Where did white supremacy come from?

Gentle Readers, for some time I’ve neglected my Deep Dives category. Herein, I mean to look further back than the late antebellum and examine broader questions. Today I mean to change that with an absurdly large question. White supremacy permeates everything I study and write about, as well as our daily lives. We have the misfortune of living in a world, and for most of us likely a nation too, where few concepts matter more. With such vast power and ubiquity, it often becomes invisible. Unchallenged, white supremacy seems like the natural order of things. Our silence, our acceptance, and all the ways we consciously or passively imbibe our culture turn it into a kind of physics: white rises to the top, black -and everyone else- sinks to the bottom. Physical laws don’t answer to legislative enactments, but rather predate them and reach back to the beginning of time. Because white supremacy does not, it behooves us to understand how people came to believe in it and make it integral to their worldview and civilizations.

A blog post cannot do this subject justice. You should take what I write here as more an overview and more tentative than usual. Densely-written books go on for hundreds of pages about the question, to the point where a historian of slavery I too briefly knew always recommended the popular abridgment of Winthrop Jordan’s seminal White Over Black rather than the real thing when speaking with laypeople. Jordan’s book, the seminal work, specifically addresses the development of white supremacy among Englishmen, first on the coast of Africa, then in the Caribbean, and for most of its length within British North America. American historians usually start there, with slaves arriving in Virginia in 1619 and having an ambiguous and unclear status until later in the century and a fully-grown racial hierarchy coming about in the seventeenth century’s closing decades. That may tell us about the origins of white supremacy in the future United States, but Jordan himself acknowledges inchoate, conflicting ideas about fundamental differences between Africans and Englishmen essentially from their first encounters in West Africa and some scholars do believe that the transplanted Englishmen at Jamestown already understood those unfortunate twenty taken from the hold of that Dutch slaver as racially different, inferior, and enslaved from the moment they arrived. Others do not and on the balance I inclined somewhat more with the latter group. Whether we come down on Jordan’s side or not, we still have that white supremacy as understood by Englishmen doesn’t constitute its whole.

I aim to explore the question more broadly. To begin with, we know that slavery predates white supremacy and the very concept of whiteness. The Ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Sumerians all practiced slavery. They did so both upon people who they might reasonably consider other to themselves, but also upon people who they must reasonably have considered culturally similar or the same. We see in what survives of their work occasional depictions of sub-Saharan Africans with features we consider racially stereotypical, but the classicists of my acquaintance caution against reading modern racial categories back in time so far. As most, we should consider these distant precursors. Slavery meant degradation and suffering, but it mostly appears to have been understood more as a personal misfortune rather than a defining, hereditary trait of a group of visibly different outsiders.

Into the Early Modern Period, Europeans had experience with slavery as both victims and perpetrators. Merchants bought people from the northern shores of the Black Sea and carried them by ship to grow crops in the Levant and Iberia, and to perform domestic service in Italy. In Renaissance Florence, one could buy a “black” Slav; the name literally means slave. Slavic slaves grew cotton and sugar on fields around the edge of the Mediterranean and a sensibility of some kind grew up that one could enslave, or at least more easily enslave, them than one’s own neighbors. The reference to blackness here refers not to actual skin color but rather acquiring a fair layer of grime from hard agricultural labor. Western European peasants could get called the same by their white -that is, clean- social betters. Of course, medieval art also depicted demons and devils with black skin. An association with dark color and moral inferiority existed, but premodern people could understand artistic metaphors.

Western and Southern Europeans also experienced slavery as the victims, captured by Muslim raiders and carried off to North Africa by the thousands. We now call one ethnicity from North Africa Berbers. You might remember them from your history books as the Barbary pirates whom Thomas Jefferson sent Stephen Decatur after. They took European Christians into slavery, which European Christians decided they did not like. They could enslave people who differed from them in certain ways, but increasingly came to see it as wrong for any Christian to suffer slavery at the hands of a non-Christian. Christendom, at least to some degree, defined itself as opposed to the practitioners of Islam. This distinction had salience especially at either end of the Mediterranean, where the Byzantine Empire slowly gave way to Muslim polities and Christian kingdoms in Iberia slowly gained ground against their Muslim neighbors.

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 greatly reduced the flow of Slavic slaves into the Christian parts of the Mediterranean basin. Some had made it all the way to the east coast of modern Spain, but the supply diminished. As that happened, the advance of Christian powers in seizing the peninsula increasingly put them in direct contact with the West African coast. The mariners who preceded Columbus sought their fortunes to the South, where they found powerful but visually and culturally distinct people. The Portuguese and Spanish lacked the strength to dominate the Atlantic littoral of Africa, but they could and did come with an interest in the local merchandise. That included people and by the 1450s, enslaved people of African descent appear on the streets of Lisbon.

They had better luck on the Canary Islands, where they eradicated the local, African-descended population and then needed someone else to man the plantations. They didn’t have to go searching long for replacements. Centuries of on-again, off-again wars against religious enemies created something often recognized as either European nationalism or an important precursor in Iberia. It included Catholic Christianity, but also notions about the natural aristocracy of people of pure blood who had not mixed their lineage with Muslims. It did not include Iberia’s Jewish population. Even those who converted could not qualify as entirely trustworthy, unless they had converted rather far in the past. Here we see something approaching the notion of race as a fixed, unchanging identity in that one of the great markers of belonging, Christian faith, no longer suffices to make one a part of the perceived community. Africans, even those who might adhere to some form of Christianity, didn’t qualify either.

The era we call the Age of Discovery, but might better consider an era of slavery and genocide, began in and helped create this broader ferment. Europeans found it acceptable to dispossess and destroy Native Americans. They had a supply of enslaved labor on the African coast, if not as much free access to it or ability to dictate terms as they would like. One might assume that they just used what seemed most convenient. At first, maybe they did. The plantation agricultural complex that defines so much of the Early Atlantic World didn’t get its start in the West Indies. Before Columbus sailed, and for some time afterwards, Europeans grew sugar and other cash crops on islands off Africa’s coast from the Canaries down to the Bight of Benin. As long as the plantations operated there, African slaves make simple logistical sense and need not indicate racial hierarchies in general rather than the horrific, ordinary slavery that might correspond to ancient precedents.

Plantations in the Caribbean don’t have that excuse. If Europeans could not or would not use enslaved Native American labor -they tried, but the genocide got in the way- then they must get their labor from elsewhere. Given the highly hierarchical nature of European civilization, it wouldn’t take a great reach to enslave people right at home and carry them off from Lisbon, Paris, or London. It might transgress existing norms about how one treated fellow countrymen and fellow Christians, but that would save the expense and difficulty of an additional voyage down to Africa to pick up slaves. If only pecuniary motives existed, then the European poor would have served just fine.

They obviously did not, because no European power sought to build a colony in the New World out of the bodies of enslaved whites. Instead they chose Africans. It took some form of previous thought about difference and inferiority to render Africans available to enslave in European minds, which we might fairly argue constitutes white supremacy. We might also argue that it constitutes a precursor and that white supremacy as a conscious thought system developed as a justification for what Europeans had already decided based on less comprehensive, more tentative notions. Probably the best explanation splits the difference and casts Early Atlantic plantation slavery and white supremacy as phenomena that co-created one another in a fiendishly complex interplay of premises, justifications, profit, and horror.

I can’t give you a firm date for when this all took place. Like most social and intellectual changes, white supremacy came about as a process. It had many parents who worked together, across generations, national lines, a great ocean, and four continents. I have elided many nuances and complexities here. To acknowledge again the most important, the Iberian seafaring powers led the way here. Everything I have written may hold firm for them and still leave the origin of white supremacy among Englishmen as a later development more continent on the West Indian and North American experiences. That said, Europeans read and spoke one another’s languages. More still might read others in translation. The pioneers of English colonialism knew their Iberian authorities and eagerly sought information about Africa and the Americans from them. The general story of Western European white supremacy’s origins includes the English, French, and Dutch just as much as the Spanish and Portuguese, even if it doesn’t perfectly reduce to them.

Either way, we live with the story unknowing and make others live with it still today. Just as they chose white supremacy, so we often do the same. It may not cure us to know that, but it should shake our confidence in all those horrors that seem to just happen or be the way things are. These things are the way we all, as societies, as citizens, as voters make them. We could do otherwise.

Further Reading

The literature on the origins of white supremacy is vast and I have only begun to take it in. If all of this interests you, Gentle Readers, you can get a chapter-length overview on which I have heavily relied from David Brion Davis’ Inhuman Bondage. The encounters of Europeans and Africans in West Africa constitute a large focus of David Eltis’ The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas. For a more theory-driven work on the intellectual origins of white supremacy among Englishmen, the starting point must be Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black.

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“Piling one mass of elaborate error upon another mass” The Crime Against Kansas, Part 5

Charles Sumner (Republican-MA)

Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4Full text

Charles Sumner went for the low blow. Andrew Pickens Butler, an elderly man, had then-recently suffered a stroke that left him with some facial paralysis. As a result, he tended to drool and spray when he spoke. Sumner went beyond criticizing the politics and morals of his proslavery oratory and damned him for “loose expectoration.” This went somewhat beyond the ordinary bounds of political invective, even in an era when making fun of disabilities didn’t arouse the kind of opprobrium it might now. Hearing all of this while angrily pacing the Senate chamber, Stephen Douglas told a reporter “That damn fool will get himself killed by some other damn fool.”

Of course Sumner had choice words for Douglas too. The Little Giant made the Kansas-Nebraska Act with his enthusiasm for the Pacific railroad, his political ambitions, and his eagerness to sweep aside Native Americans. “[T]he squire of Slavery” defended his course on Kansas in a “labored address,”

piling one mass of elaborate error upon another mass-constrained himself, as you will remember, to unfamiliar decencies of speech. Of that address I have nothing to say at this moment

Anthony Burns

And if you believe that, Sumner has some beachfront property in Kansas that you may like. Most of The Crime Against Kansas responds to Douglas and others. To open that, five pages in, Sumner engaged in a lengthy recapitulation of Kansas history from “the Missouri discussion” on down. He indicted Franklin Pierce and slavery’s friends in Congress for trampling over the rules of the House and Senate to organize the territory with slavery permitted and took swipes at the blue lodges. He made all the familiar accusations of conspiracy and rehearsed the attacks upon democracy in the territory. He called out Pierce further for claiming impotence to enforce law and order within Kansas against proslavery lawlessness when the president exerted himself eagerly to enforce it in Massachusetts to deliver up Anthony Burns.

At length -nine pages in, now- Sumner came to the Wakarusa War:

in the latter days of November, 1855, a storm, long brewing, burst open the heads of the devoted people. […] like the Heathen of old, they [proslavery Missourians] raged, particularly against Lawrence, already known, by the firmness of its principles and the character of its citizens, as the citadel of the good cause. On this account they threatened, in their peculiar language, to “wipe it out.” Soon the hostile power was gathered for this purpose.

Wilson Shannon

That this all arose out of a proslavery man murdering an antislavery man and led to a proslavery force marching against an antislavery town made the whole thing downright perverse, and multiplied its evil in Sumner’s mind. Wilson Shannon “[t]he weak Governor, with no faculty higher than servility to slavery” only compounded the error further by giving official license to the mob. The Senator passed over the role Shannon played in defusing the situation, though considering how heavily he contributed to bringing things to that dire point one can hardly grant him much credit. He tried to clean up the mess only after making it.

Loose Expectorations: The Crime Against Kansas, Part 4

Charles Sumner (Republican-MA)

Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3Full text

Andrew Butler, that “Heroic knight! Exalted Senator! A second Moses come for a second exodus!” always had a good word for his mistress, the harlot Slavery. Charles Sumner would not let the Senate soon forget that. There among them sat a man happy to defend the practice of selling children at auction. Many others did the same, but not all of them both played an important supporting role in repealing the Missouri Compromise and remained in the Senate for Sumner to castigate. Like some of those others, Butler had laid into Sumner. Sumner hit back:

the Senator, in the unrestrained chivalry of his nature, has undertaken to apply opprobrious words to those who differ from him on this floor.

That opprobrium included calling Sumner and company sectional fanatics. Standing against the theft of Kansas by proslavery fraud made for “an uncalculating fanaticism.” Sumner damned the attacks as untrue and unoriginal and turned them back on Butler, painting him as the ardent sectionalist and returning to his theme of freedom national. Butler’s “too great a perversion of terms” could not stand.

Many pages and a day later, Sumner returned to Butler again. The Senator, while absent then from the Senate, remained,

omnipresent in this debate, overflowed with rage at the simple suggestion that Kansas had applied for admission as a State; and, with incoherent phrases, discharged the loose expectoration of his speech […] The Senator touches nothing which he does not disfigure-with error, sometimes of principle, sometimes of fact. He shows an incapacity of accuracy, whether in stating the Constitution or in stating the law […] He cannot open his mouth, but out there flies a blunder

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

On the face of it, Sumner insulted Butler in no more unusual a manner than he would anyone else. One can easily imagine him indicting Franklin Pierce or Daniel Webster with similar words. Sumner’s “loose expectoration” remark would, strictly speaking, fit anybody speaking incautiously. Andrew Butler suffered from partial facial paralysis, which gave him a speech impediment. Disability, not rage or fanaticism, afflicted the Senator’s oratory.

Many historians believe that Sumner drew the assault on his person that would come shortly with those words. Calling attention to a man’s disability attacked him in a way that indicting his politics did not. Sketching him as a bumbling fool and making the disability a centerpiece of that portrayal made it all the worse. Nineteenth century Americans didn’t have our scruples about mocking the unfortunate, but Sumner probably still exceeded the bounds of good taste by a wide margin. Often politicians could flay one another viciously and then kick back for a few drinks after Congress let out. Sometimes they even delighted in the insults they threw back and forth as a kind of game. Butler and Sumner’s friendship likely had some of that element to it, at least at the start. Maybe it could have again, but Butler died in 1857 and Sumner remained largely absent from Washington for the next few years.

“I mean the harlot, Slavery” The Crime Against Kansas, Part 3

Charles Sumner (Republican-MA)

Prologue, Parts 1, 2Full text

We left Charles Sumner at the verge of the most famous part of his Crime Against Kansas. He set down the preliminaries, took a trip through Antiquity and Norse myth, and came back up with a plan for the oration. Before he got into the meat of it, though, he had to say a few words about the men who brought such ruin to Kansas. Likening Stephen Douglas, architect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler. Butler lived in the F Street Mess with David Rice Atchison and friends back in the heady days when they told the Little Giant he needed to give them a big slavery win or give up on organizing the territory west of Missouri. He also became Sumner’s friend when the two came to sit beside one another.

Sumner likened the pair to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza -he took a copy of Don Quixote out of the Library of Congress to get the details right- and set them out together in pursuit of the same cause. Butler played the lead role:

The Senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight, with sentiments of honor and courage. Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight-I mean the harlot, Slavery.

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Sumner meant to cast Butler as a fool and more than hint at sexual depravity. One doesn’t go to harlotry for a reference otherwise and such accusations were common in the farther left antislavery circles. Slavery turned the entire South into one great brothel, where white men young and old ran wild with lust. They might seize an enslaved woman by force or coerce her by threats, spoken and otherwise, but they would have their way. Southerners themselves occasionally complained of it, but if the man in the big house or a son or relative wanted to demonstrate their virility few objected too loudly. Enslavers bought black women specifically to rape often enough to sustain a steady trade in “fancy” slaves, but even those who bought them for other reasons could claim it as a fringe benefit. Like a depressing multitude of men in most places and eras, they argued that men could not contain their sexual urges. In the South, black women provided a convenient way to express them without sullying the “purity” of white women or raising the ire of their male relations.

Andrew Butler always had a good word for slavery and always rushed to its defense. To impugn bondage drew his wrath like nothing else, Sumner averred. If the nation would not serve slavery its due commerce in marriages sundered and the sale of “little children at the auction-block” then the nation must fall and Butler would leave the charge out of the Union: “Heroic knight! Exalted Senator! A second Moses come for a second exodus!”

 

“A madness for slavery” The Crime Against Kansas, Part 2

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Prologue, Part 1Full text

We left Charles Sumner warning the Senate that events in Kansas threatened to draw the country into civil war. To avert that calamity, freedom must prevail in the nation’s most troubled territory. Everyone in the Senate could see that coming, given Sumner’s extensive record and the subject at hand. But you couldn’t fill three hours by stating the obvious. Nobody, at Washington or back in Massachusetts, would have sat up and took notice for the mere news that Sumner opposed slavery. To understand “the crime” which Sumner called on the Senate “to judge,” one had to go to its source and from which it continued to issue:

In its perpetration was needed a spirit of vaulting ambition which would hesitate at nothing; a hardihood of purpose which was insensible to the judgment of mankind; a madness for slavery which should disregard the Constitution, the laws, and all the great examples of our history; also a consciousness of power such as comes from the habit of power

Stephen Douglas

Sumner went on to describe this as a vast political movement rather than the perfidy of one man or a small cabal. He meant the Slave Power entire as his enemy, but one can’t read this and not immediately think of Stephen Douglas as the man in the spotlight. He managed the Kansas-Nebraska bill to its passage. He defended it and the proslavery government erected on force and fraud. If Sumner saw the Slave Power in general as “the criminal” in all its “heartless, grasping, and tyrannical” ways, then Douglas served as its criminal mastermind.

The Senator continued with a digression into Norse mythology, then came up for air with a summary of his intentions. Sumner would first explain the crime against Kansas “in its origin and extent,” then proceed to the excuses made for it before finishing off with “the TRUE REMEDY.” (Original emphasis.) Not that he wanted to rush right in, mind:

before entering upon the argument, I must say something of a general character, particularly in response to what has fallen from Senators who have raised themselves to eminence on this floor in championship of human wrongs; I mean the Senator from South Carolina, [Mr. Butler.] and the Senator from Illinois, [Mr. Douglas.] who, though unlike as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, yet, like this couple, sally forth together in the same cause.

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

In other words, Sumner aimed tear into Butler and Douglas thoroughly. He does so for the better part of two pages in the pamphlet edition. Here come all the famous lines of the speech, with Sumner’s invective at its finest. Most, though not all, historians believe that in those pages Sumner wrote the next four years of his life: an attack, a lengthy convalescence, and lingering trauma that made him a martyr to the antislavery cause. A minority believe that all which transpired would have happened much the same without the personal insults. We can’t know, but either way they bear a close examination.

“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.

More Hot Water for Charles Sumner

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Charles Sumner had a rough time of it from the summer of 1854. His party lost control of Massachusetts. The architect of the coalition that elected him defected to the Know-Nothings and then swept the state. He tried to get away from it all, and escape aligning himself with the nativists, with a vacation and managed to flip his carriage. But things did improve for him in the fall. The Know-Nothings lost the Virginia governor’s race, which gave hope that anti-immigrant, anti-catholic paranoia would not form the seed of a durable movement. The phenomenal showing in the Massachusetts legislature, where the Know-Nothings had almost unanimity, stumbled under the burden of amateur legislators and an investigation of the state’s Catholic religious institutions. By summer of 1855, Charles Adams thought that denouncing the nativists now would look like a desperate attempt to jump on the bandwagon.

Henry Wilson, who had gone over to the natvists for a shot at the Senate, promptly came back and set to forming a new coalition on strictly antislavery lines. The Know-Nothing governor would take support from anywhere and signed on. Wilson reached out to Robert Winthrop and his conservative Whigs. Throw in disorganized Know-Nothings, anti-Nebraska Democrats, and together they could all join the Republicans. All that might put Sumner in a bind. Governor Gardner obviously didn’t deserve his trust. Wilson promised Winthrop something substantial for joining. That could mean Sumner’s head. Then again, if the fusion plan failed then Sumner remained without party support back home.

Sumner’s enemies might have saved him. Winthrop’s Boston Whiggery sat out the planned convention out of distrust for the Senator and Wilson. That left Wilson with no one to support in the Senate except Sumner, who he endorsed for re-election when the time came. The convention kept nativism out of its platform and opted to support a new governor rather than the Know-Nothing incumbent. Gardner in turn quit his flirtation with the Republicans and ran as a pure Know-Nothing. The realignment shook out so that all the antislavery men lined up in the Republicans and the Know-Nothings boasted only old line Whigs. That left Sumner free to campaign for the Republicans and denounce the Know-Nothings without harming his own support.

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

The new alignment closely matched the old, Free Soilers back again with a few more Whigs in attendance. Bay State voters noticed and repeated their lack of enthusiasm. The Know-Nothings increased the pressure by asking for Sumner and Wilson’s resignations. If they didn’t oblige, then the legislature might instruct them out of office. That meant delivering binding instructions to the senators with which they couldn’t easily comply, essentially forcing their resignation. Failing that, they might even just elect two new senators and send them on. Gardner liked himself for the job.

Sumner tried to revive his prospects by close attention to constituent services and the usual quest to secure federal dollars for projects back home, to little avail. He struggled to find a publisher for a collection of his speeches, with printers informing him that the book had little potential unless they could say it included the Senator’s last oration. With nothing else working, he had to resume his attacks upon slavery.

 

Without a Party Again

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Incensed at Charles Sumner’s refusal to play the part of slave-catcher, a task they believed assigned to him by the Constitution, Southern Senators plotted his expulsion from the Senate. His emergence as a competent debate partner helped turn his oratorical achievements into something far more menacing and he had to go. Alas, a quick canvass showed they lacked the necessary votes. The proslavery men would just have to put up with Sumner until his term ran out.

In the tumult of the Whig party’s slow collapse and the coalescence of the Republicans, Sumner ought to have played a leading role; he certainly hoped to do so and intended to play a large part in the fall campaigns. But many Whigs even in Massachusetts disliked the Kansas-Nebraska Act and Sumner’s extremism alike. Persistent factionalism in Massachusetts antislavery circles did its work, helped along by Henry Wilson. Wilson had orchestrated the coalition with the Democracy, which now stood in ruins. He had a reputation as a plotter and soon lived up to it. The Massachusetts GOP put on a poor campaign because Wilson betrayed it.

Wilson joined the nativist Know-Nothings, who kept their proceedings secret, and his people supported their man for governor. For that support, Wilson had a promise that he would go to Washington as Sumner’s colleague. The Know-Nothings promised a single issue party opposed to Catholicism and immigration and their ticket swept Massachusetts. The new legislature would have one each of Whigs, Democrats, and Republicans. All the rest hailed from the nativists.

Sumner, like any Massachusetts politician of the day, knew of his state’s anti-immigrant bent. The press of Irishmen into the factories transformed the demographics of Boston in just a decade. Many of his antislavery colleagues harbored nativist sentiment and the sense that the Bay State changed for the worse under the ministrations of foreign elements, whether the alliance of Massachusetts textile magnates and the Slave Power or the new immigrants, permeated political discourse. Disgusted by the development, Sumner discussed building an antislavery party clean of such elements.

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

For once Sumner kept his beliefs largely to himself and a tight circle of intimates. Know-Nothing power in Massachusetts looked too strong to permit an open challenge. He explained the success of nativism entirely by citing dissatisfaction with the old parties. Even in private correspondence, he took care not to get on the wrong side of the movement. A more venal sort might have rushed to head the new movement, living up to the belief of his enemies that Sumner cared only for his own position. Instead Sumner delayed and kept silent, which precluded assuming any kind of leadership role. In less than a year, Sumner had gone from a politician with no support back home and a dubious future to a favored son and back again.

Without a party, again, and with no clear way forward, Sumner decided on a trip to the West. There he saw slavery firsthand, including an auction and the beating of children. He went as far as St. Louis, then up the Mississippi to Minnesota. Along the way, his carriage caught on a fence and flew up into the air. It landed on Sumner, but he suffered no worse than a bad bruising.

Threats, Dogs, and Whips

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Charles Sumner damned Stephen Douglas as a Northern man with Southern principles, a doughface, for his Kansas-Nebraska Act. Douglas hit back, noting how Sumner had gone in all of a year from castigating the Compromise of 1850 to praising it as restoring the peace that Kansas-Nebraska would undo. The Massachusetts Senator had such purity of principle that he supported an old proslavery hand like Martin Van Buren for president in 1848. But Sumner’s oratory left a mark. Even a senator from North Carolina congratulated Sumner on everything about it save choosing the wrong side. The Masachusetts papers lit up with praise for Sumner again.

The satisfaction reached even into Bay State Whiggery. The Massachusetts Whigs supported the Compromise of 1850 with held noses, taking the lump on Daniel Webster’s word that they had to do it to save the nation. With the South bent on new conquests, Godlike Daniel safely in the ground, and land that Massachusetts farmers might want to move off to at stake, the situation changed. They turned on their man in the Senate, Edward Everett, when he came out against the bill in a late and feeble manner. Kidney stones took him off the floor for a vote and his former supporters mocked him for it. Adoring letters poured in for Sumner from old allies and former Everett men alike. Delighted, Sumner read them aloud to the Sewards. Inspired, he even entered into spontaneous debate for a while.

Anthony Burns

The Kansas-Nebraska Act became law all the same. When the Anthony Burns affair erupted at almost the same moment, proslavery men blamed Sumner for inciting riot in Boston with his speeches in Washington. Sumner received threats on his safety, which prompted a future governor of Connecticut to offer his services as a bodyguard. Less reassuringly, a correspondent informed the Senator that if he died he would become a martyr to freedom.

Sumner, a large man, responded to the threats on his life by ensuring they reached the attention of the newspapers and otherwise ignored them. He walked about Washington, never a friendly place for outspoken antislavery men, unarmed and unaccompanied. He looked forward to stepping up his rhetorical attacks on slavery, but his new colleague from Massachusetts -Everett resigned courtesy of those kidney stones- got the jump on him with a new petition for repealing the Fugitive Slave Law. He promptly withered under a counterattack built around the fact that some of the signers participated in Burns’ rescue. Sumner stepped in to defend him.

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

As Sumner finished up his latest condemnation of the law, Andrew Butler came into the Senate chamber. He listened to his friend and the proverbial steam shot from his ears. Denouncing Sumner’s speech as one not becoming the Senate, he demanded to know if Massachusetts would render over a single fugitive if the Congress repealed the law. The state had a constitutional obligation, so would it do its duty? Trial or no, whatever process instituted, would Massachusetts deliver a person into slavery or would all that folderol just obscure a flat refusal to abide by the Constitution?

Sumner answered, “Is thy servant a dog, that he should do this thing?” Then the fireworks really started. Sumner profaned his oath to support and defend the Constitution. He had gone mad. The Senate should expel him. Sumner fought back, castigating his critics as men of “plantation manners” who treated the Senate itself like answered to their whips. The vicious debate spawned serious talk of expelling Sumner as a perjurer and traitor, but the matter dropped when the adherents learned they lacked the necessary majority.

 

“A soulless, eyeless monster-horrid, unshapely, and vast” Sumner vs. Douglas

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

We have followed Charles’ Sumner’s career in the Senate all the way to the fall of 1853. At the end of it all, his coalition lost their majorities in Massachusetts. They blamed Sumner’s refusal to campaign for the party. Under their increasing criticism Sumner took out his frustrations on a friend of his, Francis Lieber. It must have seemed likely he would serve only the one term, or less. The elections trimmed the Free Soil Senate caucus by half, leaving only Sumner and Salmon Chase in the chamber. He had no committee assignments. People suspected he would resign rather than spend four years in futile opposition to the Pierce Administration.

The new Congress met for the first time in December of 1853. Augustus Caesar Dodge submitted a bill for the organization of the Nebraska Territory, west of Missouri. Stephen Douglas had big plans for that land: a Pacific Railroad, reunification of the Democracy, and four years in the White House just to start. Come January, he sought out David Rice Atchison to see what the Senator from Missouri would need in order to allow a new territory so near to Missouri’s plantation country. Atchison wanted repeal of the Missouri Compromise.

Sumner smelled a rat in all the quiet negotiating Douglas got up to and put his head together with Salmon P. Chase and Joshua Giddings. Giddings wrote the original draft of the Appeal of the Independent Democrats, which Chase revised and Sumner gave some rhetorical embroidery. He and Chase asked Douglas to delay his bill a week so they could get their message out, claiming that they wanted to study the territorial issue more. The Appeal hit the newspapers that day, after Douglas agreed to the pause, and the Little Giant girded for battle.

Salmon P. Chase

Sumner tried to argue he arraigned the act, not its author. The Appeal might call Douglas an accomplished architect of ruin, but nothing personal. He went on to call the act “a soulless, eyeless monster-horrid, unshapely, and vast.” For some reason, Douglas didn’t buy that. The Appeal focused his attacks on Chase and Sumner, who thus inherited leadership of the anti-Nebraska side. Neither conservative Whigs nor established antislavery men took a major part. William Seward, the horrid antislavery radical of 1850, delivered only a single speech against the act.

Stephen Douglas

Chase took the initial lead, while Sumner embarked on one of his lengthy planning sessions. He didn’t speak until late February, by which point other Senators had answered Douglas at length and thoroughly. As he had against the Fugitive Slave Act, Sumner progressed over well-trod ground. He arraigned Douglas and the bill’s other Northern supporters, saying slavery

loosens and destroys the character of Northern men, even at a distance-like the black magnetic mountain in an Arabian story, under whose irresistible attraction the iron bolts, which held together the strong timbers of a stately ship, were drawn out, till the whole thing fell apart, and became a disjointed wreck.

You could do the math yourself, but Sumner spelled it out all the same: Slavery drew the iron principles right out of Stephen Douglas and company, creating “that human anomaly-a Northern man with Southern principles.” Applause rained down from the Senate gallery.