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.
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.