Who Does Charles Sumner Think He Is? Douglas Answers Sumner, Part 3

Stephen Douglas

The Crime Against Kansas: Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15Full text

Douglas Answers, Parts 1, 2

Furious at Charles Sumner’s Kansas speech, Stephen Douglas accused him of gutter Latin and rehearsing the speech in the dark with a black boy holding a candle so Sumner could practice his gestures. Sumner planned his every insult and drilled himself for their best delivery. The theatrics outraged, but Douglas had more than wounded pride to indict Sumner on. The Senator claimed that many of his proslavery fellows engaged in a “swindle” and crime in opening Kansas to slavery and sought to compound it by blessing the proslavery territorial government with statehood. Three-quarters of the Senate, by Douglas’ count, stood accused of “direliction of duty”.

Sumner should talk about dereliction of duty. Douglas reminded the Senate that the Massachusetts Senator came into the Senate chamber and

put his hand upon the Holy Bible, in the presence of this body, and appealed to Almighty God to witness that he would be faithful to the Constitution

After that, Sumner pledged he would not enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. Douglas deemed that a declaration that Sumner would not abide by his oath of office at all. If he could not swear to his oath of office, how could he consider himself fit for the job? And how dare he arraign Senators who had? Yet

still he comes here and arraigns us for crime, and talks about “audacity!” Did mortal man ever witness such audacity in an avowed criminal? He comes here with a pledge to defy the Constitution of his country, and the wrath of god, by not obeying his oath, and then talks about audacity

Douglas demurred from a detailed discussion of Kansas matters, on which he had already opined. He dismissed them with the insistence that the American government had not fallen “so weak, so corrupt, so unjust” as to deserve a revolution against it. All that talk pointed to disunion, which Douglas would not brook. The insults clearly stung and outraged him, but the time had come to reach the matters of substantive contention between them:

You challenge me to this great issue, which you say you have made up between the Negro worshipers and the “slave power,” as you call it. What you call the slave power is simply observance of the Constitution of the country, as our fathers made it. Let us have that fair issue between the parties, and let us discuss that, instead of dealing in denunciation against one another here.

That genuinely put people like Sumner in a difficult position. The Constitution really did give slavery unusual protection and endorsement. It created a duty to yield up fugitive slaves, right there in black and white. It gave slaveholding states extra representatives. It promised to them twenty years of unlimited slave imports. A patriotic politician in the nineteenth century could not inveigh against the Constitution and expect to win or keep office. The standard answer involved inventing an antislavery founding generation who wrote their principles into the Constitution, though they apparently chose to do so in a deeply perverse manner. That doesn’t mean that none of them really believed they had the founders on their side, as everyone does, but it left them with a set of awkward and not entirely convincing arguments that a quick and informed mind -and Douglas had both- could easily pick apart.

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