The Example of Louis XIV: Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 3

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2

Charles Sumner made no bones about how politicians had nationalized slavery. He declared to the assemblage of National Whigs and Democrats in the Senate that to a man, Americans should rightly see them as Slavery Whigs and Slavery Democrats. One could argue with the details of Sumner’s history, but as a practical matter he had them dead to rights. Time and time again, they have capitulated to demands for slavery’s advance and made concessions taking almost useless fig leaves back to their angry voters in trade. Sumner, however, saw

Slavery as a sectional institution, within the exclusive control of the States, and with which the nation has nothing to do.

That makes him sound a bit like a reverse fire-eater. Sumner didn’t argue for disunion, but he believed in the rightness of state noncompliance in fugitive slave renditions and that the national government had no rightful power to impose any part of slavery upon a state. Enslavers and their allies could point to the specific grant of power to do just that in the Fugitive Slave Clause, finding themselves the virtues of a muscular national government coercing mere provinces. Everyone, then and now, chooses to prefer a form or level of government from policy outcomes. The what and how of politics concern us much more than the where and who.

The world had turned upside-down, by Sumner’s lights:

by an equally strange perversion, Freedom is degraded to be sectional, and all who uphold it, under the national Constitution, share this same epithet. The honest efforts to secure its blessings, everywhere within the jurisdiction of Congress, are scouted as sectional and this cause, which the founders of our National Government had so much at heart, is called sectionalism.

Sumner had the right of it there. Slavery agitation, allegedly either way but mostly to the antislavery side, won its practitioners condemnation as sectional men, fanatics, and obsessives bent on the Union’s destruction. One can’t get more anti-national than that. All this, Sumner attributed to the nature of slavery itself:

herein is the power of Slavery. According to a curious tradition of the French language, Louis XIV, the grand monarch, by an accidental error of speech, among supple courtiers, changed the gender of a noun; but Slavery has done more than this. It has changed word for word. It has taught many to say national, instead of sectional, and sectional instead of national.

No one would have missed Sumner’s allusion to monarchical power. Americans then still ardently feared kings and treasured their republican tradition in a world largely hostile to such things. To invoke a famous autocrat like Louis XIV and his pliable band of well-dressed lackeys, not a single backbone to share amongst them, Sumner cast slavery as fundamentally alien, dangerous, and authoritarian. He turned the insult back on its purveyors: Antislavery agitation did not imperil the Union, but rather the demands of despotic, unrepublican slavery had corrupted and perverted popular understandings. Slavery itself made men into monarchs, endowing them with a power like the Sun King’s.

“The extravagance of this error can hardly be surpassed.” Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 2

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

We left Charles Sumner proclaiming himself an independent man, not bound by any party and free to act in the United States Senate as his conscience dictated. His conscience and his political circumstances happened to agree on his making an antislavery speech when he got the chance on August 26, 1852. A slave to his own principles, he had no other choice than to declaim on the theme of freedom national, slavery sectional. After some further throat-clearing about how Sumner had to make the speech and he did not accept the dogma of the day that the Compromise of 1850 forever settled all slavery questions, he dug into the subject in detail:

The relations of the Government of the United States -I speak of the National Government- to Slavery, though plain and obvious, are constantly misunderstood. A popular belief at this moment makes Slavery a national institution, and, of course, renders its support a national duty. The extravagance of this error can hardly be surpassed. An institution, which our fathers most carefully omitted to name in the Constitution, which, according to the debates of the Convention, they refused to cover with any “sanction,” and which, at the original organization of the Government, was merely sectional, existing nowhere on the national territory, is now above all other things blazoned as national.

Sumner rightly noted, and would go on to document exhaustively, that the framers declined to name slavery in the Constitution. Instead they resorted to circumlocutions about people held in service and otherwise carefully ensured that they referred to slaves as persons, not property. This allowed them to argue, and Sumner to carry on decades later, with the notion that the United States did not affirm a right to property in man. Not everybody at Philadelphia had such scruples, of course. The slavery language usually originated in a more direct way and the convention revised it to something more oblique thereafter.

On the point of slavery not existing on the national territory, Sumner almost had it right. The national territory at the time of ratification included only the Old Northwest, from whence I write this. The famous ordinance organizing it did ban slavery, but neglected to do anything about the slaves already present in the territory. Their owners petitioned the Confederation Congress for a guarantee of their property, or at least a clear explanation of its status, and got silence. As a practical matter, that permitted slavery to continue. Well into the nineteenth century, freedom suits in the area could hinge on whether someone was brought into the territory and its successors before or after the ordinance took effect. It ended up functioning as no more than a marginal ban on introducing additional slaves.

Sumner may not have known that; the Northwest Ordinance remains an understudied subject to this day. He and his generation of antislavery activists took from it the precedent of the nation’s first slavery ban. The law still has a plausible claim to that on paper, which sufficed for rhetorical purposes whether Sumner knew better or not. Thus he emphasized just how the national men of the time used “national” as a practical synonym for “slavery,” whatever their party, had misunderstood the nation’s history and constitution. For a group heavy with lawyers and other men of letters, that did make an extravagant error.

The Slave Of Principles: Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part One

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Charles Sumner had his moment at last. On August 26, 1852, he presented an amendment to an appropriations bill which would have repealed the Fugitive Slave Act. As a matter of right, he could now give the Senate the antislavery address that his supporters had demanded with increasing urgency for six months. He stood to develop a theme he had suggested previously that spring and summer. Back in May, Sumner presented a memorial against the law, and tried to make a speech of it, but found himself out of order. Rules and custom stated that you told the Senate the subject of the petition and let it go. Then Sumner declared

I believe I shall utter nothing which, in any just sense, can be called sectional, unless the Constitution is sectional, and unless the sentiments of the fathers were sectional. It is my happiness to believe, and my hope to be able to show, that, according to the true spirit of the Constitution, and according to the sentiments of the fathers, FREEDOM, and not slavery is NATIONAL; while SLAVERY, and not freedom, is SECTIONAL.

Sumner did not originate that idea. It appears in his speech against the Fugitive Slave Act during the election campaign. Others had made similar arguments for years. But Sumner gave the antislavery movement one of its most powerful slogans: Freedom National. He might have had something prepared back in May on those lines, but the Senate denied him the chance to speak then, and then again in July. Come August they could deny no longer and Sumner, who had prepared for months, laid in.

Massachusetts’ new senator might have gone to extremes. Sumner had a talent for taking principles to their logical extent, regardless of practical considerations. As a young lawyer, taken in by some of Joseph Story’s legal writings, he extended them far further than the Justice had ever done. Sumner declined to go all out, remaining committed to action within the political system rather than damning it all as William Lloyd Garrison would have liked. His rhetoric covers well-trod ground, often redundantly and at great length. Thus I will not, Gentle Readers, inflict upon you all seventy pages of Sumner’s Freedom National speech. Even I don’t enjoy nineteenth century prose that much. Instead, I will focus on what Sumner meant by Freedom National, Slavery Sectional.

Sumner opened on August 26 with a complaint about the appropriation before the Senate for “extraordinary expenses”

beneath these specious words lurks the very subject on which, by a solemn vote of this body, I was refused a hearing. Here it is; no longer open to the charge of being an “abstraction,” but actually presented for practical legislation; not introduced by me, but by one of the important committees of the Senate; not brought forward weeks ago, when there was ample time for discussion, but only at this moment, without any reference to the late period of the session.

The Senate had incurred a different extraordinary expense than the one under consideration then when it gagged Sumner. Now he would incur a more ordinary one, for an era used to multi-hour political speeches, right back. They should hear Sumner “not as a favor, but as a right” under “parliamentary law.” But Sumner had more than a right in mind:

With me, sir, there is no alternative. Painfully convinced of the unutterable wrongs and woes of slavery; profoundly believing that, according to the true spirit of the Constitution and the sentiments of the fathers, it can find no place under our National Government-that it is in every respect sectional, and in no respect national-that it is always and everywhere the creature and dependent of the States and never anywhere […] of the Nation, and that the Nation can never, by legislative or other act, impart to it any support, under the Constitution of the United States

That conviction entailed upon Sumner a duty to act, though he once again protested that he had sought no office and did not see himself as a man of politics. Charles Sumner must speak out, at last, as “[t]he slave of principles.”

“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.