The Fugitive Slave Clause Debated and Disregarded: Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 7

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6; full speech

Charles Sumner made his case to the Senate that the Fugitive Slave Clause did not constitute a vital compromise on which the framers hung the American Union. It came into the Constitution as an afterthought, toward the end of business in Philadelphia. No one had previously demanded the provision and South Carolina first advanced it as an annex to the provision for the return of fugitive criminals. Afterthought or not, the language did not go unmarked in Independence Hall. Sumner reminded the Senate that

the very boldness of the effort drew attention and opposition. Mr. Wilson, of Pennsylvania, at once objected: “This would oblige the Executive of the State to do it at the public expense.” Mr. Sherman, of Connecticut, “saw no more propriety in the public seizing and surrendering a slave or servant, than a horse.”

Sherman’s argument may not sound like one opposed to the Fugitive Slave Clause, but keep in mind that the common law right to recover strayed livestock fell on the owner. One didn’t, at least absent a dispute, involve the courts or constabulary to get back a horse. With Sherman’s and Wilson’s objections before them, the Fugitive Slave Clause’s advocates let it drop for a day. It came up again on the morrow as a measure against “fugitives from service or labor” rather than “fugitive slaves” and the addition passed with unanimously without debate.

The latter fact didn’t comport well with Sumner’s argument on the clause’s contentious, marginal nature so he moved quickly from it to a discussion of ratification. There he acknowledged that Southern federalists had used the clause as part of the sales pitch for the Constitution but pointed to debate on the point:

In the Virginia Convention, an eminent character, Mr. George Mason, with others, expressly declared that there was “no security of property coming with this section.”

Should that not settle things, he referred the Senate to the Federalist’s discussion of national powers geared toward “harmony and proper intercourse,” which omitted the clause as one of them. That indifference, began at Philadelphia, continued through the first Fugitive Slave Act in 1793. Sumner argued that the law considered fugitive slaves only an an adjunct to fugitive criminals, which doesn’t quite match the circumstances. Resistance to the rendition of fugitive slaves from Pennsylvania directly led to the passage of the act. For that matter, Southerners sought many of the draconian provisions then that they would finally achieve in 1850.

Returning to facts, Sumner argued that few fugitives ended up back in slavery under the 1793 law. He rightly noted that even then, northern opinion leaned toward the self-stolen slave to the point that in Boston

the crowd about the magistrate, at the examination, quietly and spontaneously opened a way for the fugitive, and thus the Act failed to be executed.

A Vermont judge did one better, looking at documents proving ownership and deciding to only sanction rendition if “the master could show a Bill of Sale from the Almighty.” In the face of such obstruction of so vital a right, Southerners twice before 1850 tried for a better law and both times failed to get one through Congress. Sumner brought them up entirely to note those debates as the first time that the South chose to view the Fugitive Slave Clause as a vital part of the Union.


About that Fugitive Slave Clause: Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 6

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5; full speech

Charles Sumner insisted to the Senate that, properly construed, the Constitution permitted the national government no power to institute, defend, or protect slavery. Such authority belonged exclusively to the states, which could choose as they wished. He said as much in an argument against the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, but the point reached further. The act and the theories that led to it both grated against the true meaning of the Constitution, which enshrined a national presumption of freedom that could not be surrendered absent due process of law. That left Sumner with a problem in the form of the Constitution’s Fugitive Slave Clause:

No person held to service or labour in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labour, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due

By the plain reading of the text, the Constitution does make the rendition of fugitive slaves a national business of some kind. If a slave crossed state lines, the government in Washington had an obligation to return them. Sumner had to explain that away.

The Senator commenced by declaring that none of the great compromises at Philadelphia hung on the clause, after which he reviewed them at length. Returning to the subject, he remarked that the Virginians there presented sixteen resolutions on the best form of government and none called for any fugitive renditions. Nor even did the South Carolinians, who presented a plan “marked by considerable minuteness of detail” quite say that. Their plan included a provision for the return of fugitives from justice, but not fugitive slaves. The “flaming guardian of the slave-interest” can’t have missed that opportunity by chance.

That must sound like hair-splitting. Since he talked himself into a corner, Sumner wanted to lawyer the corner into a boulevard. But he had a point, if a narrrow one. We call people who have some kind of court judgment against them or who flee capture by law enforcement fugitives from justice. Fugitive slaves had, and often could not legally have, any such court order. If it took a judge to declare everyone a slave to start with, the system wouldn’t have withstood the spotty legal infrastructure of the early United States. Nor did Southerners usually consider fugitive slaves in defiance of a law, precisely. They asserted the right to fugitive rendition by analogy to non-human livestock. If a cow or a horse strayed into someone else’s land, you had a common law right to go in and get it back inherent in the right to hold that animal as property. As another species of property, slaves must count for that or they must not count as property.

The whole work of the convention nearly passed, with seven full drafts of the Constitution, before the fugitive slave matter came up. Then Charles Cotesworth Pinckney suggested the convention ought to do something about fugitive slaves, though he declined to present one. The next item on the agenda involved the rendition of those aforementioned fugitives from justice, at which point Pinckney and another South Carolinian moved that fugitive slaves fall under the same provision. That would treat them as criminals.

Sumner might have made an arcane, technical point, but it had a substance to it all the same. The framers did not act like men who viewed the Fugitive Slave Clause as a critical compromise to preserve the Union. They treated it like a genuine afterthought.

“Like the Spirit of Evil before the Angel of the Lord” Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 5

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4; full speech

Charles Sumner held that the Constitution required no person, of any race or color, could lose life or liberty except by due process of law. The crinkly paper read “no person” rather than “no freeman”, the wording recommended by North Carolina and Virginia. By tossing that qualification out, the framers showed that they wished a presumption and guarantee of freedom for people under national jurisdiction. The states might do as they wanted with slavery, which meant keeping it about half the time and for well over half the enslaved, but the national government with its federal district, its federal marshals, judges, and territories, could have no rightful and constitutional power to institute slavery or keep anyone in bondage. Somehow, the United States had fallen from that original course. The ghosts of founders in a red, white, and blue heaven must have wept.

But we could fix it. What men had made, men could unmake. In righting the nation, we could make slavery disappear “like darkness under the arrows of the ascending sun – like the Spirit of Evil before the Angel of the Lord.” Bare minimum, some corpses in powdered wigs and knee breeches might stop clawing at the doors of their tombs. Charles Sumner had seen the promised land and he came back with an antislavery travelogue:

In all national territories Slavery will be impossible.

In 1852, that would have ensured freedom’s reign in New Mexico and Utah, as well as securing it in any territory the Congress subsequently organized. Had they listened to him, Kansas would never have bled.

In the District of Columbia Slavery will instantly cease.

Instant cessation implies no compensation as well as no lengthy wait. Sumner proposed, like a good antislavery radical, immediate and uncompensated emancipation where the Congress has plenary power. Forget the ban on public slave trading, righting the nation would do away with slaves in that little district on the Potomac. Slaves from Virginia and Maryland would promptly decamp and claim their freedom, which Sumner declared the nation could not deny them:

Nowhere under the Constitution, can the Nation, by legislation or otherwise, support Slavery, hunt slaves, or hold property in man.

In other words, to set food in the District or a national territory, perhaps even a customs house or military post, instantly freed a slave. Sumner would implement the Somerset doctrine. He spent another page explaining it by name. The United States, like England, would have air too pure for a slave to breathe and so the legal magic would operate in his or her lungs and they would become free.

That soaring rhetoric must appeal to us, with slavery long gone. To the enslavers in the Senate chamber that day, and all who would read Sumner’s speech or hear of it later, the Senator promised something not far from unremitting war against slavery. He enticed their human property to run with wild promises. He castigated slaveholding men as servants of evil which one must abjure. He promised, in effect, to smother their class with the might of a potent national government.

“Pseudodoxia Epidemica” Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 4

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3; full speech

Charles Sumner vented his indignation at the perversion of the true meaning of the Constitution. Men had twisted its presumption of national freedom into one of national slavery, making bondage into the default state and freedom a special enactment by state legislatures. He knew that the founders meant just the opposite. Once he had a sufficient head of steam, Sumner really unloaded:

Slavery national! Sir, this is all a mistake and an absurdity, fit to take place in some new collection of Vulgar Errors, by some other Sir Thomas Browne, with the  ancient but exploded stories, that the toad has a stone in its head, and that ostriches digest iron.

Browne wrote Pseudodoxia Epidemica -Sumner skipped the Latin, for once- to debunk a wide variety of folk wisdom common in the seventeenth century with then-modern scientific reasoning. In his place we might refer someone to Snopes or, should we remember the internet epoch of the carrier anomalocaris, Usenet FAQs. Declaring his position “unanswerable”, Sumner took his stand and started arguing.

Sumner’s throat-clearing exercise took him seven pages, Gentle Readers. His argument consumes more than sixty more, under the headings of “the true relations of the National Government to Slavery” and “the true nature of the provision for the rendition of fugitives from labor.” The first concerns us more.

Like most historians of American slavery today, Sumner began his account of antislavery jurisprudence in England. In the famous Somersett case of 1772, Lord Mansfield found along lines broadly congenial to Sumner that slavery could not exist absent a positive law to institute it. In other words, it did not exist in the common law and one needed to find a specific act of a legislature to authorize owning people. Colonies could do as they liked, but if anyone wanted to hold a slave in England they must have Parliament’s go-ahead. Sumner found cases where the courts of Mississippi and Kentucky endorsed that doctrine, so no one could claim that he cherry-picked from foreign or free state law to suit his purposes.

It followed, then, that a legal presumption against slavery existed. One could not read Constitutional or legal silences as endorsing human bondage. Nor could it arise from implications or incidentally. Legislators must pass a law that clearly said, in effect “you may own these people as slaves”. Sumner read his Constitution and found no such language. Instead it spoke of establishing justice and securing the blessings of liberty. Even the language that permitted states to continue importing slaves from Africa recognized them as people, not goods. Nor did Sumner find authorization for slavery in the Declaration of Independence. He found no more evidence of such a thing in the proceedings of the Philadelphia convention, nor in ratification debates. (On the last point, Sumner appears to have only concerned himself with Massachusetts; South Carolina could tell a different story.) Even the antebellum Supreme Court, before Dred Scott, recognized slaves as people and that their status as “merchandise” arose solely from state law.

Sumner then proceeded to a flowery, patriotic oration that conscripted George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry to his cause. To them he joined the voice of the Christian Church: Quakers, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists. If that didn’t do the job, then he had the universities too: Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, and William and Mary. To them, Sumner added literary men, which made room to include Benjamin Franklin, quoting from his antislavery memorial to the First Congress, and double count Jefferson and John Jay.

All this, and rather more, pointed to just how obvious Sumner considered his position. He mustered every authority he could think of, some with lengthy quotations, to manufacture a vast antislavery consensus embodied in American life from its greatest luminaries and most sacred institutions, laid down on parchment in the Constitution itself:

No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.

Those words, Sumner applied to everyone

whether Caucasian, Indian, or African, from the President to the slave. Show me a person, no matter what his condition, or race, or color, within the national jurisdiction, and I confidently claim for him this protection.

The Example of Louis XIV: Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 3

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2

Charles Sumner made no bones about how politicians had nationalized slavery. He declared to the assemblage of National Whigs and Democrats in the Senate that to a man, Americans should rightly see them as Slavery Whigs and Slavery Democrats. One could argue with the details of Sumner’s history, but as a practical matter he had them dead to rights. Time and time again, they have capitulated to demands for slavery’s advance and made concessions taking almost useless fig leaves back to their angry voters in trade. Sumner, however, saw

Slavery as a sectional institution, within the exclusive control of the States, and with which the nation has nothing to do.

That makes him sound a bit like a reverse fire-eater. Sumner didn’t argue for disunion, but he believed in the rightness of state noncompliance in fugitive slave renditions and that the national government had no rightful power to impose any part of slavery upon a state. Enslavers and their allies could point to the specific grant of power to do just that in the Fugitive Slave Clause, finding themselves the virtues of a muscular national government coercing mere provinces. Everyone, then and now, chooses to prefer a form or level of government from policy outcomes. The what and how of politics concern us much more than the where and who.

The world had turned upside-down, by Sumner’s lights:

by an equally strange perversion, Freedom is degraded to be sectional, and all who uphold it, under the national Constitution, share this same epithet. The honest efforts to secure its blessings, everywhere within the jurisdiction of Congress, are scouted as sectional and this cause, which the founders of our National Government had so much at heart, is called sectionalism.

Sumner had the right of it there. Slavery agitation, allegedly either way but mostly to the antislavery side, won its practitioners condemnation as sectional men, fanatics, and obsessives bent on the Union’s destruction. One can’t get more anti-national than that. All this, Sumner attributed to the nature of slavery itself:

herein is the power of Slavery. According to a curious tradition of the French language, Louis XIV, the grand monarch, by an accidental error of speech, among supple courtiers, changed the gender of a noun; but Slavery has done more than this. It has changed word for word. It has taught many to say national, instead of sectional, and sectional instead of national.

No one would have missed Sumner’s allusion to monarchical power. Americans then still ardently feared kings and treasured their republican tradition in a world largely hostile to such things. To invoke a famous autocrat like Louis XIV and his pliable band of well-dressed lackeys, not a single backbone to share amongst them, Sumner cast slavery as fundamentally alien, dangerous, and authoritarian. He turned the insult back on its purveyors: Antislavery agitation did not imperil the Union, but rather the demands of despotic, unrepublican slavery had corrupted and perverted popular understandings. Slavery itself made men into monarchs, endowing them with a power like the Sun King’s.

“The extravagance of this error can hardly be surpassed.” Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 2

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

We left Charles Sumner proclaiming himself an independent man, not bound by any party and free to act in the United States Senate as his conscience dictated. His conscience and his political circumstances happened to agree on his making an antislavery speech when he got the chance on August 26, 1852. A slave to his own principles, he had no other choice than to declaim on the theme of freedom national, slavery sectional. After some further throat-clearing about how Sumner had to make the speech and he did not accept the dogma of the day that the Compromise of 1850 forever settled all slavery questions, he dug into the subject in detail:

The relations of the Government of the United States -I speak of the National Government- to Slavery, though plain and obvious, are constantly misunderstood. A popular belief at this moment makes Slavery a national institution, and, of course, renders its support a national duty. The extravagance of this error can hardly be surpassed. An institution, which our fathers most carefully omitted to name in the Constitution, which, according to the debates of the Convention, they refused to cover with any “sanction,” and which, at the original organization of the Government, was merely sectional, existing nowhere on the national territory, is now above all other things blazoned as national.

Sumner rightly noted, and would go on to document exhaustively, that the framers declined to name slavery in the Constitution. Instead they resorted to circumlocutions about people held in service and otherwise carefully ensured that they referred to slaves as persons, not property. This allowed them to argue, and Sumner to carry on decades later, with the notion that the United States did not affirm a right to property in man. Not everybody at Philadelphia had such scruples, of course. The slavery language usually originated in a more direct way and the convention revised it to something more oblique thereafter.

On the point of slavery not existing on the national territory, Sumner almost had it right. The national territory at the time of ratification included only the Old Northwest, from whence I write this. The famous ordinance organizing it did ban slavery, but neglected to do anything about the slaves already present in the territory. Their owners petitioned the Confederation Congress for a guarantee of their property, or at least a clear explanation of its status, and got silence. As a practical matter, that permitted slavery to continue. Well into the nineteenth century, freedom suits in the area could hinge on whether someone was brought into the territory and its successors before or after the ordinance took effect. It ended up functioning as no more than a marginal ban on introducing additional slaves.

Sumner may not have known that; the Northwest Ordinance remains an understudied subject to this day. He and his generation of antislavery activists took from it the precedent of the nation’s first slavery ban. The law still has a plausible claim to that on paper, which sufficed for rhetorical purposes whether Sumner knew better or not. Thus he emphasized just how the national men of the time used “national” as a practical synonym for “slavery,” whatever their party, had misunderstood the nation’s history and constitution. For a group heavy with lawyers and other men of letters, that did make an extravagant error.

The Slave Of Principles: Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part One

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Charles Sumner had his moment at last. On August 26, 1852, he presented an amendment to an appropriations bill which would have repealed the Fugitive Slave Act. As a matter of right, he could now give the Senate the antislavery address that his supporters had demanded with increasing urgency for six months. He stood to develop a theme he had suggested previously that spring and summer. Back in May, Sumner presented a memorial against the law, and tried to make a speech of it, but found himself out of order. Rules and custom stated that you told the Senate the subject of the petition and let it go. Then Sumner declared

I believe I shall utter nothing which, in any just sense, can be called sectional, unless the Constitution is sectional, and unless the sentiments of the fathers were sectional. It is my happiness to believe, and my hope to be able to show, that, according to the true spirit of the Constitution, and according to the sentiments of the fathers, FREEDOM, and not slavery is NATIONAL; while SLAVERY, and not freedom, is SECTIONAL.

Sumner did not originate that idea. It appears in his speech against the Fugitive Slave Act during the election campaign. Others had made similar arguments for years. But Sumner gave the antislavery movement one of its most powerful slogans: Freedom National. He might have had something prepared back in May on those lines, but the Senate denied him the chance to speak then, and then again in July. Come August they could deny no longer and Sumner, who had prepared for months, laid in.

Massachusetts’ new senator might have gone to extremes. Sumner had a talent for taking principles to their logical extent, regardless of practical considerations. As a young lawyer, taken in by some of Joseph Story’s legal writings, he extended them far further than the Justice had ever done. Sumner declined to go all out, remaining committed to action within the political system rather than damning it all as William Lloyd Garrison would have liked. His rhetoric covers well-trod ground, often redundantly and at great length. Thus I will not, Gentle Readers, inflict upon you all seventy pages of Sumner’s Freedom National speech. Even I don’t enjoy nineteenth century prose that much. Instead, I will focus on what Sumner meant by Freedom National, Slavery Sectional.

Sumner opened on August 26 with a complaint about the appropriation before the Senate for “extraordinary expenses”

beneath these specious words lurks the very subject on which, by a solemn vote of this body, I was refused a hearing. Here it is; no longer open to the charge of being an “abstraction,” but actually presented for practical legislation; not introduced by me, but by one of the important committees of the Senate; not brought forward weeks ago, when there was ample time for discussion, but only at this moment, without any reference to the late period of the session.

The Senate had incurred a different extraordinary expense than the one under consideration then when it gagged Sumner. Now he would incur a more ordinary one, for an era used to multi-hour political speeches, right back. They should hear Sumner “not as a favor, but as a right” under “parliamentary law.” But Sumner had more than a right in mind:

With me, sir, there is no alternative. Painfully convinced of the unutterable wrongs and woes of slavery; profoundly believing that, according to the true spirit of the Constitution and the sentiments of the fathers, it can find no place under our National Government-that it is in every respect sectional, and in no respect national-that it is always and everywhere the creature and dependent of the States and never anywhere […] of the Nation, and that the Nation can never, by legislative or other act, impart to it any support, under the Constitution of the United States

That conviction entailed upon Sumner a duty to act, though he once again protested that he had sought no office and did not see himself as a man of politics. Charles Sumner must speak out, at last, as “[t]he slave of principles.”

“Said Act is hereby repealed”

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

The Senate could not afford the generosity of allowing Charles Sumner to speak on behalf of his own resolution to repeal the Fugitive Slave Act, which left him with a problem. Back in Massachusetts, the Free Soilers increasingly thought that the Democracy had taken them for a ride. They got their reforms through the state legislature with Free Soil votes, as promised, but never quite got around to the antislavery business that they had promised in return. Sumner’s seat appeared to be all they would get from a deal some of them disliked from the start. Their man in Washington failed to deliver too, going half a year without any antislavery oratory.

The Massachusetts papers did not take a Senate gag for an excuse. David Donald quotes them:

The Democratic Boston Post called Sumner’s motion a “contemptible dodge,” intended to avoid a real discussion of slavery, and the Worcester Palladium agreed that Sumner “went into the matter cat-footed,” without real intent of forcing a vote on the Fugitive Slave Law. Even the pious protest of the Commonwealth that “No well-informed man has any reason to distrust Mr. Sumner’s devotion to the cause of freedom” lost its force when the same paper demanded that he “introduce at once a bill for the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law, and let the slave drivers take, if they dare, the responsibility of silencing him.”

One might expect Democratic papers to dismiss Sumner with ease. The Commonwealth lost its first editor for opposition to the Free Soil-Democracy coalition, replaced by a more reliable party loyalist. He must have taken that non-endorsement seriously indeed. The Senator griped about how he never wanted the job in the first place and agreed to go to Washington only with freedom to act, or not act, as he wished. But he knew he had to do something.

To gain the floor, Sumner expected a chance at the end of the session. Then he might attach an amendment to an appropriations bill and claim a right to speak on its behalf rather than a privilege easily voted away. Sumner gambled, as he had no guarantee that the presiding officer would recognize him or would rule what he offered germane to the bill. To improve his odds, Sumner cleared his desk and did his best to look like a man with nothing further to offer the Senate.

Robert Morse Taliaferro Hunter (D-VA)

On August 26, 1852, Sumner got his chance. The appropriations bill came up and Robert Hunter of Virginia put forward an amendment to cover incidental expenses that may arise from the enforcement of the laws, authorizing the president to draw on funds marked for the Judiciary. In other words, he could spend the courts’ money to pay for the work of fugitive slave renditions. Opportunity at hand, Sumner seized it to offer an amendment to the amendment:

Provided, That no such allowance shall be authorized for any expense incurred in executing the Act of September 18, 1850, for the surrender of fugitives from service or labor; which said Act is hereby repealed.

“They cannot afford to be generous or even just.”

Charles Francis Adams

The Senate gagged Charles Sumner, denying him the customary permission to speak on behalf of a motion he presented for the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act. The man with three backbones had shown his backbone at last. His fellow senators, citing their parties’ commitment to the finality of the Compromise of 1850, told Sumner that he shouldn’t take this personally. They had to do what they had to do, just as he did in bringing the resolution to the floor to begin with. Before the vote, Sumner had every expectation that he would speak. He got on well with Southern men. His oratory had won praise before. Senate custom stood on his side. In rising to ask the chamber to take up his resolution, Sumner got in his only words on the subject:

As a Senator, under the responsibilities of my position, I have deemed it in my duty to offer this resolution. I may seem to have postponed this duty to an inconvenient period of the session; but had I attempted it at an earlier day, I might have exposed myself to a charge of a different character. It might have been said, that, a new-comer and inexperienced in this scene, without deliberation, hastily, rashly, recklessly, I pushed this question before the country. This is not the case now. I have taken time, and, in the exercise of my most careful discretion, at last ask the attention of the Senate. I shrink from any appeal founded on a trivial personal consideration; but should I be blamed for delay latterly, I may add, that, though in my seat daily, my bodily health for some time past, down to this very week, ash not been equal to the service I have undertaken. I am not sure that it is now, but I desire to try.

Did you hear that, William Lloyd Garrison? Sumner had good reasons to delay, including personal illness. David Donald, citing Sumner’s letters, names the sickness as diarrhea and attributes it to Sumner’s nerves. He might have the right of it. One doesn’t want to give a lengthy speech while cramped up or likely to have dire need of a recess midway through. Now, at last, and against his better judgment given continuing infirmity, Sumner would speak. The Senate need only let him and they would hardly refuse a man who deliberated so long and confessed to such a weakness.

But they did, blindsiding Sumner. Charles Francis Adams wrote Sumner on August 1 explaining how he had gone wrong:

The result at which you arrived is not in the least surprising to me. You are in your nature more trusting than I, and therefore expected more. Where slavery is concerned I have not a particle of confidence in the courtesy, honor, principles, or veracity of those who sustain it, either directly by reason of selfish interest, or more remotely through the servility learned by political associations. In all other cases I should yield them a share of confidence. I should not, therefore, had I been in your place, have predicated any action of mine upon the grant by them of any favor whatever. They cannot afford to be generous or even just. If you can get even that to which you have a clear right, you will do pretty well; but to get it you will have to fight for it.

Adams spoke from experience, both in his own career and upbringing and as a Northern man in general. To a significant degree, the political progress of the free states during the last decade of the antebellum involved their moving from an innocence like Sumner’s, or at least an indifference, to a hardened awareness like Adams already preached in 1852.

“By God, you shan’t.” Gagging Charles Sumner

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Charles Sumner might have endured William Lloyd Garrison’s criticism. He might even have ignored the effect it may produce among Garrison’s voting supporters. But Sumner liked being subject to public opprobrium no more than anyone else. When the mastermind of the Free Soil-Democracy coalition, Henry Wilson, started bending his ear Sumner had to act. He planned to speak last on slavery, giving himself time to learn the ways of the Senate and polish up his debate chops. That might have made sense on a personal level, but also made for bad politics at a time when Sumner’s movement could not afford them.

Back in Massachusetts, the Free Soilers did their part in helping the Democracy pass its reform laws. The Democrats, however, failed to hold up their end of the coalition bargain by passing a personal liberty law that Sumner helped write. Nor had they passed resolutions against the Fugitive Slave Act or do anything else to advance the cause of antislavery in the Bay State. As the months wore on, it looked increasingly like only Sumner’s election had come of a fraught coalition. In a situation like that, Palfrey’s argument that they ought not to have done it to begin with must have carried some force.

Realizing he had to do something, Sumner acted on July 27. Going back to his promise of immediate repeal for the hated Fugitive Slave Act, he rose and offered a resolution:

That the Committee on the Judiciary be instructed to consider the expediency of reporting a bill for the immediate repeal of the Act of Congress, approved September 18, 1850, usually known as the Fugitive Slave Act.

Sumner had the right to present any resolutions he liked to the Senate and the moment seems to have passed without incident. Massachusetts’ senator asked that Congress take up the issue the next day, July 28, and the leave of the house to speak on the resolution’s behalf. The rules required that permission but, like many things in the Senate, custom reduced that to a pure formality. If you wanted to speak on your resolution, the Senate let you speak. Senators did not gag their peers.

James Mason

We might better say that Senators do not usually gag their peers, but they made a special exception on July 28, 1852. Sumner’s southern friends turned on him. Andrew Butler damned him for putting the resolution up as a pretense to deliver an antislavery speech. Others claimed Sumner’s resolve tantamount to disunion. Northern Democrats castigated him. Stephen Douglas declared, as quoted in Donald’s biography, the he refuse to “extend any act of courtesy to any gentleman to…fan the flames of discord that have so recently divided this great people.” The Senate voted 32-10 to gag Charles Sumner. Afterwards, his friends came up and apologized. Their parties restrained them from allowing such a speech on the floor of the Senate. Nothing personal, ok?

James Mason, the author of the Fugitive Slave Act, told Sumner to wait for next term. Sumner insisted it must come this term, at which point Mason told him “By God, you shan’t.”