“His shaft did not touch me, but fell upon them” Sumner Answers Cass

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

The Crime Against Kansas: Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15Full text

Douglas Answers, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

Hearing the replies of Lewis Cass, Stephen Douglas, and James Mason to his Crime Against Kansas speech, Sumner understood that they demanded a reply. If he said nothing, unlike him in any event, it would amount to conceding their points. Sumner wouldn’t let that happen and so rose to speak again. He started with Cass,

venerable with years, and with whom I have had associations of personal regard longer than with any person now within the sound of my voice. […] The Senator from Michigan knows full well that nothing can fall from me which can have anything but kindness for him.

During his tour of the nation, Sumner had called on Cass and his marriageable daughter in Michigan. I don’t know how much further back they go, but that had to count for something. Lewis Cass, Sumner’s dear friend, had turned on him:

He has said on this floor to-day that he listened with regret to my speech. I have never avowed on this floor how often, with my heart brimming full of friendship for him, I have listened with regret to what has fallen from his lips. I have never said that he stood here to utter sentiments which seemed beyond all question disloyal to the character of the fathers and to the true spirit of the Constitution

Lewis Cass

Sumner and Cass differed in the past, but Sumner had never gone public with it. He maintained their friendship and Cass repaid him with accusations approaching treason. Sumner sounds genuinely blindsided. He may have thought higher of Cass than Cass did of him. He at least implied that he did. Wounded feelings only got one so far, though. Politics in every era has no dearth of bruising scrapes. Sumner moved on to the substance, that Cass accused him of having Michigan’s history wrong.

my statement of that case was founded upon the actual documents. No word was mine: It was all from Jackson, from Grundy, from Buchanan, from Benton, from the Democratic leaders of that day. When the Senator criticised me, his shaft did not touch me, but fell upon them.

Don’t argue with Sumner; argue with the people he quoted. Yet Cass didn’t dispute the words themselves. He argued instead about the particulars of the situation in Michigan which gave rise to the lines in question. One could argue that Cass’ shaft -let us imagine an arrow, Gentle Readers- did touch, because Sumner sidestepped the argument. But Sumner’s reference to “actual documents” reminds us that he did the research. The Crime Against Kansas speaks of Michigan’s situation in some detail, more than one would expect from an idle reference. Cass has a fair point in that Michigan’s statehood did not progress exactly like Kansas’ bid had, but he himself equivocates between a statehood rejected by the legislature and one accepted by a dubious popular assembly. Both men could make a case from those facts, but it does seem to hinge more on technical details than points of principle.

 

Advertisements

James Mason and the Slave Power

Stephen Douglas

The Crime Against Kansas: Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15Full text

Douglas Answers, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

After Stephen Douglas finished castigating Charles Sumner for The Crime Against Kansas, James Mason took his turn. Sumner didn’t get personal with Mason quite like he did with the absent Andrew Butler, but the Massachusetts senator singled out the Fugitive Slave Act for particular scorn on every occasion. Mason wrote the law.

The Virginian began with now familiar complaints about Sumner’s incivility, then centered his objections on Sumner’s believe in the Slave Power. That conspiracy of Southerners and turncoat Yankees dominated the Union, as Sumner had it. Others argued much the same. Mason’s objection began with a lack of clear definitions. What did Sumner mean by slave power, if he never explained it? Where did its great might come from?

It is not the wealth of the slaveholding States, for the Senator from Massachusetts himself, by an extravagance of speech, declared here yesterday, that, the productive industry of his own small State was greater than the whole cotton-growing labor of the South.

If the South couldn’t buy and sell the North, then whence came its power? Mason dismissed numbers, because the slave states lacked a majority in the House and Senate alike. If not money or numbers, then what?

If there be any slave power exerting an influence upon the counsels of this country, it is that moral power diffused through the world, acknowledged everywhere, and to which kings and potentates bow-it is the moral power of truth; adherence to the obligations of honor, and the dispensation of those charities of life that ennoble the nature of man. That is the moral power which the Senator ascribes to the institution of slavery.

Mason had the truth of it closer than he or Sumner might care to admit, if for the opposite reasons. The disproportionate power of the slave states come in part from the anti-democratic nature of the American Constitution, which we struggle with still. It granted them strength beyond their number, then added more on top to help protect slavery specifically. But the moral power in those obligations of honor came down to the steadfast unity of most of the South, most of the time, in slavery’s defense. Even shy of a numerical majority, the slave states formed a plurality interest of vast influence. Many northerners objected to slavery in the abstract or in principle, but even into the Civil War they didn’t view its eradication as a civilization-defining trait. The South, by contrast, understood slavery as the ultimate, indispensible foundation of civilization.

“Exhausting all the epithets in the English language” Douglas Answers Sumner, Part 4

Stephen Douglas

The Crime Against Kansas: Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15Full text

Douglas Answers, Parts 1, 2, 3

Stephen Douglas felt insulted, on account of all the insults Charles Sumner threw his way. He inveighed against Sumner as a hypocrite, a man who claimed to follow and defend the Constitution but refused to cooperate in surrendering fugitive slaves. He damned Sumner as a vulgarian. He laid into the senator all the more so for doing this all in a calculating, practiced way. Sumner wrote his insults down, memorized them, and practiced their delivery. Most senators wrote their speeches in advance and might have had a dry run or two, but more commonly they read their speeches to the chamber. Sumner went the extra mile and performed his.

Douglas took all that personally, but he also spoke up for the aggrieved Andrew Butler. Butler came under Sumner’s withering attack for his proslavery politics, fair enough, but also for his stroke-induced speech impediment. Sumner lacked the courtesy to deliver that insult to Butler’s face, instead speaking while he was away from the Senate. When Douglas came to that point, James Mason interjected. The author of the Fugitive Slave Act insisted that Sumner took advantage of the absence. The craven would never have mocked Butler’s disability to his face.

Douglas thought otherwise:

I think the speech was written and practiced, and the gestures fixed; and, if that part had been stricken out, the Senator would not have known how to repeat the speech.

The Senate laughed, but considering how much Sumner memorized, he may have had the right of it. Long orations develop a momentum all their own. Skipping around or over some content might have thrown Sumner badly off. Also Sumner seems like the kind of person who would have insulted Butler to his face if the occasion required it. He could charm people, but Sumner had convictions not easily shaken by social convention.

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Douglas went on, telling the Senate that everyone there loved Andrew Butler. No one would stand up for Sumner’s insulting of their old friend. Douglas averred that they all felt the same outrage on his behalf. But Butler would come back and give his own answer, so Douglas left it to him. When that happened, the Little Giant knew

The Senator from Massachusetts will go to him, whisper a secret apology in his ear, and ask him to accept that as satisfaction for a public outrage on his character. I know how the Senator from Massachusetts is in the habit of doing those things. I have had some experience of his skill in this respect.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Maybe Douglas did and Sumner had made up with him in private before, but it sounds unlike him. Douglas decided to construe Sumner’s Latin as vulgar without any textual basis, so he didn’t consider himself above inventing things on the point. Then he pronounced himself offended on behalf of David Rice Atchison, “a gentleman and an honest man.” In that tirade,

exhausting all the epithets in the English language, the Senator went off to the Latin, to see if he could not find more of them there

Sumner neglected many words as familiar to him as to us, but within the bounds of nineteenth century etiquette and Senatorial standards, he did go far. Between mocking Butler’s disability and implying sexual impropriety with slaves, Sumner went straight to the gutter.

 

Who Does Charles Sumner Think He Is? Douglas Answers Sumner, Part 3

Stephen Douglas

The Crime Against Kansas: Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15Full text

Douglas Answers, Parts 1, 2

Furious at Charles Sumner’s Kansas speech, Stephen Douglas accused him of gutter Latin and rehearsing the speech in the dark with a black boy holding a candle so Sumner could practice his gestures. Sumner planned his every insult and drilled himself for their best delivery. The theatrics outraged, but Douglas had more than wounded pride to indict Sumner on. The Senator claimed that many of his proslavery fellows engaged in a “swindle” and crime in opening Kansas to slavery and sought to compound it by blessing the proslavery territorial government with statehood. Three-quarters of the Senate, by Douglas’ count, stood accused of “direliction of duty”.

Sumner should talk about dereliction of duty. Douglas reminded the Senate that the Massachusetts Senator came into the Senate chamber and

put his hand upon the Holy Bible, in the presence of this body, and appealed to Almighty God to witness that he would be faithful to the Constitution

After that, Sumner pledged he would not enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. Douglas deemed that a declaration that Sumner would not abide by his oath of office at all. If he could not swear to his oath of office, how could he consider himself fit for the job? And how dare he arraign Senators who had? Yet

still he comes here and arraigns us for crime, and talks about “audacity!” Did mortal man ever witness such audacity in an avowed criminal? He comes here with a pledge to defy the Constitution of his country, and the wrath of god, by not obeying his oath, and then talks about audacity

Douglas demurred from a detailed discussion of Kansas matters, on which he had already opined. He dismissed them with the insistence that the American government had not fallen “so weak, so corrupt, so unjust” as to deserve a revolution against it. All that talk pointed to disunion, which Douglas would not brook. The insults clearly stung and outraged him, but the time had come to reach the matters of substantive contention between them:

You challenge me to this great issue, which you say you have made up between the Negro worshipers and the “slave power,” as you call it. What you call the slave power is simply observance of the Constitution of the country, as our fathers made it. Let us have that fair issue between the parties, and let us discuss that, instead of dealing in denunciation against one another here.

That genuinely put people like Sumner in a difficult position. The Constitution really did give slavery unusual protection and endorsement. It created a duty to yield up fugitive slaves, right there in black and white. It gave slaveholding states extra representatives. It promised to them twenty years of unlimited slave imports. A patriotic politician in the nineteenth century could not inveigh against the Constitution and expect to win or keep office. The standard answer involved inventing an antislavery founding generation who wrote their principles into the Constitution, though they apparently chose to do so in a deeply perverse manner. That doesn’t mean that none of them really believed they had the founders on their side, as everyone does, but it left them with a set of awkward and not entirely convincing arguments that a quick and informed mind -and Douglas had both- could easily pick apart.

“Is his object to provoke some of us?” Douglas Answers Sumner, Part 2

Stephen Douglas

The Crime Against Kansas: Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15Full text

Stephen Douglas began his answer to Charles Sumner with a condemnation of the other senator’s vulgar insults. He claimed that Sumner’s Latin hailed from the gutter, culled from the classics that decent people left well alone. I don’t know if Douglas had any Latin to complain or not, but his argument sounds like the work of a man more annoyed by classical allusions than interested in their content. He loathed Sumner’s invective for its own sake and, not in the least, because it targeted Douglas and his coalition. Accused of fraud, swindling, crime, and infamy “at least a hundred times over,” Douglas resented it and wondered just what Sumner expected to get from such a speech.

Is his object to provoke some of us to kick him as we would a dog in the street, that he may get sympathy upon the just chastisement? What is the object of these denunciations against the body which we are members?

That sound soon look prescient. Douglas, in effect, accused Sumner of trolling the Senate. He spoke to get a big reaction, which he could take home in a play for sympathy. Sumner obviously intended for his speech to help his political prospects in Massachusetts, but little in his life to date suggests he opposed slavery for cynical political gains. If Sumner vented his genuine feelings, and those of many other antislavery Americans, then they would naturally incline to support him regardless. Likewise Sumner’s foes would accuse him of insincerity or fanaticism in service of his career, at the expense of the Union.

Douglas, speaking spontaneously, also damned Sumner on related grounds. Everyone knew senators could get angry and say things they might regret in the heat of debate. You gave them a pass on such things because everyone has those moments. Sometimes senators goaded one another into outrages. Sometimes they got together and laughed about it later.

But, sir, it happens to be well known, it has been the subject of conversation for weeks, that the Senator from Massachusetts had his speech written, printed, committed to memory, practiced every night before the glass with a Negro boy to hold the candle and watch the gestures, and annoying the borders in the adjoining room until they were forced to quit the house!

The boy probably existed in Douglas’ mind alone, but every senator wrote major addresses in advance. Sumner had a stronger than usual reputation for preparing and memorizing his work, which held true for this speech as for his previous. All of that made Sumner’s accusations premeditated, practiced and honed to a razor’s edge in calm deliberation. Charles Sumner didn’t pop off to the Senate in a moment of pique; he planned it down to the gesture. He even had the temerity to rehearse the speech with other senators, another common practice that carried with it the implication someone might have told him to tone things down and Sumner refused.

 

“Those obscene, vulgar terms” Douglas Answers Sumner, Part 1

Stephen Douglas

The Crime Against Kansas: Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15Full text

After Lewis Cass finished taking Charles Sumner to task for misrepresenting the history of Michigan, Stephen Douglas had his turn. Sumner and Douglas never got on well and the senator from Illinois indulged in a slow burn for the two days Sumner spoke. He opened with a promise to the Senate that he wouldn’t render a detailed reply to The Crime Against Kansas. He wouldn’t say anything at all

but for the personalities in which he [Sumner] has indulged, evincing a depth of malignity that issued from every sentence, making it a matter of self respect with me to repel the assaults which have been made.

Douglas dismissed Sumner’s arguments as old news, a common and usually true complaint of him. Sumner excelled in rhetorical craftsmanship, not ideological innovation. Douglas had dealt with all that, twice over, just in the past year. Instead he compared Sumner’s speech to a quilt, made of “all the old calico dresses of various colors that have been in the house from the days of their grandmothers.” At the end of the day, everyone looked duly impressed with the new work, which had not a stitch of new work in it. Gentle Readers, if any of you know a quilter then you know they would have some words with Douglas about that.

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Which brought Douglas to one of Sumner’s favorite rhetorical flourishes, which he often included against the advice of friends who warned him that readers would check out:

We have had another dish of the classics served up-classic allusions, each one only distinguished for its lasciviousness and obscenity, each one drawn from those portions of the classics which all decent professors in respectable colleges cause to be suppressed, as unfit for decent young men to read. I cannot repeat the words. I should be condemned as unworthy of entering decent society, if I repeated those obscene, vulgar terms which have been used at least a hundred times in that speech. It seems that his studies of the classics have all been in those haunts where ladies cannot go, and where gentlemen never read Latin.

You might read that and think Sumner went to the things that makes classics infamous and delightful to modern readers: the open talk of sex, particularly the sort not much approved of by nineteenth century moralists. To the best of my knowledge, and I don’t think I would miss a hundred uses, Sumner didn’t go there. He might have gotten an adult content warning for reference to the harlot of slavery, that unchaste mistress of Andrew Butler, but so far as I can tell Sumner didn’t get that idea from his Latin. It might have come by way of Don Quixote, but then Douglas’ reference to Latin doesn’t make sense. I suspect Douglas, burning with anger, didn’t care about the details. Sumner used a lot of Latin to dress up what he deemed a vile speech, so Sumner’s Latin could go straight to hell.

 

Cass Answers Sumner

Lewis Cass (D-MI)

The Crime Against Kansas: Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15Full text

On May 20, 1856, Charles Sumner finished his Crime Against Kansas speech and sat down. For all the hours he spoke, no one interjected to call him to order. He inveighed against slavery, against South Carolina, against his fellow senators, and ultimately against the Northern Democracy for serving as slavery’s eager lapdogs. He preceded his last volley of insults by citing the precedent of Michigan to argue that Kansas’ free state government deserved admission to the Union. Through all of it, Sumner’s invective struck at the notion of popular sovereignty first advanced by Lewis Cass and later adopted by Stephen Douglas to legislate slavery into Kansas. Cass, as a member of the Jackson Cabinet when Michigan’s statehood came before the nation, as a northern Democrat, and as Michigan’s former territorial governor and present senator, not to mention President Pro Tempore of the chamber, had a few things to say about all that. He rose to give the first answer to Sumner:

I have listened with equal regret and surprise to the speech of the honorable Senator from Massachusetts. Such a speech-the most un-American and unpatriotic that ever grate don the ears of the members of this high body-as I hope never to hear again here or elsewhere.

Yet Cass rose not to take this out on Sumner, however much he deserved “the highest censure and disapprobation.” Instead, he wanted to check Sumner’s history, which the Massachusetts senator “has so misunderstood and misapplied.” Sumner claimed for the people a right “to form conventions with a view to obstruct the authorized laws of the country.” Cass would have none of that, denying such a right to “any portion of the American people.” Conventions Americans might form, but not to array themselves against the established laws. To do that, “unless they succeed” put one right over into “rebellion.”

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Here Cass makes what must read as a strange proposition today, but in nineteenth century America the right of revolution had a high cachet. You could rebel and make heroes of yourselves in the doing, as the founders did, fair enough. Had the founders failed, they might have ended on the end of a rope. The right of revolution appears always in retrospect, granted to history’s winners. So far, Kansas had not overthrown the territorial government or the United States. Thus Cass felt no obligation to yield to the demands of an illegal assembly of rebels.

But back to history. Michigan, sixty thousand whites strong, asked admission to the Union. Its constitutional convention, however, originated in an act of the legislature. The people in some vague, abstract sense, had nothing to do with it. The Wolverine State did things properly, thank you. The only difficulty came when Michigan claimed its boundary as set by Congress, rather than the one set by Ohio. Ohioans surveyed their northern boundary and helped themselves to Toledo. The tensions came close to a proper battle, with militias called out on both sides. Cass recalled how the Jackson administration feared a war. To defuse things, Congress agreed to admission contingent on a convention of Michiganders signing off on Ohio’s version of the boundary. They refused.

Senator William H. Seward (R-NY)

William Seward pressed: Just how did that first convention come together? Cass thought the governor and legislature did the work. Then coloring outside the lines ensued:

By a spontaneous act of the people, a second convention was called-not to oppose the laws, like the Kansas convention-not to establish another government-not to get up and oppose acts of Congress, or of the Territorial Legislature-not to make a revolution, but to escape from a civil war, to get out of a difficulty merely by saying that the people of the State were willing to accept the proposition of Congress.

They did so unanimously and everyone went home happy, hint hint. If Michigan could suffer a wrong -and Cass admitted the state did, as it had every right to insist on the original border- then Kansas could take a lump or two as well.

Threats, Dogs, and Whips

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Charles Sumner damned Stephen Douglas as a Northern man with Southern principles, a doughface, for his Kansas-Nebraska Act. Douglas hit back, noting how Sumner had gone in all of a year from castigating the Compromise of 1850 to praising it as restoring the peace that Kansas-Nebraska would undo. The Massachusetts Senator had such purity of principle that he supported an old proslavery hand like Martin Van Buren for president in 1848. But Sumner’s oratory left a mark. Even a senator from North Carolina congratulated Sumner on everything about it save choosing the wrong side. The Masachusetts papers lit up with praise for Sumner again.

The satisfaction reached even into Bay State Whiggery. The Massachusetts Whigs supported the Compromise of 1850 with held noses, taking the lump on Daniel Webster’s word that they had to do it to save the nation. With the South bent on new conquests, Godlike Daniel safely in the ground, and land that Massachusetts farmers might want to move off to at stake, the situation changed. They turned on their man in the Senate, Edward Everett, when he came out against the bill in a late and feeble manner. Kidney stones took him off the floor for a vote and his former supporters mocked him for it. Adoring letters poured in for Sumner from old allies and former Everett men alike. Delighted, Sumner read them aloud to the Sewards. Inspired, he even entered into spontaneous debate for a while.

Anthony Burns

The Kansas-Nebraska Act became law all the same. When the Anthony Burns affair erupted at almost the same moment, proslavery men blamed Sumner for inciting riot in Boston with his speeches in Washington. Sumner received threats on his safety, which prompted a future governor of Connecticut to offer his services as a bodyguard. Less reassuringly, a correspondent informed the Senator that if he died he would become a martyr to freedom.

Sumner, a large man, responded to the threats on his life by ensuring they reached the attention of the newspapers and otherwise ignored them. He walked about Washington, never a friendly place for outspoken antislavery men, unarmed and unaccompanied. He looked forward to stepping up his rhetorical attacks on slavery, but his new colleague from Massachusetts -Everett resigned courtesy of those kidney stones- got the jump on him with a new petition for repealing the Fugitive Slave Law. He promptly withered under a counterattack built around the fact that some of the signers participated in Burns’ rescue. Sumner stepped in to defend him.

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

As Sumner finished up his latest condemnation of the law, Andrew Butler came into the Senate chamber. He listened to his friend and the proverbial steam shot from his ears. Denouncing Sumner’s speech as one not becoming the Senate, he demanded to know if Massachusetts would render over a single fugitive if the Congress repealed the law. The state had a constitutional obligation, so would it do its duty? Trial or no, whatever process instituted, would Massachusetts deliver a person into slavery or would all that folderol just obscure a flat refusal to abide by the Constitution?

Sumner answered, “Is thy servant a dog, that he should do this thing?” Then the fireworks really started. Sumner profaned his oath to support and defend the Constitution. He had gone mad. The Senate should expel him. Sumner fought back, castigating his critics as men of “plantation manners” who treated the Senate itself like answered to their whips. The vicious debate spawned serious talk of expelling Sumner as a perjurer and traitor, but the matter dropped when the adherents learned they lacked the necessary majority.

 

Trouble for Sumner in Massachusetts

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

The session of Congress ended shortly after Sumner finished his Freedom National speech. He took his congratulations and condemnations from the Senate and eagerly passed the former on to correspondents back home, then set out in his letters’ wake. The conservative Bay State papers refused to print the oration, but Massachusetts read it in papers friendly to the Free Soil party and antislavery cause, as well as in pamphlets. They burned through five editions in short order. Sumner found himself restored to the good graces of his party, to the point that they staged a rally outside his house.

That didn’t last. Sumner endured a long session in Washington and wanted a vacation. He expected to dine with friends, going to off to Rhode Island and up into Canada, and generally enjoying the easy life for three months. The Free Soilers had elections coming up and they expected their hero to wear smooth as many stumps as Massachusetts could turn up for him. Supporters griped that he came home and vanished, doing nothing to help the party aside from a brief convention appearance. When the elections returned the Whigs to control of the State, Sumner took a share of the blame for his silence.

Sumner would endure the same pattern for years. He fought hard in Washington, or as hard as he felt he could, then returned to a Massachusetts that expected more of him on the home front. The more he did in the Senate, the more he obviously could do and so the more he should do for the Bay State. All through this, he believed that his speeches did the job just fine and his party should not ask more of him. They elected an orator, not a machine politician.

Henry Wilson (Free Soil-MA)

The party thought otherwise, and probably couldn’t do less. Sumner’s position as a leader in the creaky coalition could only draw distrust from many quarters. Whigs hated him as a traitor and took his antislavery speeches as the venal acts of an unregenerate office-seeker. Anti-coalition Democrats thought much the same, but also took him as an abolition fanatic. The men more properly construed abolition fanatics, for all we admire them, disliked Sumner for his failure to meet their standards of purity. Furthermore, Sumner’s personal friends included anti-coalition Whigs who kept trying to oust Henry Wilson so the pro-coalition element around him could never quite trust the Senator either.

The next Senate session brought little to relieve Sumner of the problem. He fought the acquisition of Cuba, but those battles took place in closed sessions. Democrats and Whigs agreed that Sumner belonged to no party, so he deserved no committee postings where he could at least look busy. At home the abolitionists decided that Sumner’s embrace of the Constitution made him toxic. The Massachusetts legislature introduced resolutions to protest his exclusion from committee work, but the coalition dropped them because he hadn’t done enough to earn the party’s defense.

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.