“Like the Spirit of Evil before the Angel of the Lord” Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 5

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4; full speech

Charles Sumner held that the Constitution required no person, of any race or color, could lose life or liberty except by due process of law. The crinkly paper read “no person” rather than “no freeman”, the wording recommended by North Carolina and Virginia. By tossing that qualification out, the framers showed that they wished a presumption and guarantee of freedom for people under national jurisdiction. The states might do as they wanted with slavery, which meant keeping it about half the time and for well over half the enslaved, but the national government with its federal district, its federal marshals, judges, and territories, could have no rightful and constitutional power to institute slavery or keep anyone in bondage. Somehow, the United States had fallen from that original course. The ghosts of founders in a red, white, and blue heaven must have wept.

But we could fix it. What men had made, men could unmake. In righting the nation, we could make slavery disappear “like darkness under the arrows of the ascending sun – like the Spirit of Evil before the Angel of the Lord.” Bare minimum, some corpses in powdered wigs and knee breeches might stop clawing at the doors of their tombs. Charles Sumner had seen the promised land and he came back with an antislavery travelogue:

In all national territories Slavery will be impossible.

In 1852, that would have ensured freedom’s reign in New Mexico and Utah, as well as securing it in any territory the Congress subsequently organized. Had they listened to him, Kansas would never have bled.

In the District of Columbia Slavery will instantly cease.

Instant cessation implies no compensation as well as no lengthy wait. Sumner proposed, like a good antislavery radical, immediate and uncompensated emancipation where the Congress has plenary power. Forget the ban on public slave trading, righting the nation would do away with slaves in that little district on the Potomac. Slaves from Virginia and Maryland would promptly decamp and claim their freedom, which Sumner declared the nation could not deny them:

Nowhere under the Constitution, can the Nation, by legislation or otherwise, support Slavery, hunt slaves, or hold property in man.

In other words, to set food in the District or a national territory, perhaps even a customs house or military post, instantly freed a slave. Sumner would implement the Somerset doctrine. He spent another page explaining it by name. The United States, like England, would have air too pure for a slave to breathe and so the legal magic would operate in his or her lungs and they would become free.

That soaring rhetoric must appeal to us, with slavery long gone. To the enslavers in the Senate chamber that day, and all who would read Sumner’s speech or hear of it later, the Senator promised something not far from unremitting war against slavery. He enticed their human property to run with wild promises. He castigated slaveholding men as servants of evil which one must abjure. He promised, in effect, to smother their class with the might of a potent national government.

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