“Are you against sacrilege?” The Crime Against Kansas, Part 1

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Prologue, Full text

On May 19, 1856, at one in the afternoon, Charles Sumner took the floor in the United States Senate and began most famous speech, The Crime Against Kansas. After some oratorical throat-clearing, he launched into a discussion of Kansas’ geography “that spacious mediterranean country” so recently settled by whites that had now grown more populous than classical Athens or medieval London. Then he lost himself in Roman history for two paragraphs before returning to “an age of light” and the subject at hand.

All the famous injustices remembered from Antiquity had nothing on

the wrongs of Kansas, where the very shrines of popular institutions, more sacred than any heathen altar, have been desecrated; where the ballot-box, more precious than any work, in ivory or marble, from the cunning hand of art, has been plundered, and where the cry, “I am an American citizen,” has been interposed in vain against outrage of every kind, even upon life itself. Are you against sacrilege? I present it for your execration. Are you against robbery? I hold it up to your scorn. Are you for the protection of American citizens? I show you how their dearest rights have been cloven down, while a tyrannical usurpation has sought to install itself on their very necks.

That made for ample horrors in itself, but Sumner declared that the motivation for this “wickedness” “immeasurably aggravated” it. Lust for power, while often leading to horrors, had nothing on slavery’s “rape of a virgin territory”. The forced union of virgin Kansas and profane slavery arose from “depraved longing” to make another slave state. While the whole world condemned it, Americans set forth to force slavery onto their own.

That “enormity, vast beyond comparison” still only told part of the story. “Imagination” could not contain what it grew to in the context of the American Union:

for this purpose are hazarded the horrors of intestine [?] feud, not only in this distant territory, but everywhere throughout the country. Already the muster has begun. The strife is no longer local, but national. Even now, while I speak, portents hang on all the arches of the horizon, threatening to darken the broad land, which already yawns with the mutterings of civil war.

I don’t know if Sumner had up to the day information from Kansas on the preparations of I.B. Donaldson’s army-sized posse, but word of its summoning had more than a week to reach Washington before he spoke. He may have had it in mind here, but could as easily have meant Buford’s expedition or the siege of Lawrence back in December. News clearly took less than a month to get back to the east and might, depending on the telegraph, take only a day; Franklin Pierce sometimes got word from the territory within days. Probably Sumner knew or had good reason to suspect that Donaldson would soon march, but he doesn’t specify.

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