“I think there will be an assault upon him”

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

With Douglas’ response answered, Sumner moved to dismiss James Mason. The Virginian “said nothing of argument, and, therefore, there is nothing for response.” He chided Mason for confusing “hard words,” “frowns,” and “scowls” for reasoned debate. He insisted that he had done nothing to earn such behavior, calling it “plantation manners,” and let the matter drop. They exchanged final barbs over plantation manners and, according to The New York Daily Tribune

Mr. MASON was understood to say-the Senator is certainly non compos mentis.

The Tribune, and antislavery papers in general, praised Sumner to the heavens for his Kansas speech. Some of his friendly colleagues in the Senate had advised against insulting senators and states in private, or objected to the tone, but the main opposition came from the usual quarters. Few Democrats liked an attack on the Democracy and its proslavery policy. Nor did Southerners happily suffer attacks upon slavery of any sort. Angry talk filled the streets of Washington.

Sumner may have underestimated the wrath he provoked. He later testified that he had no inkling of his danger

Never, directly or indirectly; nor had I the most remote suspicion of any attack, nor was I in any way prepared for an attack. I had no arms of means of defence of any kind. I was, in fact, entirely defenceless at the time, except so far as my natural strength went. In other words, I had no arms either about my person or in my desk. Nor did I ever wear arms in my life. I have always lived in a civilized community where wearing arms has not been considered necessary.

Henry Wilson

Sumner’s colleagues didn’t feel so confident of his safety. Henry Wilson, Massachusetts’ other senator, testified later that John Bingham, of the House, came up to him as the Senate adjourned and said:

“You had better go down with Mr. Sumner; I think there will be an assault upon him.”

Wilson didn’t buy it at first, but Bingham insisted that he “heard remarks made, from which I think an assault will be made.” That changed Wilson’s mind and he asked walked over and asked Sumner to hold on

I am going home with you to-day-several of us are going home with you.

With a quick “None of that, Wilson,” Sumner declined. Wilson tried to get Anson Burlingame and Schuyler Colfax to join him in escort duty all the same, but Sumner left by a side door rather than wait. The would-be bodyguards thought he might come back and hung around  for a little while before realizing the senator had well and truly left. Sumner may have taken things more seriously, but Wilson admitted that he gave his colleague no reason to believe they worried about Sumner’s safety. He probably thought they just wanted to talk.

Sumner “shot off just as I should any other day.” On his way out, he ran into William Seward. They had dinner plans so Seward suggested that they share the omnibus, essentially a horse-drawn taxi. Sumner begged off on the grounds that he needed to get to the printing office and look over proofs for The Crime Against Kansas in pamphlet form.


“The noisome, squat, and nameless animal” Sumner Answers Douglas

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

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.

Stephen Douglas

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.

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.


“This last appeal,” The Crime Against Kansas, Part 15

Charles Sumner (Republican-MA)

Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14Full text

Charles Sumner told the Senate that they could deny Kansas’ free state movement its statehood only by bastardizing Michigan’s. Both states had wildcat constitutions and state governments that presented themselves to Congress and asked admission to the Union. If Michigan could come in to general approval, pending the revision of some boundary disputes, when why not Kansas? Nobody held it against Michigan that the state colored outside the lines a little bit, so any reasonable person could see that admitting the Topeka government as Kansas would come and go to no great harm. By contrast, denying it cast doubt on the wisdom of admitting the Wolverine State.

Sumner moved on to argue from principle as well as precedent:

the fundamental principle of American institutions, so embodied in the Declaration of Independence, by which Government is recognized as deriving its just powers only from the consent of the governed, who may alter or abolish it when it becomes destructive of their rights.

Stephen Douglas

The territorial government of Kansas prosecuted an organized campaign of destruction to the rights of antislavery whites, to say nothing of the rights of black Americans. It lacked the consent of the governed, who attended the free state polls regularly but largely ignored the government’s elections. By the American creed, Kansans had every right to cast it off and make their own. Nowhere in the Declaration of recent history could Sumner find an American precedent for choosing the other path, to endorse tyranny over whites as a principle for the foundation of government. He could find one only by looking abroad, or across the Senate floor at Stephen Douglas.

Douglas and the other proslavery men in the Senate stood, Sumner argued, on the ground of the Holy Alliance,

which declares that “useful and necessary changes in legislation and in the administration of States ought only to emanate from the free will and the intelligent and well-weighed conviction of those whom God has rendered responsible for power.”

Sumner put this principle against the Declaration “and bid them grapple!” With the propositions carried forth by Seward’s bill for free Kansas and Douglas’ for the proslavery government, they needed too the grapple on the floor of the Senate. In an era that took political contention as a source of popular entertainment, some constituency probably existed which would delight in seeing Seward and Douglas literally throwing each other around.

William H. Seward in 1851

From that metaphor, Sumner moved on to his summation. He repeated his insults against Butler, “incoherent phrases, discharged the loose expectoration of his speech,” and lines about South Carolina’s “shameful imbecility from Slavery”. Then Douglas came in for a review, adding “the superior intensity of his nature.” Sumner checked in with James Mason over the Fugitive Slave Act before finishing:

The contest, which, beginning in Kansas, has reached us will soon be transferred from Congress to a broader state, where every citizen will be not only spectator, but acting; and to their judgment I confidently appeal.

In other words, vote Republican in 1856 and this problem will get sorted

In just regard for free labor in that Territory, which is sought to blast by unwelcome association with the slave, whom it is proposed to task and sell there; in stern condemnation of the Crime which has been consummated on that beautiful soil; in rescue of fellow-citizens, now subjugated to a tyrannical Usurpation; in dutiful respect for the early Fathers, whose inspirations are now ignobly thwarted,; in the name of the Constitution, which has been outraged-of laws trampled down-of Justice banished-of Humanity degraded-of Peace destroyed-of Freedom crushed to earth; and in the name of the Heavenly Father, whose service is perfect Freedom, I make this last appeal.

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.


Sumner’s Rhetoric and Response

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18; full speech

Gentle Readers, with the Freedom National speech blogged through it would do to take a higher-level look at Sumner’s rhetoric. Nothing he argued came originally from him. By his own admission, Sumner more remembered than innovated his doctrines. His mind ran more to carrying notions to their logical ends than to create them anew. But Sumner could package the ideas of others together in an effective form, a valuable skill in its own right. He chose to argue from the rhetorical right, laying out a narrative of decline from the founders’ abolitionism to the ascendancy of proslavery radicalism in the Compromise of 1850. In other words, Sumner argued as a conservative.

The Senator’s natural inclinations may have put him in that position anyway, as his biographer argues, but we should consider the situation he faced. His opponents painted themselves as conservatives too. They fought for the Union of their fathers, against the abstractions of extremists who would rend the nation. They cast themselves as sensible men, dedicated to the established way of doing things and willing to sacrifice their personal convictions to the greater good. Sumner turned their framing on its head and called them out. They, not he, had gone Jacobinical. They created new horrors in the Fugitive Slave Act. Disinterested stewards of the national faith would do no such thing.

Daniel Webster

Sumner’s senatorial colleagues wouldn’t have missed the point. He challenged them on their own ground, rhetorically and physically, in front of a packed gallery. Members of the House gathered on the Senate floor to hear him. Daniel Webster came to see his replacement as Massachusetts’ spokesman and the Secretary of State endured an hour, pacing the chamber, before he left. Sumner had only gotten a quarter of the way through condemning him by then. According to Sumner’s biographer, the almost four hours of oratory reduced many of the women in the gallery and an unnamed senator to tears. Rhetorical tastes have changed greatly since 1852, but even with the remove of years Sumner reads powerfully when he comes to his summations.

Sumner closed with an “Oriental piety”:

Beware of the groans of the wounded souls. Oppress not to the utmost a single heart; for a solitary sigh has the power to overset the whole world.

He took his seat to “unbounded” applause that promptly showed its bounds. A senator from Alabama rose and argued no one should answer

The ravings of a maniac may be dangerous, but the barking of a puppy never did any harm.

A North Carolinian griped at Sumner’s elaborate rhetoric and complained about the untranslated Latin quotations. No one in the Senate could probably follow those, he thought. Stephen Douglas damned Sumner for attacking the Constitution. John B. Weller (D-CA) thought he wanted to incite riots in Northern cities. He found praise in the Senate only from John Hale and Salmon Chase. When the motion that occasioned the speech came to a vote, they and Ohio’s Ben wade joined Sumner in recommending repeal. Four hours of oratory got Sumner only four votes, including his own.

God and Honor: Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 19

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18; full speech

We left Charles Sumner offering a solution to the fugitive slave problem: let the states do whatever. That included rendering over no slaves at all as well as granting them all the due process that a white man would expect, up to and including a jury trial. Few Northern juries would eagerly send someone back into slavery, given the general popularity of efforts to aid fugitives and extreme unpopularity of the Fugitive Slave Act. Even people who otherwise found antislavery politics tedious could struggle with sending a person standing before them back to whipping and unrequited toil.

That all brought Charles Sumner to his actual close, seventy-five pages in. There, as with the rest of his long conclusion, he returned to a theme he had developed before:

The Slave Act violates the Constitution and shocks the Public Conscience. With modesty and yet with firmness let me add, sir, it offends against the Divine Law. No such enactment can be entitled to support. As the throne of God is above every earthly throne, so are his laws and statutes above all the laws and statutes of man. To question these, is to question God himself.

Senator William H. Seward (Whig-NY)

The faithful always find the Almighty on their side, whichever side they have. Sumner would have the Senate know that those in the chamber who voted for the Fugitive Slave Act sinned as much against revealed religion as civic. He appealed, as William Seward had a few years before, to a Higher Law. Men could err, but the divine never did. Fallen men could not presume their laws comported with those of God, or they would “presumptuously and impiously” put themselves on his level. But where one man could sin, another might not. Thus men must question one another. No one would dispute that if Congress ordered a murder, but instead one would take recourse to one’s own conscience.

Much of this gospel of self-doubt and conscience must have fallen on death ears. Since the Revolution, perhaps before, the North’s culture had developed in ways that stressed individual judgment and conscience in ways different from that of the South. In the slave states, the old ways of honor that put reputation and community regard above all remained strong. A Southern man mastered others, whether black, women, or children. He had license to conduct himself largely as he willed, so long as he remained within the community’s broad guidelines. If he thought them wrong, he must comply anyway lest he suffer disgrace. A Southern man might take an interest in religion, and should make proper pious demonstrations, but no odium attached to him if he took his wife to church on Sunday and declined to attend himself. He may have had as much conscience as anyone else, but making it his sole guiding light would have flown in the face of his upbringing. By contrast, men like Sumner felt somewhat more at liberty to dissent from their community and chart their own courses. They felt more controlled by guilt than shame, more disciplined by themselves than others.

One can take this comparison too far. Northerners once acted much as Southerners did and they had not shaken the old ways entirely. Northern politicians did not shy away from the language of honor and disgrace. Nor did they all adopt a pious, inward-looking attitude. Likewise Southerners could find their customary ways deficient and adopt ideas that seemed more fitting to modern conceptions of Christianity and good conduct. Honor and conscience may occupy different ends of a spectrum, but do share one.


A Solution: Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 18

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17; full speech

Charles Sumner completed review of his long speech on the theme of Freedom National and the perfidy of the Fugitive Slave Act with George Washington. Even that bold man, president at the time, bowed to popular revulsion and let Ona Judge have her freedom. If Washington could do so, then so could the men of the United States Senate repeal their odious law and set the nation back on its right course. This all posed a reasonable question. As Sumner did not preach the immediate end of slavery, what did he expect to happen with Fugitive Slaves? The Constitution obligated some system of rendition.

Sumner had an answer. He argued that the Fugitive Slave Clause did not grant Congress any power at all. Rather, it fell to the individual states to manage things by compacts amongst themselves. In this respect, the Constitution worked like a treaty between nations. He cited European precedents going back to the medieval era to prove that extradition of fugitives of any sort depended on the will of the polity that held them, not the one that pursued them. Two parts of Charles V’s empire could deny extradition. Why couldn’t two parts of the American empire?

To bring things back across the ocean, Sumner noted that the Fugitive Slave Clause came originally from the Northwest Ordinance. That document aspired to nothing more than an interstate compact and Sumner claimed for it inspiration from an arrangement that Massachusetts had with other New England colonies way back in the seventeenth century. Thus:

As a compact, its execution depends absolutely upon the States, without any intervention of the Nation. Each State, in the exercise of its own judgment, will determine for itself the precise extent of the obligations assumed.

Since freedom hung in the balance, Sumner insisted those states must apply themselves to the question with great deliberation. They must regard the accused as persons and grant to them all the personal liberties held under the Constitution. The presumption must run, from the common law and from the will of the founders, to freedom. If someone wanted to take a person from a free state, the onus fell upon them to prove they had a right to do so. In the absence of language in the Constitution setting the form for such a determination, states had every right to insist upon a full and fair trial. No one could object, because the state deciding on the extradition had final say.

Reviewing the field: Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 17

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16; full speech

Gentle Readers, we have come near to the end. Sumner begins the next section of his speech with a “review of the field over which we have passed.” His audience didn’t need it or, probably, want that review. The classical model Sumner adhered rigorously to demanded such things. But he had gone on for a long time and covered a great deal of ground. Even people reading the pamphlet or bloggers going through the whole thing piece by piece might have forgotten some points in the torrent of words.

Sumner opened by declaring that the discussion of slavery, so eagerly closed forever in the wake of the Compromise of 1850, “is tyrannical, absurd, and impotent.” The genie could not go back in the bottle and white American men demanded by their First Amendment rights to discuss any matter they liked. Even if they had no such right, slavery could exist only through legislative enactment. Since one had to pass a law to make slaves, one must debate slavery whilst debating any such law. As the Constitution presumed freedom, a special burden of justification must fall on those who would deny it.

Sumner assembled the greatest patriotic authorities to his cause, calling George Washington “an Abolitionist” surrounded by others. Churches, colleges, literature, and poetry all stood united with him against slavery. The nation’s “best voices” did the same. Nowhere in his era did the national territory hold a single slave. This history doesn’t comport well with how we understand the past, and Sumner knew then that he took some liberties. He praised the Washington who freed his slaves at death and let Ona Judge keep her freedom, not the Washington who enslaved her and pursued her. He may genuinely not have known that the Northwest Territory held then had a number of slaves and and a noisome slaveholding minority keen to keep their human property.

Then Massachusetts’ junior Senator had to explain away the Fugitive Slave Clause, which he rightly called a last minute addition. The framers didn’t think that one through and didn’t race to enact legislation to support it once they established the new government. Nor did they hang the Union on its fate. Those days came later, when the new Fugitive Slave Act arrived in 1850. Sumner damned it for usurping powers not granted to Congress, a trampling on the rights of states, and an egregious affront to civil rights. The law included no provisions for a jury trial, so slave catchers could take anyone they like. That unfortunate would lack a right to legal representation or to speak in their own defense. Their fate would come down to the ruling of a commissioner, not even a judge.

The hallowed founders warred against the greatest empire since Rome for such offenses, but even the Stamp Act did not dare to enslave those who ran afoul of it. The Fugitive Slave Act was and could only be worse, as freedom is dearer than mere property. Finally, the people at the North could see all that plain as day and refused to abide by such an imposition. In the face of such defiance to his pursuit of Ona Judge, even bold Washington had submitted.