The 1850 Free Soil Victory in Massachusetts

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Sumner on the Fugitive Slave Act: parts 1, 2, 3 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11Text of the speech (page 140)

Charles Sumner finished off his speech with fairly standard promises to keep the antislavery faith. If he failed, then may his “tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, may may right hand forget its cunning.” He concluded by shouting for freedom, union, and victory. The editor of his papers reported applause and cheers. More than simply delivering stirring rhetoric, Sumner set himself apart from the crowd. Many in Massachusetts understood the issues as well as Sumner. Many had strong antislavery convictions. But Charles Sumner could deliver a rousing speech in an era when many politicians preferred to show off their erudition and learning through lengthy, technical discourses. He had applause lines and the audience responded to them dutifully, but in twenty pages Sumner fails to bog himself down in the usual minutia or gild everything in overly elaborate metaphors. The more popular political style couldn’t have hurt him with Democratic voters, present or past, with whom the Free Soilers would need to coalition to control the selection of Massachusetts’ new senator.

Of course, Sumner’s popular style had its share of critics. His rhetoric did not quite befit a respectable gentleman and, per Edward L. Pierce’s Memoir and Letters of Charles Sumner,

was often cited against him during the canvass for senator, and afterwards in Congress, as inflammatory, revolutionary, and treasonable; and he himself stated at a later period that his effort and hope at the time were to create a public sentiment which would render the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law (or “bill,” as he always insisted on calling it) impossible.

Sumner did not particularly court his critics on these points. He probably saw no need to, considering pierce reports him as the front-runner for the Senate seat even before the speech. That required the Democrat-Free Soil coalition winning the Massachusetts elections so the legislature could choose a senator at all, but those polls turned out better than expected. The coalition unseated the sitting governor and

The sentiment of union was so spontaneous that the people had acted upon it in all parts of the State. Twenty-one Free Soil and Democratic senators were elected to eleven Whigs, and two hundred and twenty Free Soil and Democratic representatives to one hundred and seventy-six Whigs.

Pierce considered margins of ten in the Senate and fifty-four in the House pretty good, especially in light of how thoroughly Whiggery had dominated the Bay State. Only temperance legislation had shaken that dominance enough, twice, to give Massachusetts a democratic governor in the person of Marcus Morton, an antislavery man. It transpired that Massachusetts liked tippling and disliked slavery. Furthermore, while the Free Soilers coalitioned with the Democracy, they amounted to more than hangers on or kingmakers. Instead, they achieved parity with the party of Jackson, and then a slim margin in above of one senator and six in the House.


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