How Massachusetts Ended Slavery, Part Four

Parts 1, 2, 3

We left Massachusetts with the constitution of 1778. After some debate, the legislature chose to restrict the vote to free white men and take no action against slavery in the Bay State. In other words, they proposed greater restrictions upon free black Americans than then existed and enough of the convention felt slavery should continue to overwhelm those who thought it ought to end. This prompted attacks upon the constitution by antislavery whites, with our old friend Dr. Gordon speaking up once more:

The complexion of the 5th Article [which restricted the franchise] is blacker than that of any African; and if not altered, will be an everlasting reproach upon the present inhabitants, and evidence to the world, that they mean their own rights only, and not those of mankind, in their cry for liberty.

A cynic or proslavery person could argue that Gordon grasped the point exactly. Neither, he castigated the legislature for its unprecedented innovation: No other colony denied a free man who could meet property qualifications the vote. White men then faced the same qualifications, so while white supremacy and slavery ensured that a far smaller portion of the black population could meet the bar, those lucky few could cast their vote in all thirteen colonies at the time of Gordon’s writing. He called the move to the contrary a “public scandal.”

Gordon then raised the example of Jamaica’s maroon society, composed of enslaved people who freed themselves by force and managed to maintain their freedom long enough that King George II sent men to negotiate a peace with them which granted them that freedom. For people rebelliong against what they deemed British tyranny, that had to rankle.


The exception of Indians is still more odious, their ancestors having been formerly proprietors of the country.

Nineteenth century antislavery men rarely had that particular scruple.

Al that said, Gordon moved on to the prohibition on bi-and mult-racial men voting. Just how did the convention intend to make that work? Did the children of those people inherit the disability, so long as they had a single drop of the suspect blood in their veins, down “to the hundredth generation”?

Gordon wrote all of this in public, in the newspapers, while serving as chaplain of the legislature. He had been present for at least some of the debates. He opened sessions with prayers. He knew the principals, at least professionally. If he would write this for public consumption, one can only imagine how forthright he got in person. They had enough and fired him, effective April 4th or 6th, 1778. Notes on the History of Slavery in Massachusetts gives both dates. As Gordon served as chaplain to both houses, presumably they fired him on different dates.


How Massachusetts Ended Slavery, Part Three

By the summer of 1777, Massachusetts had considered bills to end slavery and opted out. Many white Bay Staters did have increasingly serious objections to slavery, understanding it as in fundamental contradiction with their revolutionary project, but that only went so far. Understanding they had a potentially explosive issue on their hands, the Massachusetts House passed the buck to the Continental Congress by asking for advice. Congress gave none and it all died there. Meanwhile, Massachusetts whites continued human trafficking in the same papers that printed antislavery letters.

Shortly after that, the legislature got to work on a new constitution. Since that constitution would necessarily touch on fundamental rights, and antislavery whites hadn’t given up the cause. Nor had their enemies. This naturally resulted in a battle in the papers. William Gordon argued:

Would it not be ridiculous, inconsistent, and unjust, to exclude freemen from voting for representatives and senators, though otherwise qualified, because their skins are black, tawny, or reddish? Why not disqualified for being long-nosed, short-faced, or higher or lower than five feet nine? Are black, tawny or reddish skin is not so unfavorable an hue to the genuine son of liberty, as a tory complection?

In other words, why exclude patriotic non-whites from the polls when loyalist whites would clearly be allowed to vote? Surely the latter had far less fitness for the ballot in Revolutionary Massachusetts.

The records of the 1777-8 constitutional convention don’t seem to have survived in full, but what does shows that they debated citizenship for those people who lacked their discerning taste when they chose their skin color. A lengthy speech from the convention arguing for equality and for reconsideration of a vote to exclude non-whites from voting appeared in the September 23, 1779 Independent Chronicle.

The argument for white supremacy consisted in part of casting them as foreign, which the speaker would have none of:

What, unless it be their color, constitutes them foreigners? are they not Americans? Were they not (most of them at least) born in this country? Is it not a fact, that those who are not natives of America, were forced here by us, contrary, not only to their own wills, but to every principle of justice and humanity?

But he knew the actual lay of the land well enough:

there is one argument more which has been urged by gentlemen of the opposing side, as being of great weight and importance, which is this, “That by erasing this clause of the constitution, we shall greatly offend and alarm the Southern States. ” Should this be the case, Sir, it would be surprising indeed! But can it be supposed, Mr. President, that any of the sister States will be offended with us, because we don’t see fit to do that which they themselves have not done?

At the time, free black Americans who could meed property and wealthy qualifications could and did vote. Removing the franchise from them went hand in hand with extending it to poorer whites over the course of the nineteenth century.

Facts counted for little, though. The advance of white freedom demanded the sacrifice of non-white rights, as usual. The constitution of 1778 provided:

Every male inhabitant of any town in this State, being  free, and twenty-one years of age, excepting Negroes, Indians, and molattoes, shall be intitled to vote for a Representative or Representatives, as the case may be

How Massachusetts Ended Slavery, Part Two

We left Massachusetts in 1777, with white Bay Staters increasingly of the sentiment that they ought to do something to get rid of slavery. Among the writers pressing for some form of abolition, the contradiction between fighting for freedom and practicing slavery had become increasingly difficult to ignore. William Gordon expressed it well in an open letter of September 21, 1776:

The Virginians begin their Declaration of Rights with saying, ‘that all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights, of which they cannot, by any compact, deprive themselves or their posterity; among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty.’ The congress declare that they’hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.’ The Continent has rang with affirmations of the like import. If these, Gentlemen, are our genuine sentiments, and we are not provoking the Deity, by acting hypocritically to serve a turn, let us apply earnestly and heartily to the extirpation of slavery from among ourselves. Let the State allow nothing beyond servitude for a stipulated number of years, and that only for seven or eight, when persons are of age, or till they are of age: and let the descendants of the Africans born among us, be viewed as free-born; and be wholly at their own disposal when one-and-twenty, the latter part of which age will compensate for the expense of infancy, education, and so on.

Gordon’s sentiment rings true. His letter came as part of the contagion of liberty sweeping the colonies. I have it in a copy of George Moore’s Notes on the History of Slavery in Massachusetts, a middle nineteenth century work still much-beloved of the eighteenth century’s long-s. I’ve taken the liberty of fixing that for your convenience and I do proof any quotes I type out, but if I miss one and you end up reading about “flavery” and “fervitude”, please accept my apologies.

Besides the long-s, Notes includes reference to other letters on similar lines. Then, conscious even in 1866 that one might imagine Massachusetts as eternally antislavery, Moore devotes an entire page to contemporaneous ads selling and seeking slaves:

TO SELL-A Hearty likely NEGRO WENCH about 12 or 13 Years of Age, has had the Small Pox, can wash, iron, card, and spin, etc., for no other Fault but for want of Employ.

WANTED a NEGRO GIRL between 12 and 20 Years of Age, for which a good Price will be given, if she can be recommended.

To be SOLD, a large, commodious Dwelling House, Barn, and Outhouses, with any quantity of land from 1 to 50 acres, as the Purchaser shall choose within 5 miles of Boston. Also a smart well-tempered NEGRO BOY of 14 years old, not to go out of this State and sold for 15 years only, if he continues to behave well.

Obviously, some Bay Staters had good inoculations against the contagion of liberty. The House’s proposal for gradual emancipation, deferred pending the advice of Congress which never came and so buried it, speaks to a growing sentiment in agreement with Gordon’s. These ads speak to the opposite. The bill never came to a vote so we can’t say for sure if it would have passed, but given the natural inclination of enslavers to care far more about maintaining their human property than others did for stripping them of it we must harbor some doubt about abolition’s prospects. Further developments will add still more.

How Massachusetts Ended Slavery, Part One

I’m sorry for the lack of posts, Gentle Readers. I felt a bit ill over the weekend and then my mother had cataract surgery on Monday. That’s put me behind on several things but has given me occasion to revisit something I meant to do more of and fell away from. Welcome back to Deep Dives, where we go back in time far past the usual late Antebellum to look at the history of American slavery.

In those later decades, we think of Massachusetts as resolutely antislavery. The state practiced slavery at one point and conservative elements within it always remained inclined to make excuses, but we can reasonably call it a state that aligns firmly on the antislavery left. How it got from a state which enslaved people to one that did not receives little scholarly attention, even though we believe that it did so with an instantaneous, uncompensated abolition much like enacted in 1865. Some of that comes down to slavery lasting longer in the American South and the vastly larger scale of the institution there. We should also probably grant that the Revolution draws a tremendous amount of scholarly attention away from anything near to it. But that still leaves us with a remarkable story.

John Adams

In 1780, Massachusetts wrote a new constitution which included a bill of rights written by John Adams. His draft received some style tweaks by a committee and the convention accepted it. Article I reads:

All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.

An enslaved man named Quock Walker sued for his freedom under that provision in 1783. The Massachusetts courts agreed with him. The 1790 census shows no slaves in Massachusetts. Therefore Walker killed slavery in the Bay State and, retroactively, it was abolished with the adoption of the new constitution in 1780. Thereafter, Massachusetts assumed its place as the leading bastion of freedom. The records indicate a more complicated story and ambiguous story, as usual.

As soon as revolutionary rhetoric with its talk of natural rights began to circulate, black Americans insisted it ought to apply to them as well. White antislavery men agreed, but the flurry of speeches and petitions generated only limited action. The state House formed a committee to look into the conditions facing black Bay Staters in the fall of 1776. Spring brought about a few bills for abolition, with a gradual emancipation proposal gaining some steam. We don’t know how it would have gone down because the House drew up short of a final vote, instead asking Congress for an opinion:

from an apprehension that our brethren in the Other Colonies should conceive there was an impropriety in our determining on a question which may … be of extensive influence, without previously consulting your Honors

Congress, which had a war to run and absolutely no inclination to touch such an explosive issue if it meant to keep the South fighting the British, refused to answer. With no approval forthcoming, the Massachusetts House approved a petition asking for abolition and went no farther.

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.

“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.