A Solution: Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 18

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17; full speech

Charles Sumner completed review of his long speech on the theme of Freedom National and the perfidy of the Fugitive Slave Act with George Washington. Even that bold man, president at the time, bowed to popular revulsion and let Ona Judge have her freedom. If Washington could do so, then so could the men of the United States Senate repeal their odious law and set the nation back on its right course. This all posed a reasonable question. As Sumner did not preach the immediate end of slavery, what did he expect to happen with Fugitive Slaves? The Constitution obligated some system of rendition.

Sumner had an answer. He argued that the Fugitive Slave Clause did not grant Congress any power at all. Rather, it fell to the individual states to manage things by compacts amongst themselves. In this respect, the Constitution worked like a treaty between nations. He cited European precedents going back to the medieval era to prove that extradition of fugitives of any sort depended on the will of the polity that held them, not the one that pursued them. Two parts of Charles V’s empire could deny extradition. Why couldn’t two parts of the American empire?

To bring things back across the ocean, Sumner noted that the Fugitive Slave Clause came originally from the Northwest Ordinance. That document aspired to nothing more than an interstate compact and Sumner claimed for it inspiration from an arrangement that Massachusetts had with other New England colonies way back in the seventeenth century. Thus:

As a compact, its execution depends absolutely upon the States, without any intervention of the Nation. Each State, in the exercise of its own judgment, will determine for itself the precise extent of the obligations assumed.

Since freedom hung in the balance, Sumner insisted those states must apply themselves to the question with great deliberation. They must regard the accused as persons and grant to them all the personal liberties held under the Constitution. The presumption must run, from the common law and from the will of the founders, to freedom. If someone wanted to take a person from a free state, the onus fell upon them to prove they had a right to do so. In the absence of language in the Constitution setting the form for such a determination, states had every right to insist upon a full and fair trial. No one could object, because the state deciding on the extradition had final say.

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