“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.

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