“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.”

The Breathless Henry Adams: Electing Charles Sumner, Part 5

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

We left Charles Sumner at the end of a long campaign for the United States Senate. His coalition fractured, his fortunes declined, and long periods passed with few votes held. But on April 23, 1851, the Massachusetts Whigs split and the anti-Daniel Webster faction cast their lot with Sumner. That put him over the top and celebrations began at once. Supporters came to Charles Francis Adams’ home, where Sumner then dined, to congratulate their man. After so long, Massachusetts had chosen Sumner as its next senator.

Or had it? News soon came that the legislature had not adjourned after the vote as expected. Charles Adams sent his son Henry, thirteen and a few months, out to learn what had happened. Henry did as told and found out that when the members of the Massachusetts House cast their ballots, someone had lightly written in another man’s name on one also bearing Sumner’s. The anti-Sumner Whigs insisted on counting that one for the other man, which left Sumner still short of a majority. Hearing the news, the Adamses vented their displeasure. Sumner maintained a cool detachment which impressed his host.

Henry Wilson (Free Soil-MA)

Without a majority, the House had to vote again. Two more ballots ensued on the twenty-third. Further irregularity ensued, with one of the votes having more ballots cast than representatives. Someone had taken to outright cheating, with both sides accusing the other. At least half the House went home displeased that night. They reconvened on the twenty-fourth for another round and came up with two extra votes again. Further recrimination gave way in the end to a Whig proposal that the legislators cast their votes in sealed envelopes, so no one could slip in an extra. That did the trick, delivering Sumner the 193 votes he needed and not a single extra. Because of the secret ballot, we don’t know who delivered that last vote to put him over the top.

Charles Francis Adams

Henry Adams watched it all and ran home. He found Sumner at the family table and burst out with the news, which he still recalled decades later as one of the proudest moments of his life. The mainline Whigs went home in a poor mood while Free Soilers and Democrats started a fresh celebration. The coalition’s newspaper, the Commonwealth, soon had thousands of people gathered outside its offices. Revelers set off rockets and Henry Wilson, who had masterminded the coalition, gave a speech. Hecklers called for Daniel Webster, at which point Wilson declared that his party owed their success to Webster’s Seventh of March speech for the Compromise of 1850. Webster’s admirers could call Wilson many things in all fairness, but not wrong. Sumner’s less rowdy foes got together and drafted an indictment of the coalition that elected him as an illegal conspiracy.

Sumner, ill at ease with the press of admirers, beat a quiet retreat to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s house. There he escaped the crowd, but not fears over what he had gotten himself into. Sumner had never held public office before, yet now he would go into the national spotlight as the representative of his great cause, with all the responsibility that entailed. The man of three backbones now felt unsure of the load.