Sumner’s Silence and the Newspapers

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

In August of 1852, Charles Sumner could say he delivered for his antislavery constituents. Through months of quiet lobbying, he secured a pardon for two men caught smuggling fugitive slaves to freedom. All that time raising suspicions that he would betray his supporters by courting Millard Fillmore paid off. On that day, Sumner personally drove down to the jail and saw the men off under armed guard. The nation’s newest antislavery senator had made himself into a practical antislavery operative. His supporters at the Commonwealth touted the triumph, but Sumner had talked himself into an awkward spot back in November of 1850. If sent to the Senate, he had promised vigorous antislavery action. Yet Sumner sat on a petition that Massachusetts sent along for him to present to the chamber during all the time…to free those two antislavery men.

The National Era made a go of explaining things in June, a month to the day before the release of Drayton and Sayres:

We happen to know that it was from no disrespect to the petitioners, and no unworthy personal motive, that Mr. Sumner did not present the petition. On consultation with several of the anti-slavery members of Congress, and with persons especially interested in the case of the unfortunate prisoners, the opinion was unanimous that any agitation of the subject in Congress at present would affect very unfavorably other and more promising movements in the case.

William Lloyd Garrison

In other words, a Sumner put his head together with the other antislavery leaders in Washington and they hatched a plan. They believe things moving toward a satisfactory conclusion and presenting the petition would harm that. William Lloyd Garrison published that explanation, and the Era’s regrets that Sumner hadn’t explained things himself. Always sympathetic to practical politics and keen to moderate his tone in the service to immediate ends, Garrison then responded:

We cheerfully give Mr. Sumner the benefit of this explanation, though we are far from being satisfied with it. The real issue, however, is not in regard to the non-presentation of the petition aforesaid, but to the strange, extraordinary and inexcusable silence of Mr. Sumner on the whole subject of slavery for the long period of six months, and upwards, in his place in the U.S. Senate. True, he now promises to say something ‘hereafter,’ but he will speak too late to justify his past silence.

For Garrison not to take “trust us” as an answer shouldn’t raise too many eyebrows. Every era has its dishonest politicians and their enablers and they all think that you should trust them. But the moment he has any satisfaction on the question of the petition for Drayton and Sayres, he moves the goalposts and insists Sumner has unforgivably betrayed the cause. Six months and change of silence on a signature issue deserves some scrutiny in any politician, but here all his admirable positions don’t save Garrison from sounding like a man committed to his own political unhappiness.

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