Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part One

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Gentle Readers, we followed David Rice Atchison out of Kansas and back in time to meet his friend and messmate, Andrew Butler. Now comes time wind the clock back a little farther and introduce another important figure in the Kansas struggle. On November 6, 1850, Charles Sumner addressed (PDF page 140) a Free Soil meeting in Faneuil Hall. Sumner began by disclaiming any interest in the Massachusetts election a few days hence, as a candidate for office should in the fashion of the time. Sumner presented himself as a man concerned with “Freedom above all else.” The various coalitions his Free Soil party had made with antislavery Democrats and Whigs warranted a favorable mention all the same. Sumner turned then to the Congress.

For things have been done, and measures passed into laws, which, to my mind, fill the day itself with blackness.

Sumner held the recent passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 as chief among those measures, “a most cruel, unchristian, devilish” thing. Sumner refused to call it a law, instead referring to it always as “The Fugitive Slave Bill.” The “Heaven-defying Bill” afflicted not only black slaves, but the liberty of white men by holding out the possibility of imprisonment and levying fines against them for aiding slaves who dared steal themselves. Sumner then proceeded through what he considered the law’s many constitutional defects. In considering the law, Sumner’s “soul sickens.”

what act of shame, what ordinance of monarch, what law, can compare in atrocity with this enactment of an American Congress? […] Into the immortal catalogue of national crimes it has now passed, drawing, by inexorable necessity, its authors also, and chiefly him who, as President of the United States, set his name to the bill, and breathed into it that final breath without which it would bear no life.

Millard Fillmore

Sumner spoke of Millard Fillmore, who he thought would live forever in infamy. Posterity has instead remembered Fillmore as the president most notable for his obscurity, but posterity only lived with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 for a decade before the Civil War intervened. That said, one struggles to disagree with Sumner as he lays into the Whigs’ second, and last, accidental president:

Better for him had he never been born! Better for his memory, and for the good name of his children, had he never been President!

We talk about polarization and hostile rhetoric today, but our opposition party rarely declares a sitting president ought never have existed. Even hot under the collar proslavery rhetoric rarely goes that way, though veiled threats of violence make a fair equivalent.

Sumner looked to the Bay State’s past for examples of right conduct against such enormities, imposed by so vile a president and so tyrannical a Slave Power. He found them in John Adams, writing against the Stamp Act. Adams declared that any man who spoke up in favor of Parliament’s law, however rich, well-liked, and virtuous “has been seen to sink into universal contempt and ignominy.” Someone in the crowd yelled back “Ditto for the Slave-Hunter!”

If Adams didn’t get the Puritan blood flowing, then Sumner added John Winthrop on top. He quoted the first Governor of Massachusetts:

This Liberty is the proper end and object of authority, and cannot subsist without it; and it is a liberty to that only which is good, just, and honest. This liberty you are to stand for, with the hazard not only of your goods, but of  your lives, if need be. Whatsoever crosseth this is not authority, but a distemper thereof.

“Surely,” Sumner said, the passions of Massachusetts had “not so far cooled” to let the submit to the Fugitive Slave Act. That old “unconquerable rage” at the stamp enforcers had not left Massachusetts yet.

Advertisements

Your input is welcome

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s