An Interruption: Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part Eight

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Part 1, 2, 3 4, 5, 6, 7 Text of the speech (page 140)

When we picture Charles Sumner standing at Faneuil Hall on November 6, 1850, most of us probably picture a relatively sedate modern political rally. He has his applause lines and the audience plays along. The air might have more smoke in it than we would expect and Sumner would have made himself heard through the power of his lungs alone, but overall we might expect a controlled, orderly affair peopled by stiff Victorian men. At their most dashing an unruly, they might come off the cover of a romance novel.

Nineteenth century mass meetings got rowdier. As a practical matter, most anyone could come. If not admitted to the hall, they might crowd outside its open doors or windows to hear, observe, and disrupt. Though billed as a party meeting, such things could have a strong ecumenical cast. For a new party that lacked a built-in constituency as the Free Soilers did, universality became a theme of necessity as well as desire to operate within the political system as it then stood. Thus Sumner proclaimed the catholicity of the antislavery cause:

It is not sectional; for it simply aims to establish under the National Government those great principles of Justice and Humanity which are broad and universal as Man. It is not aggressive’ for it does not seek in any way to interfere through Congress with Slavery in the States. It is not contrary to the Constitution; for it recognizes this paramount law, and in the administration of the Government invokes the spirit of its founders. It is not hostile to the quiet of the country; for it proposes the only course by which agitation can be allayed, and quiet be permanently established.

A less universal view of antislavery then displayed itself just outside. Someone on the street got together a band who tried to drown Sumner out.

And yet there is an attempt to suppress this cause, and to stifle its discussion.

Vain and wretched attempt!

We can all look up disrupted town hall meetings and other political events on Youtube, but I don’t think many today involve someone hiring musicians to war with the sound system. But Sumner knew such things as the cost of doing business and had the sense of humor or quick wit to turn the interruption to his advantage:

I am willing to stop for one moment, if the audience will allow me, that they may enjoy the music.

The crowd, naturally, insisted Sumner press on. They claimed to have “better music” inside and Sumner continued with his speech. It seems either the band gave up or Sumner bested them, as he goes on for a fair while thereafter without further note of the disruption. Truly, Charles Sumner would never give Massachusetts up, nor let it down, nor run around and desert it.

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