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.

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