“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.


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