The Slave Of Principles: Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part One

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Charles Sumner had his moment at last. On August 26, 1852, he presented an amendment to an appropriations bill which would have repealed the Fugitive Slave Act. As a matter of right, he could now give the Senate the antislavery address that his supporters had demanded with increasing urgency for six months. He stood to develop a theme he had suggested previously that spring and summer. Back in May, Sumner presented a memorial against the law, and tried to make a speech of it, but found himself out of order. Rules and custom stated that you told the Senate the subject of the petition and let it go. Then Sumner declared

I believe I shall utter nothing which, in any just sense, can be called sectional, unless the Constitution is sectional, and unless the sentiments of the fathers were sectional. It is my happiness to believe, and my hope to be able to show, that, according to the true spirit of the Constitution, and according to the sentiments of the fathers, FREEDOM, and not slavery is NATIONAL; while SLAVERY, and not freedom, is SECTIONAL.

Sumner did not originate that idea. It appears in his speech against the Fugitive Slave Act during the election campaign. Others had made similar arguments for years. But Sumner gave the antislavery movement one of its most powerful slogans: Freedom National. He might have had something prepared back in May on those lines, but the Senate denied him the chance to speak then, and then again in July. Come August they could deny no longer and Sumner, who had prepared for months, laid in.

Massachusetts’ new senator might have gone to extremes. Sumner had a talent for taking principles to their logical extent, regardless of practical considerations. As a young lawyer, taken in by some of Joseph Story’s legal writings, he extended them far further than the Justice had ever done. Sumner declined to go all out, remaining committed to action within the political system rather than damning it all as William Lloyd Garrison would have liked. His rhetoric covers well-trod ground, often redundantly and at great length. Thus I will not, Gentle Readers, inflict upon you all seventy pages of Sumner’s Freedom National speech. Even I don’t enjoy nineteenth century prose that much. Instead, I will focus on what Sumner meant by Freedom National, Slavery Sectional.

Sumner opened on August 26 with a complaint about the appropriation before the Senate for “extraordinary expenses”

beneath these specious words lurks the very subject on which, by a solemn vote of this body, I was refused a hearing. Here it is; no longer open to the charge of being an “abstraction,” but actually presented for practical legislation; not introduced by me, but by one of the important committees of the Senate; not brought forward weeks ago, when there was ample time for discussion, but only at this moment, without any reference to the late period of the session.

The Senate had incurred a different extraordinary expense than the one under consideration then when it gagged Sumner. Now he would incur a more ordinary one, for an era used to multi-hour political speeches, right back. They should hear Sumner “not as a favor, but as a right” under “parliamentary law.” But Sumner had more than a right in mind:

With me, sir, there is no alternative. Painfully convinced of the unutterable wrongs and woes of slavery; profoundly believing that, according to the true spirit of the Constitution and the sentiments of the fathers, it can find no place under our National Government-that it is in every respect sectional, and in no respect national-that it is always and everywhere the creature and dependent of the States and never anywhere […] of the Nation, and that the Nation can never, by legislative or other act, impart to it any support, under the Constitution of the United States

That conviction entailed upon Sumner a duty to act, though he once again protested that he had sought no office and did not see himself as a man of politics. Charles Sumner must speak out, at last, as “[t]he slave of principles.”

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