“Like the flaming sword of the cherubim at the gates of Paradise” Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part Four

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Part 1, 2, 3 Text of the speech (page 140)

Charles Sumner preached resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act. The good men of Massachusetts could do no less, lest the spirits of their Puritan and Revolutionary fathers rise up against them. To submit to such an unjust law, such an offense against Heaven, Massachusetts manhood would unman themselves and sink to the level of African potentates who sold the slaves to white men to begin with. Heroic self-stealing fugitives, black men, would rightly look down upon white Massachusetts.

Not that Sumner expected his free soil audience to betray their principles. He expected many would “never shrink, at any cost, and not withstanding all the atrocious penalties of this Bill” from doing right. When called upon, the sons and grandsons of the Revolution would shelter and hide fugitive slaves in their own houses “and, if need be,” will protect his liberty by force.”

This all took Sumner right to the brink of suggesting armed resistance. Some in the crowd might have gone for that, but northern men did not win election to the United States Senate by preaching revolution in 1850. That honor belonged, sometimes and increasingly, to southerners. Sumner abjured any violent intentions, the language of force aside. I suspect he meant to imply that one could resist a private slave-catcher by force, but ought to find other methods for an officer of the national government. One could also read his remarks as a wink and nudge for anybody who did want to rough up a US Marshal, with the understanding that Sumner himself couldn’t go on the record for that.

All that said, Sumner had “another power” in mind:

stronger than any individual arm, which I invoke: I mean that irresistible Public Opinion, inspired by love of god and man, which, without violence or noise, gently as the operations of Nature, makes and unmakes laws. Let this Public Opinion be felt in its might, and the Fugitive Slave Bill will everywhere among us become a dead letter. No lawyer will aid it by counsel, no citizen will be its agent

Violence and noise came, as Sumner may have expected. Public opinion usually requires some degree of policing to manage a successful stand against formal power. It only takes a few unmoved by sentiment to take the cases of slave-catchers and serve on commissions. Massachusetts would have both. Thus the fate of fugitives in Massachusetts well and truly fell on them as the public to make Public Opinion:

like the flaming sword of the cherubim at the gates of Paradise, turning on every side, it shall prevent any SLAVE-HUNTER from ever setting food in this Commonwealth.

The flaming sword must have reminded Sumner that he came close to the line, because he walked it back again:

I would not touch his person. Not with whips and thongs would I scourge him from the land. The contempt, the indignation, the abhorrence of the community shall be our weapons of offence.

Sumner’s Massachusetts would deny the slave-catcher “roof, fire, or water”. The communities would not accept him, but “they shall vomit him forth.” All of that went double for any low life who would volunteer to aid in slave renditions. The Daniel Websters and Millard Fillmores had best not forget it.

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Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part Two

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Part 1, Text of the speech (page 140)

Charles Sumner stood before the Free Soil meeting at Faneuil Hall on November 6, 1850, and gave the crowd the kind of speech they wanted. Outraged by the Fugitive Slave Act, he told them that Millard Fillmore ought never have been born rather than sign the bill into law. He invoked the American Revolution, by way of John Adams, and Massachusetts’ Puritan heritage in the person of John Winthrop to defend resistance to fugitive renditions. The passions of the past had not faded from the Bay State yet, but instead the children of the city on a hill felt “unconquerable rage”. In the old days, they “held up to detestation” men who favored the Stamp Act.

Then Sumner went for audience participation. He asked the free soilers if they should give “the Slave-Hunter” a pass.

[“No! no!”] The Stamp Act could not be executed here. Can the Fugitive Slave Bill? [‘Never!”]

That put Sumner in an awkward spot, at least for the purposes of performance. He told the free soilers that he “sustain[ed] an important relation to this Bill.” When just starting out as a lawyer, Joseph Story named him a commissioner of the court. Though he did little work in that capacity, Sumner’s name remained on the rolls.

As such, I am one of those before whom the panting fugitive may be dragged for the decision of the question, whether he is a freeman or a slave. But while it becomes me to speak with caution, I shall not hesitate to speak with plainness. I cannot forget that I am a man, although I am a Commissioner.

Daniel Webster (Whig-MA)

This all made for great theater, but Massachusetts had late experience with politicians who had preached antislavery now and then but found themselves obligated to defend the institution in the course of their duties. No less a Bay Stater than Daniel Webster had come out in favor of the Compromise of 1850, preaching Union above all. Sumner would do none of that. Nor did he think anyone else should, though he did not presume to judge officials who did. A magistrate in such a position should, Sumner averred with no judgment at all, resign his office. They would answer to their consciences, not the man on the stage.

Our non-judgmental Sumner proceeded to stress how little he would judge his fellow magistrates:

Surely no person of humane feelings and with any true sense of justice, living in a land “where bells have knolled to church,” whatever may be the apology of public station, can fail to recoil from such a service. For myself let me say, that I can imagine no office, no salary, no consideration, which I would not gladly forego, rather than become in any way the agent in enslaving my brother-man.

Such a deed would haunt Sumner -not judging anyone, mind!- all his waking and dreaming hours, alone or in company of others. If he failed, then he wold have to live with facing his victim,

From distance rice-fields and sugar-plantations of the South, his cries beneath the vindictive lash, his moans at the thought of Liberty, once his, now, alas! ravished away, repeating the tale of his fearful doom, and sounding, forever sounding, in my ears, “Thou art the man!”

But no pressure, fellow officers of the court.

Moderate Massachusetts

Edward Everett

Edward Everett (W-MA)

If the Massachusetts Free Soilers-cum-Republicans wanted to call the South’s bluff and throw out not just Kansas-Nebraska but also the Fugitive Slave Act, on which the South insisted the Union rested, they could very well do so on paper. Doing so once elected would take rather more effort. They would have to master not just the large advantage that the near-equal division of the Senate between North and South presented, but also Northern interests that did not share their enthusiasm for brinksmanship. That included many in their own party. The man they finally sent to the White House in 1860 stood before the unfinished dome of the Capitol and pledged himself to upholding the law…including the Fugitive Slave Act.

New England had long been the seat of northern Whiggery, and before that Federalism. Our own interests, especially in the context of the war at the end of the decade, naturally lead us to connect Whiggery and antislavery. The issue, after all, wrecked the Whigs but not the Democracy. The Whigs had a strong concentration of Puritan men with Puritan ideas from historically Puritan states. Massachusetts, the original home of the Puritans, voted against Andrew Jackson in 1836 and thereafter voted for the Whigs in every presidential election up through 1852. Vermont alone could match that record. But even in hyper-Whig, hyper-Puritan antislavery Massachusetts the Free Soilers pressed well ahead of the pack.

I must confess here that as a person of generally secular bent, I rarely find myself well-disposed toward Puritans. I sometimes suspect we’d do better as a nation if some Indian INS met them at the shore and turned them back. But they came and stayed and, if they no longer had quite the fanatical austerity that the first few generations brought to New England, they had also not surrendered all their fervor to a more moderate nation. They deserve credit for the good and the bad. Puritanism always had a strong communitarian strain. A Puritan man believed in moral stewardship. He served as his brother’s keeper, however widely he cast that net. Some cast it nationally and saw Southern brothers lost in the sins of slavery. This went beyond corrupting the slaveholders and degrading the slaves. The contagion of sin attached to those who made excuses for slavery, who accommodated it, who brought it where the law forbade it even if those men came from more Northern climes. Even those, like William Lloyd Garrison, who cast smaller nets and wrote Southerners off as hopelessly damned and so insisted that the righteous Union must cut away such moral cancers, could find defenders of the proslavery status quo and preachers of accommodating silence on slavery among their neighbors.

Bell and Everett on a Constitutional Union poster from 1860

Bell and Everett on a Constitutional Union poster from 1860

Those neighbors inherited the same Puritan traditions. They could listen to the Garrisons and Sumners in their midst go on about how they stood at variance with their ancestral faith. The Daniel Websters, Edward Everetts, and Robert Winthrops of the state could give the same sermon right back. If Puritans believed in creating a city on a hill, they also had to look aghast at what their fellow citizens proposed. The abolitionists would burn the city down. They would cast aside all respect for property. They would abandon the very respectability that made Puritans fit to create that shining city with their wild lawbreaking and talk of splitting the Union. These conservatives wanted consensus and quiet, with the strategically-placed silences that permitted both when deep division arose. Everett kept on preaching the same when he ran with John Bell on the Constitutional Union ticket in 1860.

Whiggery’s successes in Massachusetts also worked against them. With such successes, and a party at least amenable to antislavery thought, why would they desert a party that could and had given them such rewards? Even if they couldn’t win the White House, they had Massachusetts. Furthermore, close allies of Massachusetts’ cotton mills had ample motivation to stay in the good graces of their cotton-growing southern compatriots. Those Cotton Whigs had money on the line.

Thus when the Free Soilers met and resolved to overturn the apple cart in Massachusetts, few Whigs joined them. Likewise, few Democrats rushed to the banner. Their Worcester convention drew between 800 and 1,500 Free Soil diehards, four-fifths of them veterans of 1848, but even with a special convention train to carry them less than two hundred came from Boston. Most of the convention-goers came from central and western Massachusetts, away from most of the textile factories.

The Ambiguity of Popular Sovereignty, Part One

Lewis Cass

Lewis Cass (D-MI), originator of popular sovereignty

Looking at Kansas from the South, suppose the terrain does suit slavery. Suppose it would house profitable hemp plantations, even if more lucrative opportunities existed further south in Arkansas and Texas for cotton. Suppose Douglas got his bill through. That meant the South won, right? Popular sovereignty would permit slavery to rush in, end of story. From Kansas it could flood into modern Nebraska, not all that much farther north. If slavery went to Kansas, it would surely go to any territory west of it organized later. Then, as Chase foretold, Douglas’

criminal betrayal of precious rights; as part and parcel of an atrocious plot to exclude from a vast unoccupied region immigrants from the Old World, and free laborers from our own states, and convert it into a dreary region of despotism, inhabited by masters and slaves.

Whatever the practical chances of the whole of the Great Plains falling to slavery, free soil men really believed that. The proslavery men also understood the Kansas-Nebraska bill as a portentous event. Here they could turn history around and undo ancient wrongs. They could strike out the stain on slavery and the honor of the slaveholding class that Thomas Jefferson put on them by hedging them out of the Northwest Territory, then compounded by the Missouri Compromise, by free California, by Northerners flouting the Fugitive Slave Act. A litany of defeats that each reaffirmed slavery as somehow toxic could end and a new sequence could begin announcing the virtues of a slaveholding culture. For Douglas, who remained indifferent and uninterested in slavery, the great principle of self-government hung just as much in the balance.

Senator William H. Seward (Whig-NY), Taylor's antislavery friend and advisor.

William H. Seward (Whig-NY)

That knowledge, combined with the anticipation of epic fireworks, emptied the House so its members could sit in the gallery and listen to Douglas hold forth. It drew the eyes of the nation. Never ones to underestimate their importance, Douglas’ fellow senators felt much the same.  Standing at the pivot point of history, William Henry Seward, the New York Whig who led the ailing party declared:

We are on the even of a great national transaction, a transaction that will close a cycle in the history of our country.

The elder statesmen that had dominated the Senate for decades: Clay, Calhoun, Webster, and even Benton had left the body. All save Benton had died. While Douglas, and many of the others, had played roles in the storm in 1850 they had done so in the shadows of giants now gone. They had before them the first great sectional struggle to resolve all on their own. Some historians, and commentators at the time, blamed that generational turnover for the disaster that ensued as if the 1850 club could have done better. But Kansas-Nebraska did not mean 1850 came again. Four years passed full of fugitive slave rescues, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and other controversy that did much more to alienate the sections.

Still, one thread remained the same: In 1850, Douglas and Lewis Cass promised that popular sovereignty would solve the slavery issue in the Southwest. Then, as in 1854, they declined to say just when it could do so.

Fillmore & Webster on Boston

Millard Fillmore signed James Mason’s Fugitive Slave Act into law on September 18, 1850. Slave catchers from Georgia reached Boston in search of the Crafts on October 25. The Boston abolitionists chased them out of town and packed the Crafts off to England.  On February 15, 1851, federal marshals seized Shadrach Minkins and the local abolitionists stormed the courthouse to take him back and spirit him off to Canada. He arrived there on the seventeenth or eighteenth.

Fillmore did not take that flouting of the law laying down. On the eighteenth he issued a proclamation 

Millard Fillmore

Millard Fillmore

calling on all well-disposed Citizens, to rally to the support of the Laws of their Country, and requiring and commanding all officers, civil and military, and all other persons, civil or military, who shall be found within the vicinity of this outrage, to be aiding and assisting, by all means in their power, in quelling this, and other such combinations, and assisting the Marshal and his Deputies in recapturing the above mentioned prisoner; and I do, especially, direct, that prosecutions be commenced against all persons who shall have made themselves aiders or abettors in or to this flagitious offence; and I do further command, that the District Attorney of the United States [George Lunt], and all other persons concerned in the administration or execution of the Laws of the United States, cause the foregoing offenders, and all such as aided, abetted, or assisted them, or shall be found to have harbored or concealed such fugitive, contrary to law, to be immediately arrested and proceeded with according to law.

Daniel Webster, disgraced in Massachusetts but now Fillmore’s Secretary of State weighed in on the 20th. After some hagiography about Washington on the occasion of his birthday, Webster wrote that:

Daniel Webster

Daniel Webster

We have recently been informed, Gentlemen, of an open act of resistance to law, in the city of Boston; and if the accounts be correct of the circumstances of this occurrence, it is, strictly speaking, a case of treason. If men combine and confederate together, and by force of arms or force of numbers effectually resist the operation of an act of Congress, in its application to a particular individual, with the avowed purpose of making the same resistance to the same act in its application to all other individuals, this is levying war against the United States, and is nothing less than treason.

Setting aside for the moment that the act of Congress in question was the Fugitive Slave Law, I have trouble disagreeing. Trying to overthrow national laws by main force sounds like the acme treason.The Boston abolitionists did not state sit-ins or non-violent protests. They literally stormed the courthouse.

For their treason or, to use Calhoun’s idiom, their nullification, eight people, four black and four white, received indictments. Boston juries refused to convict them to the delight of the abolitionist press and the outrage of Southerners and northern conservatives.