“Said Act is hereby repealed”

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

The Senate could not afford the generosity of allowing Charles Sumner to speak on behalf of his own resolution to repeal the Fugitive Slave Act, which left him with a problem. Back in Massachusetts, the Free Soilers increasingly thought that the Democracy had taken them for a ride. They got their reforms through the state legislature with Free Soil votes, as promised, but never quite got around to the antislavery business that they had promised in return. Sumner’s seat appeared to be all they would get from a deal some of them disliked from the start. Their man in Washington failed to deliver too, going half a year without any antislavery oratory.

The Massachusetts papers did not take a Senate gag for an excuse. David Donald quotes them:

The Democratic Boston Post called Sumner’s motion a “contemptible dodge,” intended to avoid a real discussion of slavery, and the Worcester Palladium agreed that Sumner “went into the matter cat-footed,” without real intent of forcing a vote on the Fugitive Slave Law. Even the pious protest of the Commonwealth that “No well-informed man has any reason to distrust Mr. Sumner’s devotion to the cause of freedom” lost its force when the same paper demanded that he “introduce at once a bill for the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law, and let the slave drivers take, if they dare, the responsibility of silencing him.”

One might expect Democratic papers to dismiss Sumner with ease. The Commonwealth lost its first editor for opposition to the Free Soil-Democracy coalition, replaced by a more reliable party loyalist. He must have taken that non-endorsement seriously indeed. The Senator griped about how he never wanted the job in the first place and agreed to go to Washington only with freedom to act, or not act, as he wished. But he knew he had to do something.

To gain the floor, Sumner expected a chance at the end of the session. Then he might attach an amendment to an appropriations bill and claim a right to speak on its behalf rather than a privilege easily voted away. Sumner gambled, as he had no guarantee that the presiding officer would recognize him or would rule what he offered germane to the bill. To improve his odds, Sumner cleared his desk and did his best to look like a man with nothing further to offer the Senate.

Robert Morse Taliaferro Hunter (D-VA)

On August 26, 1852, Sumner got his chance. The appropriations bill came up and Robert Hunter of Virginia put forward an amendment to cover incidental expenses that may arise from the enforcement of the laws, authorizing the president to draw on funds marked for the Judiciary. In other words, he could spend the courts’ money to pay for the work of fugitive slave renditions. Opportunity at hand, Sumner seized it to offer an amendment to the amendment:

Provided, That no such allowance shall be authorized for any expense incurred in executing the Act of September 18, 1850, for the surrender of fugitives from service or labor; which said Act is hereby repealed.

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