After Stephen Douglas finished castigating Charles Sumner for The Crime Against Kansas, James Mason took his turn. Sumner didn’t get personal with Mason quite like he did with the absent Andrew Butler, but the Massachusetts senator singled out the Fugitive Slave Act for particular scorn on every occasion. Mason wrote the law.
The Virginian began with now familiar complaints about Sumner’s incivility, then centered his objections on Sumner’s believe in the Slave Power. That conspiracy of Southerners and turncoat Yankees dominated the Union, as Sumner had it. Others argued much the same. Mason’s objection began with a lack of clear definitions. What did Sumner mean by slave power, if he never explained it? Where did its great might come from?
It is not the wealth of the slaveholding States, for the Senator from Massachusetts himself, by an extravagance of speech, declared here yesterday, that, the productive industry of his own small State was greater than the whole cotton-growing labor of the South.
If the South couldn’t buy and sell the North, then whence came its power? Mason dismissed numbers, because the slave states lacked a majority in the House and Senate alike. If not money or numbers, then what?
If there be any slave power exerting an influence upon the counsels of this country, it is that moral power diffused through the world, acknowledged everywhere, and to which kings and potentates bow-it is the moral power of truth; adherence to the obligations of honor, and the dispensation of those charities of life that ennoble the nature of man. That is the moral power which the Senator ascribes to the institution of slavery.
Mason had the truth of it closer than he or Sumner might care to admit, if for the opposite reasons. The disproportionate power of the slave states come in part from the anti-democratic nature of the American Constitution, which we struggle with still. It granted them strength beyond their number, then added more on top to help protect slavery specifically. But the moral power in those obligations of honor came down to the steadfast unity of most of the South, most of the time, in slavery’s defense. Even shy of a numerical majority, the slave states formed a plurality interest of vast influence. Many northerners objected to slavery in the abstract or in principle, but even into the Civil War they didn’t view its eradication as a civilization-defining trait. The South, by contrast, understood slavery as the ultimate, indispensible foundation of civilization.