Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part Six

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Part 1, 2, 3 4, 5Text of the speech (page 140)

Charles Sumner delivered a strong moral argument against slavery at Faneuil Hall. Especially in Boston, that kind of thing had to raise questions. The threat to white freedom embedded in the institution could get a pass, but when Sumner evinced powerful sympathy for the enslaved his audience may have heard a whiff of Garrisonian purity about him. The Garrison wing of abolitionism preached non-involvement with politics, that sordid mire of compromise that had done so much to defend and expand slavery. Garrison’s moral purity might make him an appealing figure today, but it also makes him a curious one for a political aspirant to invoke at a party meeting. One does not, at least in rhetoric, compromise on morals. By freighting antislavery with such potent religious language, Sumner put himself in a potentially difficult spot.

Naturally, he had an out:

The testimony which we bear against Slavery, as against all other wring, is, in different ways, according to our position. The Slavery which exists under other governments, as in Russia or Turkey, or in other States of our Union, as in Virginia and Carolina, we can oppose only through the influence of morals and religion, without in any way invoking the Political Power. Nor do we propose to act otherwise.

By making slavery foreign, Sumner once more indicted it. To hold slaves put a polity in the company of autocratic Russia or the Sultan’s Turkey: states his audience would understand as deeply backward and alien. Making it foreign also made it to a substantial degree someone else’s problem. Here Massachusetts’ future senator repeated far more conventional antislavery attitudes. The good people of Massachusetts did not practice slavery, so their moral responsibility lay in exhortation. However:

Slavery, where we are parties to it, whenever we are responsible for it, everywhere within our jurisdiction, must be opposed not only by all the influences of literature, morals, and religion, but directly by every instrument of Political Power.

Massachusetts lacked the power to end slavery in the South by legal means. Such a scruple extended to the use of federal power just the same. What happened in South Carolina stayed in, or should stay in, that state. But free jurisdictions had used that power for themselves since the 1780s, with the Bay State leading the way. Thus, to Sumner, they had proven themselves competent and trustworthy. Therefore

I am sorry to confess that this can be done only through the machinery of politics. The politician, then, must be summoned. The moralist and philanthropist must become for this purpose politicians, -not forgetting morals of philanthropy, but seeking to apply them practically in the laws of the land.

And should your legislature like to summon Charles Sumner, he didn’t have to say, he would not misplace his morals on the train to Washington. The implication held double meaning: Sumner would not turn traitor to his principles, but would also not fly off into some Union-imperiling radicalism by attacking slavery in the slave states.

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