The Uneasy, the Cultists, and the Heroes: Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 16

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15; full speech

Charles Sumner went from citing George Washington’s submission to the public will in letting Ona Judge have her freedom right back to present circumstances in the North. Nothing had changed since Portsmouth refused the first president. “Everywhere” slave catchers went, they roused the community against the spectacle of men dragged from their jobs, wives, and children. Horrors attended:

At Buffalo the fugitive was cruelly knocked by a log of wood against a red-hot stove, and his mock trial commenced while the blood still oozed from his wounded head. At Syracuse, he was rescued by a sudden mob; so also at Boston. At Harrisburg the fugitive was shot; at Christiana the Slave-Hunter was shot.

Washington feared “uneasy” people. Those who followed his infamous example in 1852 swelled “with ill-suppressed indignation.” Every act of enforcement made the Fugitive Slave Act “more revolting.” The law tainted those who did its work, like pitch, and in the deed they lost “the better part of man.” Every man at the North felt the same, seeing “clemency, grace, and justice” passing by. The spectacle harrowed “the souls of good men” and drew out their tears. The weeping, outraged North would not suffer the law.

Sumner admitted that some Yankees defied good sense and made themselves into “cultists” for it: the “mercantile interest”. In England they refused to suppress the Barbary pirates who enslaved good Englishmen. They fought the abolition of the slave trade there. In America, they carved permission for it into the Constitution “by a sordid compromise”. Now they would hunt slaves for other men. Yet for their monumental perfidy, they accounted for only a tiny minority. In the breast of every good Northern man, “the great heard of the people” beat for the enslaved, aided the fugitive, and cheered their escape.

Literature, songs, and poetry all stood for freedom, whatever the South’s literary lights might think. In 1852, the literature had a new salience. “A woman, inspired by Christian genius,” entered the controversy “like another Joan of Arc.” Harriet Beecher Stowe had already sold near to a hundred thousand copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. That spoke to her ability, but also to the willingness of so many to hear her message.

The slaves needed no such prophets, but had already made themselves into heroes that dwarfed those of Antiquity. The names of those who stole themselves “would be treasured in the annals of their race.” Their testimony showed the wrongs they suffered to a waiting world. Posterity would not forget, “but soon lend them her avenging pen.” Sumner got the last part right in the end, but it took decades for white historians to accept that the slaves might possess some ability to speak to their own condition.



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