The Fugitive Slave Stamp Act: Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 13

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12; full speech

Charles Sumner hammered on the right to trial by jury at length, which let him with just under twenty pages to go. Some hours into his oration now, he must have caught the mood of the room (“I am admonished to hasten on.”) as he demurred to say more on the jury question despite having “much more I might say”. He then excoriated the Stamp Act, which Sumner deemed offensive to the British Constitution on the grounds of parliamentary usurpation of powers and second…for denying trial by jury. Then Sumner held to his word and focused on popular resistance instead of harping further on the theme.

The public feeling was variously expressed. At Boston, on the arrival of the stamps, the shops were closed, the bells of the churches tolled, and the flags of the ships hung at half-mast. At Portsmouth, in New Hampshire, the bells were tolled, and notice given to the friends of Liberty to hold themselves in readiness to attend her funeral. […] Bodies of patriots were organized everywhere under the name of “Sons of Liberty.”

Sumner obviously had other patriot bodies in mind in referencing the Sons of Liberty. Much of the white portion of the underground railroad operated in semi-public, even publishing reports with the number of people they helped and money raised. No one would have missed the allusion. How far the mighty had fallen, from when Virginia led the fight for freedom:

The unconstitutional Stamp Act has been welcomed in the Colonies by the Tories of that day precisely as the unconstitutional Slave Act has been welcomed by large and imperious numbers.

Then Sumner chronicled the eminent men of the day who favored the Stamp Act. Yet the aroused ire of the community would not yield before those luminaries then any more than it would yield now. So long as a free community existed where white men could debate their views, Sumner believed injustice could not long endure. Massachusetts had such a community. The South did not, but rather drove anyone who preached antislavery from its bounds except in the most marginal slave states. By Southerners’ own admission, their slavery could not endure a free and forthright exchange of ideas. Dissent among whites may spread; dissent among slaves themselves surely would and an insurrection could only ensue when those unfortunates discovered, somehow, that they disliked the regime that stole their lives, destroyed their families, beat and raped them.

If public indignation could make the Stamp Act a dead letter, then it could do the same for the Fugitive Slave Act. The men of the North, the compromising Daniel Webster sort aside, would no more submit than Americans would bow to Parliament. Quoting Franklin’s testimony to that body on the earlier subject, Sumner spoke for the people of his North:

“We are told America is obstinate-America is almost in open rebellion. Sir, I rejoice that America has resisted. Three millions of people so dead to all the feelings of liberty, as voluntarily to submit to be slaves, would have been fit instruments to make slaves of all the rest. The Americans have been wronged; they have been driven to madness. I will beg leave to tell the House in a few words that is really my opinion. It is that the Stamp Act should be repealed, absolutely, totally, and immediately.” It was repealed.


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