Reviewing the field: Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 17

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16; full speech

Gentle Readers, we have come near to the end. Sumner begins the next section of his speech with a “review of the field over which we have passed.” His audience didn’t need it or, probably, want that review. The classical model Sumner adhered rigorously to demanded such things. But he had gone on for a long time and covered a great deal of ground. Even people reading the pamphlet or bloggers going through the whole thing piece by piece might have forgotten some points in the torrent of words.

Sumner opened by declaring that the discussion of slavery, so eagerly closed forever in the wake of the Compromise of 1850, “is tyrannical, absurd, and impotent.” The genie could not go back in the bottle and white American men demanded by their First Amendment rights to discuss any matter they liked. Even if they had no such right, slavery could exist only through legislative enactment. Since one had to pass a law to make slaves, one must debate slavery whilst debating any such law. As the Constitution presumed freedom, a special burden of justification must fall on those who would deny it.

Sumner assembled the greatest patriotic authorities to his cause, calling George Washington “an Abolitionist” surrounded by others. Churches, colleges, literature, and poetry all stood united with him against slavery. The nation’s “best voices” did the same. Nowhere in his era did the national territory hold a single slave. This history doesn’t comport well with how we understand the past, and Sumner knew then that he took some liberties. He praised the Washington who freed his slaves at death and let Ona Judge keep her freedom, not the Washington who enslaved her and pursued her. He may genuinely not have known that the Northwest Territory held then had a number of slaves and and a noisome slaveholding minority keen to keep their human property.

Then Massachusetts’ junior Senator had to explain away the Fugitive Slave Clause, which he rightly called a last minute addition. The framers didn’t think that one through and didn’t race to enact legislation to support it once they established the new government. Nor did they hang the Union on its fate. Those days came later, when the new Fugitive Slave Act arrived in 1850. Sumner damned it for usurping powers not granted to Congress, a trampling on the rights of states, and an egregious affront to civil rights. The law included no provisions for a jury trial, so slave catchers could take anyone they like. That unfortunate would lack a right to legal representation or to speak in their own defense. Their fate would come down to the ruling of a commissioner, not even a judge.

The hallowed founders warred against the greatest empire since Rome for such offenses, but even the Stamp Act did not dare to enslave those who ran afoul of it. The Fugitive Slave Act was and could only be worse, as freedom is dearer than mere property. Finally, the people at the North could see all that plain as day and refused to abide by such an imposition. In the face of such defiance to his pursuit of Ona Judge, even bold Washington had submitted.

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