“Said Act is hereby repealed”

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

The Senate could not afford the generosity of allowing Charles Sumner to speak on behalf of his own resolution to repeal the Fugitive Slave Act, which left him with a problem. Back in Massachusetts, the Free Soilers increasingly thought that the Democracy had taken them for a ride. They got their reforms through the state legislature with Free Soil votes, as promised, but never quite got around to the antislavery business that they had promised in return. Sumner’s seat appeared to be all they would get from a deal some of them disliked from the start. Their man in Washington failed to deliver too, going half a year without any antislavery oratory.

The Massachusetts papers did not take a Senate gag for an excuse. David Donald quotes them:

The Democratic Boston Post called Sumner’s motion a “contemptible dodge,” intended to avoid a real discussion of slavery, and the Worcester Palladium agreed that Sumner “went into the matter cat-footed,” without real intent of forcing a vote on the Fugitive Slave Law. Even the pious protest of the Commonwealth that “No well-informed man has any reason to distrust Mr. Sumner’s devotion to the cause of freedom” lost its force when the same paper demanded that he “introduce at once a bill for the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law, and let the slave drivers take, if they dare, the responsibility of silencing him.”

One might expect Democratic papers to dismiss Sumner with ease. The Commonwealth lost its first editor for opposition to the Free Soil-Democracy coalition, replaced by a more reliable party loyalist. He must have taken that non-endorsement seriously indeed. The Senator griped about how he never wanted the job in the first place and agreed to go to Washington only with freedom to act, or not act, as he wished. But he knew he had to do something.

To gain the floor, Sumner expected a chance at the end of the session. Then he might attach an amendment to an appropriations bill and claim a right to speak on its behalf rather than a privilege easily voted away. Sumner gambled, as he had no guarantee that the presiding officer would recognize him or would rule what he offered germane to the bill. To improve his odds, Sumner cleared his desk and did his best to look like a man with nothing further to offer the Senate.

Robert Morse Taliaferro Hunter (D-VA)

On August 26, 1852, Sumner got his chance. The appropriations bill came up and Robert Hunter of Virginia put forward an amendment to cover incidental expenses that may arise from the enforcement of the laws, authorizing the president to draw on funds marked for the Judiciary. In other words, he could spend the courts’ money to pay for the work of fugitive slave renditions. Opportunity at hand, Sumner seized it to offer an amendment to the amendment:

Provided, That no such allowance shall be authorized for any expense incurred in executing the Act of September 18, 1850, for the surrender of fugitives from service or labor; which said Act is hereby repealed.

“They cannot afford to be generous or even just.”

Charles Francis Adams

The Senate gagged Charles Sumner, denying him the customary permission to speak on behalf of a motion he presented for the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act. The man with three backbones had shown his backbone at last. His fellow senators, citing their parties’ commitment to the finality of the Compromise of 1850, told Sumner that he shouldn’t take this personally. They had to do what they had to do, just as he did in bringing the resolution to the floor to begin with. Before the vote, Sumner had every expectation that he would speak. He got on well with Southern men. His oratory had won praise before. Senate custom stood on his side. In rising to ask the chamber to take up his resolution, Sumner got in his only words on the subject:

As a Senator, under the responsibilities of my position, I have deemed it in my duty to offer this resolution. I may seem to have postponed this duty to an inconvenient period of the session; but had I attempted it at an earlier day, I might have exposed myself to a charge of a different character. It might have been said, that, a new-comer and inexperienced in this scene, without deliberation, hastily, rashly, recklessly, I pushed this question before the country. This is not the case now. I have taken time, and, in the exercise of my most careful discretion, at last ask the attention of the Senate. I shrink from any appeal founded on a trivial personal consideration; but should I be blamed for delay latterly, I may add, that, though in my seat daily, my bodily health for some time past, down to this very week, ash not been equal to the service I have undertaken. I am not sure that it is now, but I desire to try.

Did you hear that, William Lloyd Garrison? Sumner had good reasons to delay, including personal illness. David Donald, citing Sumner’s letters, names the sickness as diarrhea and attributes it to Sumner’s nerves. He might have the right of it. One doesn’t want to give a lengthy speech while cramped up or likely to have dire need of a recess midway through. Now, at last, and against his better judgment given continuing infirmity, Sumner would speak. The Senate need only let him and they would hardly refuse a man who deliberated so long and confessed to such a weakness.

But they did, blindsiding Sumner. Charles Francis Adams wrote Sumner on August 1 explaining how he had gone wrong:

The result at which you arrived is not in the least surprising to me. You are in your nature more trusting than I, and therefore expected more. Where slavery is concerned I have not a particle of confidence in the courtesy, honor, principles, or veracity of those who sustain it, either directly by reason of selfish interest, or more remotely through the servility learned by political associations. In all other cases I should yield them a share of confidence. I should not, therefore, had I been in your place, have predicated any action of mine upon the grant by them of any favor whatever. They cannot afford to be generous or even just. If you can get even that to which you have a clear right, you will do pretty well; but to get it you will have to fight for it.

Adams spoke from experience, both in his own career and upbringing and as a Northern man in general. To a significant degree, the political progress of the free states during the last decade of the antebellum involved their moving from an innocence like Sumner’s, or at least an indifference, to a hardened awareness like Adams already preached in 1852.

“By God, you shan’t.” Gagging Charles Sumner

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Charles Sumner might have endured William Lloyd Garrison’s criticism. He might even have ignored the effect it may produce among Garrison’s voting supporters. But Sumner liked being subject to public opprobrium no more than anyone else. When the mastermind of the Free Soil-Democracy coalition, Henry Wilson, started bending his ear Sumner had to act. He planned to speak last on slavery, giving himself time to learn the ways of the Senate and polish up his debate chops. That might have made sense on a personal level, but also made for bad politics at a time when Sumner’s movement could not afford them.

Back in Massachusetts, the Free Soilers did their part in helping the Democracy pass its reform laws. The Democrats, however, failed to hold up their end of the coalition bargain by passing a personal liberty law that Sumner helped write. Nor had they passed resolutions against the Fugitive Slave Act or do anything else to advance the cause of antislavery in the Bay State. As the months wore on, it looked increasingly like only Sumner’s election had come of a fraught coalition. In a situation like that, Palfrey’s argument that they ought not to have done it to begin with must have carried some force.

Realizing he had to do something, Sumner acted on July 27. Going back to his promise of immediate repeal for the hated Fugitive Slave Act, he rose and offered a resolution:

That the Committee on the Judiciary be instructed to consider the expediency of reporting a bill for the immediate repeal of the Act of Congress, approved September 18, 1850, usually known as the Fugitive Slave Act.

Sumner had the right to present any resolutions he liked to the Senate and the moment seems to have passed without incident. Massachusetts’ senator asked that Congress take up the issue the next day, July 28, and the leave of the house to speak on the resolution’s behalf. The rules required that permission but, like many things in the Senate, custom reduced that to a pure formality. If you wanted to speak on your resolution, the Senate let you speak. Senators did not gag their peers.

James Mason

We might better say that Senators do not usually gag their peers, but they made a special exception on July 28, 1852. Sumner’s southern friends turned on him. Andrew Butler damned him for putting the resolution up as a pretense to deliver an antislavery speech. Others claimed Sumner’s resolve tantamount to disunion. Northern Democrats castigated him. Stephen Douglas declared, as quoted in Donald’s biography, the he refuse to “extend any act of courtesy to any gentleman to…fan the flames of discord that have so recently divided this great people.” The Senate voted 32-10 to gag Charles Sumner. Afterwards, his friends came up and apologized. Their parties restrained them from allowing such a speech on the floor of the Senate. Nothing personal, ok?

James Mason, the author of the Fugitive Slave Act, told Sumner to wait for next term. Sumner insisted it must come this term, at which point Mason told him “By God, you shan’t.”

William Lloyd Garrison’s Purity

William Lloyd Garrison

We left William Lloyd Garrison moving the goalposts. Charles Sumner betrayed the antislavery cause by not submitting promptly a petition for the release of Messrs. Drayton and Sayers, smugglers of fugitive slaves. Sumner spent that time working quietly for their pardon, but Garrison didn’t know and didn’t care. When pressed by the National Era, another antislavery paper, on the issue, Garrison shrugged off the whole Drayton and Sayres affair. Helping free people imprisoned for freeing slaves doesn’t appear to have excited Boston’s purest abolitionist nearly so much as getting a nice antislavery speech out of his new Senator.

The next week, Garrison took up the question again and said as much directly. He first insisted that the two prisoners didn’t have the ability, from inside a jail, to make meaningful judgments on their own case. But even if they did:

we repeat, this is comparatively a trifling matter. We complain, and must continue to complain, that Mr. Sumner has allowed six months and a half to pass away at Washington, without opening his lips for the millions in bonds, whom he was sent there to represent. It is useless to blink this out of sight, or try to apologize for it. The omiossion amounts to a positive dereliction of duty. In Faneuil Hall Mr. Sumner could declare, long ago-‘We demand first and foremost‘ [Garrison’s emphasis] the INSTANT REPEAL of the Fugitive Slave Bill,- a Bill which he branded as ‘most cruel, unchristian, devilish, detestable, heaven-defying; setting at naught the best principles of the Constitution and the very laws of God.’

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Anyone could look askance at Sumner’s silence in light of his previous rhetoric. The new senator had spoken himself into a corner during the campaign. But Garrison’s remarkable indifference to the plight of two men held for aiding fugitive slaves, the very thing that the Fugitive Slave Law prohibited, remains striking. He deserves points for not focusing entirely on the plight of white men when speaking against slavery, but his opposition to the law, his sympathy for slaves, and his indifference to people who have taken real action to help the slaves by smuggling them to freedom do not sit easily together. Garrison made no bones about it either, describing the present state of affairs that Sumner found so tolerable as

men, women and children are hunted daily, and ruthlessly shot down or dragged back to bondage.

Yet men who struck against that order and helped the enslaved rescue themselves from such horrors get a shrug. Even at the most sympathetic reading, Garrison seems more intent on vindicating himself about the fundamental corruption and uselessness of politics rather than securing material aid to fugitive slaves or their helpers. A speech would do more, to Garrison. Twenty years into his career as an outspoken abolitionist, he still believed that the right words from the right man at the right time would forge a great wave of manumission.

Sumner’s Silence and the Newspapers

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

In August of 1852, Charles Sumner could say he delivered for his antislavery constituents. Through months of quiet lobbying, he secured a pardon for two men caught smuggling fugitive slaves to freedom. All that time raising suspicions that he would betray his supporters by courting Millard Fillmore paid off. On that day, Sumner personally drove down to the jail and saw the men off under armed guard. The nation’s newest antislavery senator had made himself into a practical antislavery operative. His supporters at the Commonwealth touted the triumph, but Sumner had talked himself into an awkward spot back in November of 1850. If sent to the Senate, he had promised vigorous antislavery action. Yet Sumner sat on a petition that Massachusetts sent along for him to present to the chamber during all the time…to free those two antislavery men.

The National Era made a go of explaining things in June, a month to the day before the release of Drayton and Sayres:

We happen to know that it was from no disrespect to the petitioners, and no unworthy personal motive, that Mr. Sumner did not present the petition. On consultation with several of the anti-slavery members of Congress, and with persons especially interested in the case of the unfortunate prisoners, the opinion was unanimous that any agitation of the subject in Congress at present would affect very unfavorably other and more promising movements in the case.

William Lloyd Garrison

In other words, a Sumner put his head together with the other antislavery leaders in Washington and they hatched a plan. They believe things moving toward a satisfactory conclusion and presenting the petition would harm that. William Lloyd Garrison published that explanation, and the Era’s regrets that Sumner hadn’t explained things himself. Always sympathetic to practical politics and keen to moderate his tone in the service to immediate ends, Garrison then responded:

We cheerfully give Mr. Sumner the benefit of this explanation, though we are far from being satisfied with it. The real issue, however, is not in regard to the non-presentation of the petition aforesaid, but to the strange, extraordinary and inexcusable silence of Mr. Sumner on the whole subject of slavery for the long period of six months, and upwards, in his place in the U.S. Senate. True, he now promises to say something ‘hereafter,’ but he will speak too late to justify his past silence.

For Garrison not to take “trust us” as an answer shouldn’t raise too many eyebrows. Every era has its dishonest politicians and their enablers and they all think that you should trust them. But the moment he has any satisfaction on the question of the petition for Drayton and Sayres, he moves the goalposts and insists Sumner has unforgivably betrayed the cause. Six months and change of silence on a signature issue deserves some scrutiny in any politician, but here all his admirable positions don’t save Garrison from sounding like a man committed to his own political unhappiness.

Charles Sumner and the Underground Railroad

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Since coming to Washington, Charles Sumner had learned he could make friends with slaveholding Southerners and that he could make speeches which would please critics, as well as the kind that set them against him. His ability to speak eloquently, if not always with the most graceful style, set him apart from the crowd. He prided himself on his erudition and a complete lack of anything resembling a joke. Having the advantage of considerable height and good looks didn’t hurt either.

Sumner exercised his talents in finessing Lajos Kossuth and on behalf of a land grant for a railroad, but managed to avoid speaking on slavery. The coalition which elected him on the basis of his antislavery politics had reason to expect something on that front and feared he may go soft on the cause. Conservatives in Massachusetts hoped that Sumner would soon betray those who elected him. We may remember Sumner as the man of three backbones and steadfast foe of slavery, but they didn’t know how things would turn out. In late 1851 and early 1852, Sumner appeared bent on living down to expectations.

Sumner had damned Millard Fillmore for signing the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. When Fillmore visited Boston, Sumner made a courtesy call. When the elections of 1851 came around, Sumner avoided campaigning for his own coalition. As the presidential campaign of 1852 heated up, he refused to support Winfield Scott despite Scott’s soundness on slavery specifically on the grounds that he expected more antislavery action on the Democratic side. He believed his Free Soil party should stand apart even when the Democracy chose Franklin Pierce as their man, instead throwing himself behind John P. Hale in a hopeless cause. Sumner refused to act even on a petition sent by his constituents for the release of two men who tried to smuggle fugitive slaves out of Washington.

The Free Soilers had not voted for anything like this. Four and a half months into his tenure, Sumner had done nothing on his signature issue but sit idle. His public did not know that he had taken up lobbying Fillmore in private for the release of the men. Sumner well knew that if he told any Garrisonian, the news would appear in the Liberator almost before the ink on the letter dried. Then Fillmore would look like a man capitulating to the radicals and refuse to act. The President showed no eagerness on that front even without the publicity problem, not delivering pardons until August. The release of fugitive-abettors in Washington risked their rearrest by southern partisans, maybe even mob action, so as soon as Sumner had the news he drove to their jail. He packed the newly freed men into a carriage with a friend of his and the friend’s gun, then sent them off to the North in haste.

Railroads and Rhetoric

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Charles Sumner went to Washington deeply unsure that he would make a good Senator. He had not liked the city or the political class on his one previous visit. He would enter the Senate as the result of what many considered a corrupt bargain and be only the third senator of his party. As such, he could hope for little in the way of distinguishing himself except rhetoric until the composition of the chamber changed dramatically. Despite his fears and some initial snubs, Sumner found himself relatively welcome in the Washington social scene. He got on well with southerners, which probably no one saw coming. His careful welcome of Lajos Kossuth that managed not to endorse the revolutionary’s cause won him wide plaudits.

With all that under his belt, Sumner might have hoped the worst behind him. In his ongoing quest to prove he had opinions on more than slavery, he rose to speak in debate over an Iowa land grant meant for a railroad. Sumner endorsed it heartily and caught fire for his trouble. The westerners might like development, but more eastern states cared much less for projects that did not benefit them directly. The Whig press in Massachusetts, so recently praising Sumner’s handling of Kossuth, turned on him. The papers castigated the new senator for favoring the West at the expense of New England.

That may seem strange, given the Whig’s enthusiasm for internal improvements, but more than partisanship probably went into it. Whigs wanted internal improvements in part because they would concentrate the population to the point where it could support the other improving projects they had in mind for the nation. A railroad in Iowa would serve the expansion of white America and consequent diffusion of white men across the continent in an unending sprawl of subsistence farming. In addition, the faster the west grew the more largely Democratic states would enter the Union. Opposing a far-flung railroad fit well into that strain of Whig orthodoxy.

Sumner pretended he didn’t care and griped that most of the papers didn’t even print his speech, but he put considerable effort into trying to convince his friends back home that he hadn’t made a blunder. Instead, as David Donald quotes him, Sumner believed he had made an “original and unanswerable” argument that constituted “the most important speech for the West uttered in Congress for 10 years.” Per Donald, Sumner had actually given the issue little thought. He mainly wanted to use the speech as a showpiece for his peers.

Senator Sumner, like many before and since, cared deeply for his image. A large man, six-two and 185 pounds, Donald has Sumner dress for the stage:

At a time when most senators wore black frock coats, Sumner affected light-colored English tweeds; his “favorite costume was a brown coat and light waistcoast, lavender-colored or checked trousers, and shoes with English gaiters.

A big man in purple pants would draw some eyes. Sumner reinforced his imposing figure with closely rehearsed, memorized speeches in an era when most men simply read theirs. (Spontaneous debate rarely visited the Senate.) Sumner accessorized with forceful gestures and by throwing his hair back. He chose an oratorical model deeply informed by the Classics, contrary to my previous impression that he had a bit of a common touch. This made Sumner a clear speaker, but also a repetitive one. He deliberately eschewed neologisms to make himself sound still more formal. After writing and revising before speaking, Sumner took another round of revisions before his work appeared in the Congressional Globe, and then would polish them again for published collections. In an age where public men took rhetoric seriously, Sumner took it more seriously than many.

Disappointing Lajos Kossuth

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

 

We left Charles Sumner newly arrived in Washington and caught up in its busy social life. Aware that he did not know the Senate’s norms and that he came with a reputation as a man who cared for antislavery and nothing else, he did not rush to make his maiden speech. Instead Sumner spent his nights studying up with the Congressional Globe, a true hero’s calling, and reading law and manuals of parliamentary procedure. At the same time he kept up a growing correspondence. To dispel the presumption that Sumner thought only of slavery, he chose to make himself heard first on the occasion of Lajos Kossuth’s sensational arrival in the United States.

Kossuth excited nineteenth century Americans as a good looking, heroic revolutionary figure fluent in English. They wanted to wine and dine him. A few over-excited types probably hoped to somehow help with his revolution. The official welcome mat rolled out and almost as soon as it had second thoughts set in. Kossuth, a European radical, might have other ideas in that vein than just freedom for Hungarians. If he opposed slavery, then it followed that giving him a state welcome implied endorsement by the United States of his doctrines. Independent of that, welcoming a foreign revolutionary who would probably solicit support for his cause did not comport well with the national tradition of non-interference in European affairs.

Lajos Kossuth, Hungarian revolutionary

Sumner made an equivocal speech that praised Kossuth and declared all fighters for freedom deserved American admiration. He endorsed the official reception, planting his flag with the revolutionary. Then he took it down and went home by declaring that no one should understand the reception as any kind of endorsement for Kossuth’s politics. Certainly it did not signal that the United States would intervene in the affairs of the Habsburg Empire in any way. The United States might toast Kossuth and feast him at the highest levels, but Sumner would have the nation do so strictly in the role of a fan club.

The speech prompted some grumblings from Sumner’s more radical friends, but went over well with most Massachusetts opinion. Even hostile newspapers praised him for it. Sumner’s fellow senators proved just as effusive. The new person might expect an encouraging welcome, but Sumner had gotten snubs instead. Those assembling to congratulate him after he finished included more than Sumner’s recently-acquired senatorial friends. Even Lewis Cass, who went out of his way to make Sumner unwelcome previously, now said that he felt no shame at presenting the antislavery man to the Senate. Maybe they could make a tolerable senator out of him yet.

 

Senator Sumner Goes to Washington

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Henry Adams, the fourth generation of his family to appear in this blog, brought the good news to Charles Sumner twice: Massachusetts chose him as its new senator. Sumner, with no previous experience in office and a stormy career as a spokesman and activist for prison reform and against war and slavery, had reason to doubt his abilities. Winning appeared relatively easy. Governing, if Sumner had any opportunity to at all, would prove harder. Washington and its politicians had displeased a much less radical Sumner on his one prior visit and he had come to public life only with some reluctance and the encouragement of John Quincy Adams.

Barely elected at all, after great struggle, and by a coalition damned by members of both national parties, Sumner lacked the wind at his back that a newly-elected man might hope for. Nor could he dream of putting his stamp on the nation while he remained a member of a tiny minority. His rhetoric, the one area where he might reasonably expect to excel, would now face opposition from skilled proslavery debaters. To employ it to any use, Sumner would have to master the Senate’s arcane rules and traditions or risk making a fool of himself.

Sumner’s embarrassments began as soon as he presented his credentials. By Senate tradition, the senior senator for one’s state presented a newcomer to the chamber. Sumner’s Massachusetts peer chose to oversleep rather than risk the wrath of Daniel Webster, leaving him to hunt down Lewis Cass and beg an introduction. Instead of the customary phrasing where a Senator begged leave to present a colleague, Cass informed the others only that

I have been requested to present the credentials of Charles Sumner, a Senator elect from the State of Massachusetts.

John Hale

Thomas Hart Benton, just defeated for re-election courtesy of David Rice Atchison, had a more sympathetic but just as disheartening welcome for Sumner. He told the new senator that all the great men had gone and taken the great issues of the day with them. Settling down into the desk previously occupied by Jefferson Davis, Sumner could look across a chamber with few allies. New Hampshire’s John Hale seemed like a shady character despite their shared party. He got on better with Salmon P. Chase. Sumner feared William Seward, who he otherwise liked, would always put Whiggery above antislavery. Hamilton Fish, Seward’s New York colleague, lamented Winthrop’s lost seat but went out of his way to make Sumner welcome.

Sumner found unlikely friends among the chamber’s Southern contingent. They knew many Yankees made antislavery speeches back home, but what went on back home didn’t necessarily translate to personal relationships in Washington. Soon Massachusetts antislavery extremist claimed Pierre Soulé as his best friend. He likewise befriended Andrew Pickens Butler, who sat next to him. Seeing in Sumner a man who knew his classics, Butler relied on him to check the quotations he planned to use in speeches. In these situations, and otherwise socially, Sumner declined to raise his antislavery opinions and instead talked or history and far-off happenings.

Soon Sumner settled, if not entirely comfortably, into the regular spin of Washington society. With everyone far from home, the political class formed their own small world with an unending cycle of dinners and other social occasions where they entertained each other in small groups for a large portion of the week. A single week of his first month saw Sumner hosted by Millard Fillmore, the French Minister, and Francis Blair. His party might earn him political isolation, and a few men rubbed Sumner wrong or took a dislike to him, but he didn’t suffer much from personal ostracism.

The Breathless Henry Adams: Electing Charles Sumner, Part 5

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

We left Charles Sumner at the end of a long campaign for the United States Senate. His coalition fractured, his fortunes declined, and long periods passed with few votes held. But on April 23, 1851, the Massachusetts Whigs split and the anti-Daniel Webster faction cast their lot with Sumner. That put him over the top and celebrations began at once. Supporters came to Charles Francis Adams’ home, where Sumner then dined, to congratulate their man. After so long, Massachusetts had chosen Sumner as its next senator.

Or had it? News soon came that the legislature had not adjourned after the vote as expected. Charles Adams sent his son Henry, thirteen and a few months, out to learn what had happened. Henry did as told and found out that when the members of the Massachusetts House cast their ballots, someone had lightly written in another man’s name on one also bearing Sumner’s. The anti-Sumner Whigs insisted on counting that one for the other man, which left Sumner still short of a majority. Hearing the news, the Adamses vented their displeasure. Sumner maintained a cool detachment which impressed his host.

Henry Wilson (Free Soil-MA)

Without a majority, the House had to vote again. Two more ballots ensued on the twenty-third. Further irregularity ensued, with one of the votes having more ballots cast than representatives. Someone had taken to outright cheating, with both sides accusing the other. At least half the House went home displeased that night. They reconvened on the twenty-fourth for another round and came up with two extra votes again. Further recrimination gave way in the end to a Whig proposal that the legislators cast their votes in sealed envelopes, so no one could slip in an extra. That did the trick, delivering Sumner the 193 votes he needed and not a single extra. Because of the secret ballot, we don’t know who delivered that last vote to put him over the top.

Charles Francis Adams

Henry Adams watched it all and ran home. He found Sumner at the family table and burst out with the news, which he still recalled decades later as one of the proudest moments of his life. The mainline Whigs went home in a poor mood while Free Soilers and Democrats started a fresh celebration. The coalition’s newspaper, the Commonwealth, soon had thousands of people gathered outside its offices. Revelers set off rockets and Henry Wilson, who had masterminded the coalition, gave a speech. Hecklers called for Daniel Webster, at which point Wilson declared that his party owed their success to Webster’s Seventh of March speech for the Compromise of 1850. Webster’s admirers could call Wilson many things in all fairness, but not wrong. Sumner’s less rowdy foes got together and drafted an indictment of the coalition that elected him as an illegal conspiracy.

Sumner, ill at ease with the press of admirers, beat a quiet retreat to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s house. There he escaped the crowd, but not fears over what he had gotten himself into. Sumner had never held public office before, yet now he would go into the national spotlight as the representative of his great cause, with all the responsibility that entailed. The man of three backbones now felt unsure of the load.