Disappointing Lajos Kossuth

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

 

We left Charles Sumner newly arrived in Washington and caught up in its busy social life. Aware that he did not know the Senate’s norms and that he came with a reputation as a man who cared for antislavery and nothing else, he did not rush to make his maiden speech. Instead Sumner spent his nights studying up with the Congressional Globe, a true hero’s calling, and reading law and manuals of parliamentary procedure. At the same time he kept up a growing correspondence. To dispel the presumption that Sumner thought only of slavery, he chose to make himself heard first on the occasion of Lajos Kossuth’s sensational arrival in the United States.

Kossuth excited nineteenth century Americans as a good looking, heroic revolutionary figure fluent in English. They wanted to wine and dine him. A few over-excited types probably hoped to somehow help with his revolution. The official welcome mat rolled out and almost as soon as it had second thoughts set in. Kossuth, a European radical, might have other ideas in that vein than just freedom for Hungarians. If he opposed slavery, then it followed that giving him a state welcome implied endorsement by the United States of his doctrines. Independent of that, welcoming a foreign revolutionary who would probably solicit support for his cause did not comport well with the national tradition of non-interference in European affairs.

Lajos Kossuth, Hungarian revolutionary

Sumner made an equivocal speech that praised Kossuth and declared all fighters for freedom deserved American admiration. He endorsed the official reception, planting his flag with the revolutionary. Then he took it down and went home by declaring that no one should understand the reception as any kind of endorsement for Kossuth’s politics. Certainly it did not signal that the United States would intervene in the affairs of the Habsburg Empire in any way. The United States might toast Kossuth and feast him at the highest levels, but Sumner would have the nation do so strictly in the role of a fan club.

The speech prompted some grumblings from Sumner’s more radical friends, but went over well with most Massachusetts opinion. Even hostile newspapers praised him for it. Sumner’s fellow senators proved just as effusive. The new person might expect an encouraging welcome, but Sumner had gotten snubs instead. Those assembling to congratulate him after he finished included more than Sumner’s recently-acquired senatorial friends. Even Lewis Cass, who went out of his way to make Sumner unwelcome previously, now said that he felt no shame at presenting the antislavery man to the Senate. Maybe they could make a tolerable senator out of him yet.

 

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