“Pseudodoxia Epidemica” Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 4

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3; full speech

Charles Sumner vented his indignation at the perversion of the true meaning of the Constitution. Men had twisted its presumption of national freedom into one of national slavery, making bondage into the default state and freedom a special enactment by state legislatures. He knew that the founders meant just the opposite. Once he had a sufficient head of steam, Sumner really unloaded:

Slavery national! Sir, this is all a mistake and an absurdity, fit to take place in some new collection of Vulgar Errors, by some other Sir Thomas Browne, with the  ancient but exploded stories, that the toad has a stone in its head, and that ostriches digest iron.

Browne wrote Pseudodoxia Epidemica -Sumner skipped the Latin, for once- to debunk a wide variety of folk wisdom common in the seventeenth century with then-modern scientific reasoning. In his place we might refer someone to Snopes or, should we remember the internet epoch of the carrier anomalocaris, Usenet FAQs. Declaring his position “unanswerable”, Sumner took his stand and started arguing.

Sumner’s throat-clearing exercise took him seven pages, Gentle Readers. His argument consumes more than sixty more, under the headings of “the true relations of the National Government to Slavery” and “the true nature of the provision for the rendition of fugitives from labor.” The first concerns us more.

Like most historians of American slavery today, Sumner began his account of antislavery jurisprudence in England. In the famous Somersett case of 1772, Lord Mansfield found along lines broadly congenial to Sumner that slavery could not exist absent a positive law to institute it. In other words, it did not exist in the common law and one needed to find a specific act of a legislature to authorize owning people. Colonies could do as they liked, but if anyone wanted to hold a slave in England they must have Parliament’s go-ahead. Sumner found cases where the courts of Mississippi and Kentucky endorsed that doctrine, so no one could claim that he cherry-picked from foreign or free state law to suit his purposes.

It followed, then, that a legal presumption against slavery existed. One could not read Constitutional or legal silences as endorsing human bondage. Nor could it arise from implications or incidentally. Legislators must pass a law that clearly said, in effect “you may own these people as slaves”. Sumner read his Constitution and found no such language. Instead it spoke of establishing justice and securing the blessings of liberty. Even the language that permitted states to continue importing slaves from Africa recognized them as people, not goods. Nor did Sumner find authorization for slavery in the Declaration of Independence. He found no more evidence of such a thing in the proceedings of the Philadelphia convention, nor in ratification debates. (On the last point, Sumner appears to have only concerned himself with Massachusetts; South Carolina could tell a different story.) Even the antebellum Supreme Court, before Dred Scott, recognized slaves as people and that their status as “merchandise” arose solely from state law.

Sumner then proceeded to a flowery, patriotic oration that conscripted George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry to his cause. To them he joined the voice of the Christian Church: Quakers, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists. If that didn’t do the job, then he had the universities too: Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, and William and Mary. To them, Sumner added literary men, which made room to include Benjamin Franklin, quoting from his antislavery memorial to the First Congress, and double count Jefferson and John Jay.

All this, and rather more, pointed to just how obvious Sumner considered his position. He mustered every authority he could think of, some with lengthy quotations, to manufacture a vast antislavery consensus embodied in American life from its greatest luminaries and most sacred institutions, laid down on parchment in the Constitution itself:

No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.

Those words, Sumner applied to everyone

whether Caucasian, Indian, or African, from the President to the slave. Show me a person, no matter what his condition, or race, or color, within the national jurisdiction, and I confidently claim for him this protection.


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