“Your Constitution has forbid it”: Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 11

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10; full speech

We left Charles Sumner explaining how the first fugitive slave law, from 1793, didn’t complicate his argument that the framers wanted the national government to have nothing to do with slave catching. He argued that they made a mistake; everyone knew that just as everyone knew they erred with the national bank. Anyway, strict construction did not permit the nation to assume a power for slave renditions on the grounds that the Constitution had no such explicit grant of power to Congress. Members of the Democratic end of Sumner’s coalition back in Massachusetts must have nodded along. To give them more thrills, and probably nauseate more than a few of his ex-Whig comrades, Sumner then engaged in a page-long defense of state’s rights to underline his point. That included words which, a few years later, took on a rather different cast over the fate of Kansas:

Non-intervention is the rule prescribed to the Nation. [For slavery.]

Stephen Douglas, Archibald Dixon, and company would tout non-intervention as the magic bullet for ending slavery controversy when they repealed the Missouri Compromise. The nation had interfered to ban slavery and they would restore it to its proper place as a local question. Sumner would promptly switch principles, just as every principled state’s rights man does in the same situation.

Continuing on the theme, Sumner declared

if the slaveholder has a right to be secure at home in the enjoyment of Slavery, so also has the freeman of the North-and every person there is presumed to be a freeman-an equal right to be secure at home in the enjoyment of Freedom.

State’s rights would work both ways, until about January of 1854. Sumner reminded the Senate that the free states might take a lesson from proslavery impositions and, in some future day, apply the powers that Southern men gave to Congress for their own ends. In Reconstruction, just that would come to pass.

The Senator from Massachusetts then dissected the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in more detail, damning it for the denial of a jury trial to the accused. According to the Constitution, even if the government had the power to act as proslavery men wished, accused fugitives had a right to a jury’s verdict. The clause applied to people “held to labor” and only the people who owned their labor could recover them. One couldn’t just assert that, but rather had to show it to some legal standard. The new law discarded all of that in favor of a simple claim made to a commissioner, with no jury and no right of defense. By acting as a trial in all but name, it bypassed ancient and dear rights:

And these proceedings determine on the one side the question of property, and on the other the sacred question of Personal Liberty in its most transcendent form; not merely Liberty for a day or a year, but for life, and the Liberty of generations that shall come after, so long as Slavery endures.

This made for wild stuff, so wild that Sumner found a South Carolinian senator who objected back when the matter came before the Senate in 1818:

This would give the Judge the sole power of deciding the right of property the master claims in his slaves, instead of trying that right by a jury, as prescribed by the Constitution. He would be judge of matters of law and matters of fact; clothed with all the powers of a court. Such a principle is unknown in your system or jurisprudence. Your Constitution has forbid it.

When even a South Carolinian thinks one has gone too far in defense of slavery, one must take notice.

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