“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.”

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