“Not susceptible of pecuniary valuation” Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 12

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11; full speech

Charles Sumner continued his disquisition on the constitutional faults of the Fugitive Slave Act with a look into court precedent. This sort of argument clearly put Sumner in his element and he goes on with it for some time, largely repeating things he said previously about the denial of rights to the alleged fugitive slave. He had the temerity to tell a Senate full of lawyers what a lawsuit constituted, complete with a citation. Then he ran down court precedent explain what the Constitution meant by common law. All of it pointed to a right to jury trial for such people, which the law annulled. In the course of all that he came to one interesting point.

The American right to jury trial comes from in part from the Seventh Amendment:

In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

Sumner had found a case, Lee v. Lee, which hinged on

whether the “value in controversy” was “one thousand dollars and upwards,” it was objected that the appellants, who were petitioners for Freedom, were not of the value of one thousand dollars.

Though Sumner doesn’t go into details, from implication the opposition must have argued that the people didn’t amount to twenty dollars and so no jury trial should ensue. The Court would hear none of that dickering over slave valuation, but instead closed the door on the question:

The matter in dispute is the Freedom of the petitioners. This is not susceptible of pecuniary valuation.

Thus any and every freedom suit or fugitive rendition must involve a controversy over more than twenty dollars. An accused fugitive slave should have a real day in court, in the jurisdiction where slave catchers seized them. Then the Northern men of the jury pool could decide whether or not to return a person they saw with their own eyes and heard defended deserved to go back to slavery.

Sumner considered this a point of common as well as constitutional law, digging all the way back to the laws on serfs who fled service to show that even in medieval England such people deserved and got a jury trial. Calling serfdom “a barbarous institution”, the Senator still noted that those afflicted had the same right as in the American Constitution. Tradition more ancient than the Thirteen Colonies demanded it. He then connected the dots through subsequent commentators on the law, all specifying writs and proceedings that together built up the right to trial by jury “even in the early, unrefined, and barbarous days of the common law.” The framers, even the South Carolinians, knew all of that. Some had studied law in England, just as Charles Sumner did. As competent, learned men, they understood this all. Only their children and grandchildren had forgotten that freedom held an infinite value and they could not so freely legislate it away.

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