The Future is Antislavery: Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part Ten

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Part 1, 2, 3 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 Text of the speech (page 140)

We left Charles Sumner positioning himself as a committed antislavery man in the realm of mainstream politics. His Free Soil party did not propose to blow up the Union over slavery. They did not plan to send an army of John Browns into Virginia, nor their legislative equivalents. His party would not demand that the national government force emancipation on anyone, except in the territories and District of Columbia where it had every right and power to do so. The movement’s success would require support from people of all political stripes, united to keep slavery in its Southern pen. Antislavery Democrats, Whigs, and Free Soilers must

If you are sincere in what you declare, if your words are not merely lip-service, if in your heart you are entirely willing to join in practical effort against Slavery, then, by life, conversation, influence, vote, disregarding “the ancient forms of party strife,” seek to carry the principles of freedom into the National Government, wherever its jurisdiction is acknowledged and its power can be felt.

Sumner concerned himself more with moderate to conservative opinion here, but he might well have said the same of the Garrisonian wing of the antislavery movement. In the name of moral purity, those worthies had written themselves out of politics and confined their challenge to slavery to the rhetorical plane. The disputes between them and the more mainstream antislavery element had split national organizations, often with considerable acrimony.

Conservative critics of the antislavery movement in the North often accused its adherents of unthinking radicalism. By making slavery an issue, they threatened the Union and caused the fraught politics that they then cited as cause for action. Sumner turned that around, arguing that by ending the slavery question as the free soilers wished, they would banish all the disturbing radicalism. With it penned up in the South, slavery could no longer make and unmake presidencies. It would continue there, true enough, but “we are in no sense responsible” for that.

Then Sumner returned to his dark times theme. Looking back on an almost perfect series of defeats, he consoled the faithful:

Amidst all apparent reverses, notwithstanding the hatred of enemies or the coldness of friends, he [the antislavery man] has the consciousness of duty done. Whatever may be existing impediments, his is also the cheering conviction that every word spoken, every act performed, every vote cast for this cause, helps to swell those quickening influences by which Truth, Justice, and Humanity will be established upon earth.

Politicians always say things like this after painful losses. They go on to add that history has taken their side and the future belongs to their policies, just as Sumner did:

Others may dwell on the Past as secure. Under the laws of a beneficent God the Future is also secure, -on the single condition that we labor for its great objects.

The future belongs to us, if we take it.

 

 

 

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