Sumner’s Rhetoric and Response

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18; full speech

Gentle Readers, with the Freedom National speech blogged through it would do to take a higher-level look at Sumner’s rhetoric. Nothing he argued came originally from him. By his own admission, Sumner more remembered than innovated his doctrines. His mind ran more to carrying notions to their logical ends than to create them anew. But Sumner could package the ideas of others together in an effective form, a valuable skill in its own right. He chose to argue from the rhetorical right, laying out a narrative of decline from the founders’ abolitionism to the ascendancy of proslavery radicalism in the Compromise of 1850. In other words, Sumner argued as a conservative.

The Senator’s natural inclinations may have put him in that position anyway, as his biographer argues, but we should consider the situation he faced. His opponents painted themselves as conservatives too. They fought for the Union of their fathers, against the abstractions of extremists who would rend the nation. They cast themselves as sensible men, dedicated to the established way of doing things and willing to sacrifice their personal convictions to the greater good. Sumner turned their framing on its head and called them out. They, not he, had gone Jacobinical. They created new horrors in the Fugitive Slave Act. Disinterested stewards of the national faith would do no such thing.

Daniel Webster

Sumner’s senatorial colleagues wouldn’t have missed the point. He challenged them on their own ground, rhetorically and physically, in front of a packed gallery. Members of the House gathered on the Senate floor to hear him. Daniel Webster came to see his replacement as Massachusetts’ spokesman and the Secretary of State endured an hour, pacing the chamber, before he left. Sumner had only gotten a quarter of the way through condemning him by then. According to Sumner’s biographer, the almost four hours of oratory reduced many of the women in the gallery and an unnamed senator to tears. Rhetorical tastes have changed greatly since 1852, but even with the remove of years Sumner reads powerfully when he comes to his summations.

Sumner closed with an “Oriental piety”:

Beware of the groans of the wounded souls. Oppress not to the utmost a single heart; for a solitary sigh has the power to overset the whole world.

He took his seat to “unbounded” applause that promptly showed its bounds. A senator from Alabama rose and argued no one should answer

The ravings of a maniac may be dangerous, but the barking of a puppy never did any harm.

A North Carolinian griped at Sumner’s elaborate rhetoric and complained about the untranslated Latin quotations. No one in the Senate could probably follow those, he thought. Stephen Douglas damned Sumner for attacking the Constitution. John B. Weller (D-CA) thought he wanted to incite riots in Northern cities. He found praise in the Senate only from John Hale and Salmon Chase. When the motion that occasioned the speech came to a vote, they and Ohio’s Ben wade joined Sumner in recommending repeal. Four hours of oratory got Sumner only four votes, including his own.

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