The Crime Against Kansas, Prologue

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Charles Sumner saw the way out of his political difficulties in the direction his conscience pointed and where he had proven talents: a big antislavery speech. He had previously inveighed against the Fugitive Slave Act, but the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and more than a year of increasing troubles in the nation’s newest territory gave him good cause to change subjects. Letters full of proslavery horrors filled his correspondence. Of course the Democrats in the Senate got the other side of the story and in an era before live news feeds and swift long distance travel, no one could much tell beyond the Kansas-Missouri border which side lied more often. Neither the Herald of Freedom nor the Squatter Sovereign would shy away from inventing suitable news or slanting real stories to serve the cause.

Kansas debates opened up with Stephen Douglas making an impassioned attack on the free state movement. They only made trouble for the law-abiding citizens of the territory, who ought to have their legal government recognized at once. Never a fan of Douglas, Sumner found his aggressive tone nearly intolerable. William Seward answered him with a proposal that the Topeka government be admitted to the Union at once. Things went downhill from there, but more and more northerners lined up against Douglas and his allies as the debate went on.

Sumner stayed out of it, instead sitting down for one of his research sessions. He took a copy of Don Quixote out of the Library of Congress to make sure he got his insults right and busied himself with histories of Georgia and the Carolinas to check his facts. He wrote more than a hundred pages, gilded with quotations from Antiquity, the British parliament, and past American debates. Then Sumner memorized the whole thing, so he wouldn’t have to check his notes as he spoke. He did a dry run with Seward and then deemed himself ready.

At one in the afternoon on May 19, as Marshal Donaldson’s proslavery army gathered at Lecompton and dreamed of razing Lawrence for good, Charles Sumner gained the floor in the United States Senate. He would hold it (PDF) for three hours:

Mr. President: You are now called to redress a great transgression. Seldom in the history of nations has such a question been presented. Tariffs, army bills, navy bills, land bills, are important, and justly occupy your care; but these all belong to the course of ordinary legislation. As means and instruments only, they are necessarily subordinate to the conservation of government itself. Grant them or deny them, in greater or less degree, and you will inflict no shock. The machinery of government will continue to move. The State will not cease to exist. Far otherwise is it with the eminent question now before you, involving, as it does, liberty in a broad territory, and also involving the peace of the whole country with our good name in history for evermore.

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