.

But Charles Sumner had a wider vision still, one shared then by few in the North but which would grow in popularity as the 1850s wore on:

The Slave Power must be overturned, -so that the National Government may be openly, actively, and perpetually on the side of Freedom.

That did not, Sumner stressed, mean the overthrow of slavery. He wanted the institution’s political influence gone. That power

having its origin in Slavery, which has been more potent, sinister, and mischievous than any in our long history. This Power, though unknown to the Constitution, and existing in defiance of its true spirit, now predominates over Congress, gives the tone to its proceedings, seeks to control all our public affairs, and humbles both the great political parties to its will.

He had the Constitution wrong, but American politicians routinely do that. Sumner hadn’t missed the true situation, though. Slavery created a powerful “common interest” among enslavers. They themselves would agree, though couching it in terms of the special needs of their institution for security. Sumner lacked the time to trace its full history

the undue share of offices it has enjoyed, and the succession of its evil deeds. Suffice it to say, that, for a long period, the real principle of this union was not observed by the Free States. In the game of office and legislation the South has always won. It has played with loaded dice, –loaded with Slavery.

That got a good laugh out of the crowd, but Sumner had facts and laughs on his side. At the time of his speech, a total of three men who never owned slaves had occupied the Presidency, two Adamses and Martin Van Buren. None had won re-election and no northern president would until the slave states opted out of the election of 1864. The South had an effective veto on all national legislation courtesy of the Senate. The slave states dominated Cabinet after Cabinet, the Supreme Court, and exercised decisive influence in both national parties. Sumner likened it to the workings of a fake automaton playing chess, with a man behind the curtain actually doing the work. The Slave Power occupied the spot behind the curtain, a “living force” that, now unmasked, they must defeat to restore the nation to its original design.


How Often Did Enslavers Abuse Their Slaves?

Peter from Louisiana

Gentle Readers, some time ago I shared with you the story of an enslaved girl being brutally whipped. I did not then have the research habits I have now. In the course of answering a question about the prevalence of violence against enslaved people for Reddit’s AskHistorians, I revisited the story and gathered together some other sources I have since come upon on the subject. I have reworked portions of that post into this. None of it makes for a pleasant read. If you feel that you should take a pass on today’s post, please do so. Also please know that this post includes a vile racial slur.

One must naturally ask, if one accepts that enslavers abused their slaves, if every last one of them did it. We have a natural inclination to look for exceptions and we know from our own lives that people who do the same thing rarely ever do it to a uniform degree or in just the same way. Especially in our bureaucratized, computerized age it makes sense to ask for a normal level of brutality too, even if the victims of violence don’t have the luxury of comparing and taking their relative suffering with a philosopher’s detachment. The pain we feel, we must feel most keenly.

Enslavers, overseers, and others charged with controlling enslaved labor are people and do vary, but they and the law take violent “correction” as generally a matter of course. An enslaver who doesn’t lay it on regularly risks being thought a dangerously light touch and possibly a secret abolitionist in the minds of his neighbors. If one didn’t have the stomach for whipping oneself and didn’t have a regular person to do it, one could get the local sheriff to serve for a one-time fee. Robert E. Lee did.

Frederick Law Olmsted traveled the South and what he reports is largely consistent with the attitudes I see Southerners express amongst themselves:

The whip was evidently in constant use, however. There were no rules on the subject, that I learned; the overseers and drivers punished the negroes whenever they deemed it necessary, and in such manner, and with such severity, as they thought fit. “If you don’t work faster,” or “If you don’t work better,” or “If you don’t recollect what I tell you, I will have you flogged,” are threats which I have often heard. I said to one of the overseers, “It must be very disagreeable to have to punish them as much as you do?” “Yes, it would be to those who are not used to it-but it’s my business, and I think nothing of it. Why, sir, I wouldn’t mind killing a nigger more than I would a dog.” I asked if he had ever killed a negro? “Not quite,” he said, but overseers were often obliged to.

Olmsted’s informant gave resistance to being whipped as just cause for a murder, which is something that Northrup risks in the movie. Enslavers often quantify by the number of lashes and we find occasional reference to standard punishments so incremented, but should not mistake these for modern business regulations. Enslavers, for practical purposes, answer only to themselves. Getting between the “domestic” relationship of a man and his human property smacked of abolitionism, to the point that even people running Bible study classes for slaves with the permission and supervision of their enslavers have trouble keeping on.

Independent of Olmsted, Jourdon Anderson’s famous letter to his ex-enslaver references a similar incident:

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

One doesn’t see much outright killing, though the law rarely punished any that did happen. More often comes horrific violence, which might lead to death. The worst Olmsted, an outsider present with the knowledge of the enslavers, saw happened to an eighteen year-old named Sall. They came on her while crossing a gully, where she had hidden out. She gave an excuse for being abroad without leave, but the overseer (Olmsted’s tour guide) didn’t buy it. (She said she was accidentally locked in, then got out on her own by breaking a plank loose. Then she got up and he spotted a ring of keys.) The girl’s father, all of a few minutes away, could have settled things one way or another. The overseer didn’t feel inclined to bother.

I’m sorry; things become much worse now:

“That won’t do,” said he [the overseer], “get down on your knees.” The girl knelt on the ground; he got off his horse, and holding him with his left hand, struck her thirty or forty blows across the shoulders with his tough, flexible, “raw-hide” whip. They were well laid on, as a boatswain would thrash a skulking sailor, or as some people flog a baulking horse, but with no appearance of angry excitement on the part of the overseer. At every stroke the girl winced, and exclaimed, “Yes, sir!” or “Ah, sir!” or “Please, sir!” not groaning or screaming. At length he stopped and said, “Now tell me the truth.” The girl repeated the same story. “You have not got enough yet,” said he, “pull up your clothes-lie down.” The girl without any hesitation, without a word or look of remonstrance or entreaty, drew closely all her garments under her shoulders, and lay down upon the ground with her face toward the overseer, who continued to flog her with the rawhide, across her naked loins and thigh, with as much strength as before. She now shrunk away form him, not rising, but writhing, groveling, and screaming, “Oh, don’t, sir! oh, please stop, master! please, sir! please, sir! oh, that’s enough, master! oh, Lord! oh, master, master! oh, God, master, do stop! oh, God, master! oh, God, master!”

Gentle Readers, I don’t know how many of you have or expect to have children or otherwise count teenagers among your loved ones, but Sall had those people too. She meant the world to them and they couldn’t prevent this, who might even have to watch it happen on other occasions.

A younger child too plays a part in this episode; a fifteen year old boy accompanied Olmsted and the overseer. He watched it all, bored. None of this was new for anybody but the Yankee. Olmsted

glanced again at the perfectly passionless but rather grim business-like face of the overseer, and again at the young gentleman, who had turned away; if not indifferent he had evidently not the faintest sympathy for my emotion.

Olmsted couldn’t take it and rode off, the screams chasing him. The boy caught up to him, but not from pain or fear. The overseer came right behind, apparently finished. He can’t have missed much, if anything. “He [the overseer] laughed as he joined us.” Then he sounded off on how Sall cheated him out of day’s work. Olmsted asked if they had to do such things and the overseer made the standard argument:

Oh yes, sir,” (laughing again.) “If I hadn’t punished her so hard she would have done the same thing again to-morrow, and half the people on the plantation would have followed her example. Oh, you’ve no idea how lazy these niggers are; you northern people don’t know any thing about it. They’d never do any work at all if they were not afraid of being whipped.

The overseer struck to the heart of it: slaves don’t like slavery. Everybody in the South knew it, for all the occasional protests to the contrary. On the scale of an individual plantation, the enslaved outnumber the whites. It takes pain and terror to keep them at work. A slave may get off easy now and then, but even treasured personal valets can end up in the fields to make sure they don’t get ideas. The occasional less horrific enslaver doesn’t change the overall system.

It makes cold economic sense. The incentives free labor operates under don’t work well in a slave system. To get more out of a person, and thus more profit, they needed whips, chains, and other tortures. Temporarily or permanently impairing the ability of one to deliver that labor may well terrorize the others enough to make up the difference and then some.

This neglects, of course, that no one yet born has ever lived the live of the perfectly rational utility maximizer that stars in so many economic calculations. Fear plays its part: slaves not terrorized into submission may rise up and murder their tormentors. We must also consider rage: how dare the slaves challenge their masters? We can never forget the white supremacy that made it all work: those people, those subhumans, dared think they had the right to gainsay a white man. Finally, we must add pleasure to our calculations. Not every enslaver went to bed each night to happy visions of whips cracking and flying blood, but people in positions of power with great discretion and little accountability have a long history of giving themselves license to do things they would otherwise find unthinkable.

Thomas Jefferson

Take it from an enslaver:

There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. This quality is the germ of all education in him. From his cradle to his grave he is learning to do what he sees others do. If a parent could find no motive either in his philanthropy or his self-love, for restraining the intemperance of passion towards his slave, it should always be a sufficient one that his child is present. But generally it is not sufficient. The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.

The author, no prodigy, exercised his boisterous passions upon Sally Hemings. He learned those things. They are part of his manners. That fifteen year-old kid decades later learned them just as well.

We have hitherto referred to impressionistic accounts, as historical research must. We have recorded moments, not sociological surveys. In the nineteenth century, a far less bureaucratized time, people did things more casually and made fewer managerial notes. A partial exception comes from the Barrow plantation in Louisiana. Barrow might have exceeded the norms of his time, but we can’t say for sure. My source, Herbert Gutman’s Slavery and the Numbers Game, wrote in the mid-Seventies and laments that no one has done a thorough study of plantation records that have survived to find out. I don’t know if one has been done since, despite checking a few recent surveys I have. Working from the Barrow sample, he comes up with

A slave -“on average”- was whipped every 4.56 days. Three slaves were whipped every two weeks. Among them, sixty (37.5 percent) were females. A male was whipped once a week, and a female once every twelve days.

During the two year period (1940-1) for which numbers exist, Barrow whipped all but 19 of his 129 slaves. We don’t know their age distribution, but it typical then 89 or so had reached the age of ten or more. Barrow whipped 119 individual slaves.

If Barrow did not whip children under the age of five, and if children under the age of ten were fairly evenly distributed, that means that every child aged five to nine probably was whipped one or more times in 1840-1841.

Barrow’s surviving diary extends somewhat beyond the 1840-1 time frame and may not be complete. He could have done worse than we know.

More than once, for example, Barrow penned suggestive diary notations such as “had a general Whiping frolick,” “whiped about half to day,” “general Whipping yesterday,” “intend Whipping them straight, “whiped all my grown cotten pickers today.”

Whipping frolics happened at least six times.

In his fine dissertation on the slave family, Bobby Jones concluded that Barrow resorted to “practically every known form of chastisement slaveholders used.” Jones pointed out: “During his career, Barrow resorted to chains; extra work; whipping; humiliation, such as making a man wear women’s clothing and parade around the quarters; imprisonment; stocks; ‘raked several negro heads to day’; ‘staking out’; ‘hand-sawing’; and dousing or ducking in water which occurred in October and November.”

Jones thinks that hand-sawing involved beating people with the saw, teeth first.


We can’t know for sure if we should take Barrow as exceptional or typical, but between the numbers his records provide and the constant reference to violence in period sources, we can’t fairly say that brutality happened rarely. Violence against enslaved people looks, both from the tremendous array of sources from enslaved people themselves, their enslavers giving advice to one another, and white third parties, like the overwhelming norm. All the stories of whipping, cutting, chaining, beating, rape, and torture didn’t just come from nowhere. People, almost all white, did them all to other people, all black. They made a system of this, a great, all-encompassing world that turned blood, pain, and screams into the money that made the wealth of a nation and fed the mills off another. Other people, most other whites, took no great interest in that until the same system appeared poised to enslave them too. Most of us, myself included, have taken little notice since of the many ways it continues. We too have learned our manners.

Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part Six

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Part 1, 2, 3 4, 5Text of the speech (page 140)

Charles Sumner delivered a strong moral argument against slavery at Faneuil Hall. Especially in Boston, that kind of thing had to raise questions. The threat to white freedom embedded in the institution could get a pass, but when Sumner evinced powerful sympathy for the enslaved his audience may have heard a whiff of Garrisonian purity about him. The Garrison wing of abolitionism preached non-involvement with politics, that sordid mire of compromise that had done so much to defend and expand slavery. Garrison’s moral purity might make him an appealing figure today, but it also makes him a curious one for a political aspirant to invoke at a party meeting. One does not, at least in rhetoric, compromise on morals. By freighting antislavery with such potent religious language, Sumner put himself in a potentially difficult spot.

Naturally, he had an out:

The testimony which we bear against Slavery, as against all other wring, is, in different ways, according to our position. The Slavery which exists under other governments, as in Russia or Turkey, or in other States of our Union, as in Virginia and Carolina, we can oppose only through the influence of morals and religion, without in any way invoking the Political Power. Nor do we propose to act otherwise.

By making slavery foreign, Sumner once more indicted it. To hold slaves put a polity in the company of autocratic Russia or the Sultan’s Turkey: states his audience would understand as deeply backward and alien. Making it foreign also made it to a substantial degree someone else’s problem. Here Massachusetts’ future senator repeated far more conventional antislavery attitudes. The good people of Massachusetts did not practice slavery, so their moral responsibility lay in exhortation. However:

Slavery, where we are parties to it, whenever we are responsible for it, everywhere within our jurisdiction, must be opposed not only by all the influences of literature, morals, and religion, but directly by every instrument of Political Power.

Massachusetts lacked the power to end slavery in the South by legal means. Such a scruple extended to the use of federal power just the same. What happened in South Carolina stayed in, or should stay in, that state. But free jurisdictions had used that power for themselves since the 1780s, with the Bay State leading the way. Thus, to Sumner, they had proven themselves competent and trustworthy. Therefore

I am sorry to confess that this can be done only through the machinery of politics. The politician, then, must be summoned. The moralist and philanthropist must become for this purpose politicians, -not forgetting morals of philanthropy, but seeking to apply them practically in the laws of the land.

And should your legislature like to summon Charles Sumner, he didn’t have to say, he would not misplace his morals on the train to Washington. The implication held double meaning: Sumner would not turn traitor to his principles, but would also not fly off into some Union-imperiling radicalism by attacking slavery in the slave states.

Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part Five

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Part 1, 2, 3 4Text of the speech (page 140)

From reminding the men of Massachusetts of their “immediate antislavery duties”, Charles Sumner proceeded to attack the Compromise of 1850 in general. The Fugitive Slave Act deserved an execration all its own, but the Congress had also just committed “enormities of legislation” that condemned vast swaths of land to slavery, both in yielding to much of Texas’ literally Texas-sized territorial claims and in organizing Utah and New Mexico territories without a slavery prohibition. Furthermore, slavery remained legal in the District of Columbia, the interstate slave trade remained untouched, and “the Slave Power still dominant over the National Government.” He would have none of the finality that the shaky compromise coalition pronounced the balm for the nation’s wounds.

Nothing can be settled which is not right. [Sensation.] Nothing can be settled which is against Freedom. Nothing can be settled which is contrary to the Divine Law. God, Nature, and all the holy sentiments of the heart repudiate any such false seeming settlement.

Parties might come and go, as Sumner well knew whilst addressing a group that had defected from the national parties. Right and wrong, decreed in Heaven, did not. No man could compromise away divine edicts or release a god-fearing people from their duty to obey. No peace could come which did not comport with the “everlasting principles” that the free soilers knew. Promising brevity, about twenty pages in, Sumner laid out one of those principles:

Slavery is wrong. It is the source of unnumbered woes, -not the least of which is its influence on the Slaveholder himself, rendering him insensible to its outrage. It overflows with injustice and inhumanity. Language toils in vain to picture the wretchedness and wickedness which it sanctions and perpetuates. Reason revolts at the impious assumption that man can hold property in man. As it is our perpetual duty to oppose wrong, so we must oppose Slavery; nor can we ever relax in this opposition, so long as the giant evil continues anywhere within the sphere of our influence. Especially must we oppose it, whenever we are responsible for its existence, or in any way parties to it.

Sumner repeated the standard line that slavery damaged white virtue, which must sound as callous to us as it did important to them. Talking about slavery shouldn’t mean a speech all about white Americans suffering abstract, moral injury when black Americans suffer grievous bodily harm. But previous parts of this series have addressed Sumner’s view of slavery’s inhumanity to the slave and teased something at least tending toward racial egalitarianism. He went there first.

He also has a point. We accept or reject certain exercises of power out of habit as much as principle. Enslavers who declared that the color line immunized whites from their brutalities would soon put that principle aside in Kansas. They already did at home, ruthlessly policing dissenters into silence or driving them from slave states. They had gagged the House of Representatives for eight years. They even then demanded white men of the North join their slave catching operations. Once a person becomes used to wielding power uninhibited in one way in one context, the inhibitions against doing the same in another become that much weaker. The Slave Power did not seek to enslave whites, but it had demanded and often received assurances that all white men would act as its agents. The threat to white freedom should not dominate our understanding of slavery, but nor should we entirely neglect it as a product of paranoid, racist minds.


“Like the flaming sword of the cherubim at the gates of Paradise” Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part Four

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Part 1, 2, 3 Text of the speech (page 140)

Charles Sumner preached resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act. The good men of Massachusetts could do no less, lest the spirits of their Puritan and Revolutionary fathers rise up against them. To submit to such an unjust law, such an offense against Heaven, Massachusetts manhood would unman themselves and sink to the level of African potentates who sold the slaves to white men to begin with. Heroic self-stealing fugitives, black men, would rightly look down upon white Massachusetts.

Not that Sumner expected his free soil audience to betray their principles. He expected many would “never shrink, at any cost, and not withstanding all the atrocious penalties of this Bill” from doing right. When called upon, the sons and grandsons of the Revolution would shelter and hide fugitive slaves in their own houses “and, if need be,” will protect his liberty by force.”

This all took Sumner right to the brink of suggesting armed resistance. Some in the crowd might have gone for that, but northern men did not win election to the United States Senate by preaching revolution in 1850. That honor belonged, sometimes and increasingly, to southerners. Sumner abjured any violent intentions, the language of force aside. I suspect he meant to imply that one could resist a private slave-catcher by force, but ought to find other methods for an officer of the national government. One could also read his remarks as a wink and nudge for anybody who did want to rough up a US Marshal, with the understanding that Sumner himself couldn’t go on the record for that.

All that said, Sumner had “another power” in mind:

stronger than any individual arm, which I invoke: I mean that irresistible Public Opinion, inspired by love of god and man, which, without violence or noise, gently as the operations of Nature, makes and unmakes laws. Let this Public Opinion be felt in its might, and the Fugitive Slave Bill will everywhere among us become a dead letter. No lawyer will aid it by counsel, no citizen will be its agent

Violence and noise came, as Sumner may have expected. Public opinion usually requires some degree of policing to manage a successful stand against formal power. It only takes a few unmoved by sentiment to take the cases of slave-catchers and serve on commissions. Massachusetts would have both. Thus the fate of fugitives in Massachusetts well and truly fell on them as the public to make Public Opinion:

like the flaming sword of the cherubim at the gates of Paradise, turning on every side, it shall prevent any SLAVE-HUNTER from ever setting food in this Commonwealth.

The flaming sword must have reminded Sumner that he came close to the line, because he walked it back again:

I would not touch his person. Not with whips and thongs would I scourge him from the land. The contempt, the indignation, the abhorrence of the community shall be our weapons of offence.

Sumner’s Massachusetts would deny the slave-catcher “roof, fire, or water”. The communities would not accept him, but “they shall vomit him forth.” All of that went double for any low life who would volunteer to aid in slave renditions. The Daniel Websters and Millard Fillmores had best not forget it.

Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part Three

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Part 1, 2 Text of the speech (page 140)

Charles Sumner, not at all a judging type, informed the free soil gathering at Faneuil Hall that he could never live with himself if he enforced the new fugitive slave act. He would resign his position first, but he didn’t hold others to his standards. If they felt the urge depart from “any true sense of justice”, ignore their “humane feelings”, and answer the blandishments of “office” and “salary” by complying the that hateful law so repugnant to the Puritan and republican faith of Massachusetts, then Sumner would not condemn them. Officers of the court had to obey the law, which Sumner non-judgmentally called “the apology also of the masters of the Inquisition, as they ply the torture amidst the shrieks of their victim.”

In a far more avowedly Protestant, anti-Catholic place that Massachusetts today, invoking the Inquisition had special resonance. Many of Sumner’s audience might even then have feared a reactionary Rome using Irish immigrants as Trojan horses to impose a dour Catholic theocracy. So American liberty would die, slain by the sinister agents of a foreign faith and suspect nationality, who came claiming privations at home to take advantage of the good nature of decent, hardworking Americans. We have put such things behind us, instead now fearing immigrants from Muslim-majority countries who we imagine will recreate the Caliphate. A future generation may learn to fear someone else in just the same way; we have a gift for it.

Surely no Bay Stater would play the part of Pilate, washing his hands as he did the same as “the naked, barbarous Pagan chiefs beyond the sea.” If a court, Sumner averred, dared surrender a slave to a slave-hunter, then they would have broken faith with their ancestors and

the very images of our fathers would frown from the walls; their voices would cry from the ground; their spirits, hovering in the air, would plead, remonstrate, protest against the cruel judgment

Images falling, the dead crying out, and veils rent made for potent images, but Sumner wouldn’t let a religious reference slip by unmarked if he could help it. He reminded Faneuil Hall of the story of St. Mark, descending from heaven to shatter the chains of a slave. His Puritan fathers might look askance at the story, coming as it did from Catholic hagiography and recorded by a painting in Venice rather than the Bible, but someone later sent Sumner a sketch of the work which the editor of his papers assures us Sumner kept as “a cherished souvenir.”

Religious scruples mattered in these things, but Sumner did not stint the fugitive slave’s own qualities and didn’t entirely reduce him to a pathetic figure waiting for a white man to save him. On the contrary,

By escape from bondage he has shown that true manhood which must grapple him to every honest heart. He may be ignorant and rude, as poor, but he is of true nobility. Fugitive Slaves are the heroes of our age. In sacrificing them to this foul enactment, we violate every sentiment of hospitality, every whispering of the heart, every commandment of religion.

Fugitive slaves, heroes, men, deserved better. By constantly linking a slave’s manhood to the manhood of the white men hearing him, Sumner evoked sympathy and outrage. Who could send a fellow man into slavery? Who would dare? To render over a fugitive would unman the fugitive, and perhaps the officers in charge of rendition as well. They would make themselves likewise pagans, naked, barbarous savages. Sumner needn’t say it outright: white men should know better.

Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part Two

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Part 1, Text of the speech (page 140)

Charles Sumner stood before the Free Soil meeting at Faneuil Hall on November 6, 1850, and gave the crowd the kind of speech they wanted. Outraged by the Fugitive Slave Act, he told them that Millard Fillmore ought never have been born rather than sign the bill into law. He invoked the American Revolution, by way of John Adams, and Massachusetts’ Puritan heritage in the person of John Winthrop to defend resistance to fugitive renditions. The passions of the past had not faded from the Bay State yet, but instead the children of the city on a hill felt “unconquerable rage”. In the old days, they “held up to detestation” men who favored the Stamp Act.

Then Sumner went for audience participation. He asked the free soilers if they should give “the Slave-Hunter” a pass.

[“No! no!”] The Stamp Act could not be executed here. Can the Fugitive Slave Bill? [‘Never!”]

That put Sumner in an awkward spot, at least for the purposes of performance. He told the free soilers that he “sustain[ed] an important relation to this Bill.” When just starting out as a lawyer, Joseph Story named him a commissioner of the court. Though he did little work in that capacity, Sumner’s name remained on the rolls.

As such, I am one of those before whom the panting fugitive may be dragged for the decision of the question, whether he is a freeman or a slave. But while it becomes me to speak with caution, I shall not hesitate to speak with plainness. I cannot forget that I am a man, although I am a Commissioner.

Daniel Webster (Whig-MA)

This all made for great theater, but Massachusetts had late experience with politicians who had preached antislavery now and then but found themselves obligated to defend the institution in the course of their duties. No less a Bay Stater than Daniel Webster had come out in favor of the Compromise of 1850, preaching Union above all. Sumner would do none of that. Nor did he think anyone else should, though he did not presume to judge officials who did. A magistrate in such a position should, Sumner averred with no judgment at all, resign his office. They would answer to their consciences, not the man on the stage.

Our non-judgmental Sumner proceeded to stress how little he would judge his fellow magistrates:

Surely no person of humane feelings and with any true sense of justice, living in a land “where bells have knolled to church,” whatever may be the apology of public station, can fail to recoil from such a service. For myself let me say, that I can imagine no office, no salary, no consideration, which I would not gladly forego, rather than become in any way the agent in enslaving my brother-man.

Such a deed would haunt Sumner -not judging anyone, mind!- all his waking and dreaming hours, alone or in company of others. If he failed, then he wold have to live with facing his victim,

From distance rice-fields and sugar-plantations of the South, his cries beneath the vindictive lash, his moans at the thought of Liberty, once his, now, alas! ravished away, repeating the tale of his fearful doom, and sounding, forever sounding, in my ears, “Thou art the man!”

But no pressure, fellow officers of the court.