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
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.
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.
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