Since coming to Washington, Charles Sumner had learned he could make friends with slaveholding Southerners and that he could make speeches which would please critics, as well as the kind that set them against him. His ability to speak eloquently, if not always with the most graceful style, set him apart from the crowd. He prided himself on his erudition and a complete lack of anything resembling a joke. Having the advantage of considerable height and good looks didn’t hurt either.
Sumner exercised his talents in finessing Lajos Kossuth and on behalf of a land grant for a railroad, but managed to avoid speaking on slavery. The coalition which elected him on the basis of his antislavery politics had reason to expect something on that front and feared he may go soft on the cause. Conservatives in Massachusetts hoped that Sumner would soon betray those who elected him. We may remember Sumner as the man of three backbones and steadfast foe of slavery, but they didn’t know how things would turn out. In late 1851 and early 1852, Sumner appeared bent on living down to expectations.
Sumner had damned Millard Fillmore for signing the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. When Fillmore visited Boston, Sumner made a courtesy call. When the elections of 1851 came around, Sumner avoided campaigning for his own coalition. As the presidential campaign of 1852 heated up, he refused to support Winfield Scott despite Scott’s soundness on slavery specifically on the grounds that he expected more antislavery action on the Democratic side. He believed his Free Soil party should stand apart even when the Democracy chose Franklin Pierce as their man, instead throwing himself behind John P. Hale in a hopeless cause. Sumner refused to act even on a petition sent by his constituents for the release of two men who tried to smuggle fugitive slaves out of Washington.
The Free Soilers had not voted for anything like this. Four and a half months into his tenure, Sumner had done nothing on his signature issue but sit idle. His public did not know that he had taken up lobbying Fillmore in private for the release of the men. Sumner well knew that if he told any Garrisonian, the news would appear in the Liberator almost before the ink on the letter dried. Then Fillmore would look like a man capitulating to the radicals and refuse to act. The President showed no eagerness on that front even without the publicity problem, not delivering pardons until August. The release of fugitive-abettors in Washington risked their rearrest by southern partisans, maybe even mob action, so as soon as Sumner had the news he drove to their jail. He packed the newly freed men into a carriage with a friend of his and the friend’s gun, then sent them off to the North in haste.