Having dispensed with Lewis Cass’ response to him, Charles Sumner moved on to his main target. Stephen Douglas said many things about the Massachusetts Senator that Sumner cared to answer. In the course of doing so, he even went into the Congressional Globe to quote old debates. Where Sumner had a historical argument with Cass, at least in the main, he had a principled and personal one with Douglas, who he called “a common scold.” He told the Senate that he would shrug off the personal baggage and let the Little Giant have the last word, except that Douglas
has crowned the audacity of this debate by venturing in rise here and calumniate me. He has said that I came here, took an oath to support the Constitution, and yet determined not to support a particular clause in that Constitution.
Sumner gave that “the flattest denial.” Andrew Butler tried that argument too, claiming that Sumner declared against the Constitution by saying he would not render over a fugitive slave. Sumner had made that avowal and wouldn’t deny it, but argued as he had before
that as I understand the Constitution, this clause does not impose upon me, as a senator or citizen, any obligation to take part, directly or indirectly, in the surrender of a fugitive slave.
That sounds like a point that a bad stereotype of a lawyer would make, a distinction without difference used to hide a multitude of sins. In reading Sumner’s defense again, I realized that he has the right of it. The Fugitive Slave Act that James Mason wrote and the Congress passed in late 1850 did that work and Southerners wanted a similar provision in the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act. They didn’t get it then, but the decades made their dreams come true. Sumner protested the very obligation that made the law so odious in the North. Many who thought little either way about slavery or who loathed antislavery politics still had qualms about seeing an innocent person hunted down and hauled back from their communities. Antislavery whites may have enjoyed their greatest popularity, at least before the middle 1850s, when they aided fugitives in escaping.
The individual obligation vs. Constitutional duty point remains a technical one, but it has substance to it. Mason, who drafted the law, could not have missed that no obligation to ordinary people in the North existed before he wrote one into the statute books. If he believed otherwise, he could have saved some ink and much effort. A state might have some obligation to render fugitives up, but not a random person on the street. As Sumner held a United States Senate seat, he did not count as part of his state’s government. Thus, the Fugitive Slave Clause did not apply to him, even if the Fugitive Slave Act did.
Sumner then complained of Douglas’ personal insults, which must have struck the Senate as a bit rich. He further lectured Douglas on how he should remain
above the intemperance of youth, and from character to be above the gusts of vulgarity. […] let him remember hereafter that the bowie-knife and the bludgeon are not the proper emblems of senatorial debate.
He went on in that vein for a long paragraph, finally working himself up to “no person with the upright form of a man can be allowed-” And there Sumner stopped. Douglas told him “Say it.”
no person with the upright form of a man can be allowed, without violation of all decency, to switch out from his tongue the perpetual stench of offensive personality. Sir, that is not a proper weapon of debate, at least, on this floor. The noisome, squat, and nameless animal, to which I now refer, is not a proper model for an American Senator.