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.┬áHe 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.