A Man with Three Backbones: Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part Eleven

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Part 1, 2, 3 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 Text of the speech (page 140)

Looking at the string of defeats that the antislavery movement had suffered from the vantage of late 1850, Charles Sumner promised his audience at Faneuil Hall that the arc of history would bend the other way, if they bent it with him. The time for compromise and conciliation, for the old parties that practiced it, had passed. Antislavery Americans of Whiggish or Democratic persuasion alike must quit those hollow institutions and join Sumner’s new Free Soil Party. They should also, of course, remember Charles Sumner whenever they got in touch with their representatives in Massachusetts about the open Senate seat. For that matter, the abolitionists who had declared themselves too pure for politics needed to turn out and vote too:

Living in a community where political power is lodged with the people, and each citizen is an elector, the vote is an important expression of opinion. The vote is the cutting edge. It is well to have correct opinions, but the vote must follow. The vote is the seed planted; without it there can be no sure fruit.

Only “a foolish husbandman” would neglect the seed, or “an unwise citizen” declare his sentiments and then fail to cast his ballot. Sumner understood that his audience and those admirable abolition radicals alike had reason to distrust the system. Parties and governments authored all their disappointments in 1850 and for decades before. Antislavery politicians had promised results, then capitulated when the South presented a united front against them. Any politician would not do, one must also find the right politician. Voters

can put trust only in men of tried character and inflexible will. Three things at least they must require: the first is backbone; the second is backbone; and the third is backbone.

That all made for fairly rude political speech, by the standards of the day. Sumner himself called his language “homely” but made no excuses. Whenever he saw a person declare the right principles and then bent to the Slave Power, he could think nothing but that they lacked the spine for it. The inconstant, the cowardly, and the pliable sorts did not deserve those cutting edge votes of good antislavery men.

Charles Sumner happened to know a courageous, constant, firm man who he would like to recommend to Faneuil Hall:

The first political convention which I ever attended was in the spring of 1845, against the annexation of Texas. I was at that time a silent and passive Whig. I had never held political office, nor been a candidate for any. No question ever before drew me to any active political exertion. The strife of politics seemed to me ignoble.

Sumner threw in actively with the Whigs, aiming with them to “arouse the party in Massachusetts to its Antislavery duties.” But experience showed him that Massachusetts Whiggery bent its back for slavery. Convinced then that “the Whig party was disloyal to Freedom” and not prepared to bend to its line, he quit the Whigs for the Free Soilers he now stood among.

Would that I could impress upon all who now hear me something of the strength of my own convictions! Would that my voice, leaving this crowded hall to-night, could traverse the hills and valleys of New England, that it could run along the rivers and the lakes of my country, lighting in every heart a beacon-flame to arouse the slumberers throughout the land! [Sensation.]


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