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.

 

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