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.


“The extravagance of this error can hardly be surpassed.” Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 2

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

We left Charles Sumner proclaiming himself an independent man, not bound by any party and free to act in the United States Senate as his conscience dictated. His conscience and his political circumstances happened to agree on his making an antislavery speech when he got the chance on August 26, 1852. A slave to his own principles, he had no other choice than to declaim on the theme of freedom national, slavery sectional. After some further throat-clearing about how Sumner had to make the speech and he did not accept the dogma of the day that the Compromise of 1850 forever settled all slavery questions, he dug into the subject in detail:

The relations of the Government of the United States -I speak of the National Government- to Slavery, though plain and obvious, are constantly misunderstood. A popular belief at this moment makes Slavery a national institution, and, of course, renders its support a national duty. The extravagance of this error can hardly be surpassed. An institution, which our fathers most carefully omitted to name in the Constitution, which, according to the debates of the Convention, they refused to cover with any “sanction,” and which, at the original organization of the Government, was merely sectional, existing nowhere on the national territory, is now above all other things blazoned as national.

Sumner rightly noted, and would go on to document exhaustively, that the framers declined to name slavery in the Constitution. Instead they resorted to circumlocutions about people held in service and otherwise carefully ensured that they referred to slaves as persons, not property. This allowed them to argue, and Sumner to carry on decades later, with the notion that the United States did not affirm a right to property in man. Not everybody at Philadelphia had such scruples, of course. The slavery language usually originated in a more direct way and the convention revised it to something more oblique thereafter.

On the point of slavery not existing on the national territory, Sumner almost had it right. The national territory at the time of ratification included only the Old Northwest, from whence I write this. The famous ordinance organizing it did ban slavery, but neglected to do anything about the slaves already present in the territory. Their owners petitioned the Confederation Congress for a guarantee of their property, or at least a clear explanation of its status, and got silence. As a practical matter, that permitted slavery to continue. Well into the nineteenth century, freedom suits in the area could hinge on whether someone was brought into the territory and its successors before or after the ordinance took effect. It ended up functioning as no more than a marginal ban on introducing additional slaves.

Sumner may not have known that; the Northwest Ordinance remains an understudied subject to this day. He and his generation of antislavery activists took from it the precedent of the nation’s first slavery ban. The law still has a plausible claim to that on paper, which sufficed for rhetorical purposes whether Sumner knew better or not. Thus he emphasized just how the national men of the time used “national” as a practical synonym for “slavery,” whatever their party, had misunderstood the nation’s history and constitution. For a group heavy with lawyers and other men of letters, that did make an extravagant error.

The Northwest Ordinance: The Nation’s First Antislavery Law?

Dred Scott (Wikimedia Commons)

Dred Scott (Wikimedia Commons)

If you remember and/or have flashbacks to high school history, you may remember the Northwest Ordinance. My own rusty recollection tells me that I learned the Ordinance established the system of land survey and the framework for territorial organization that would see use for the remainder of the march of white Americans across a continent and all the people who already lived there. If you live in a part of the country governed by it or its many descendants, you can probably drive out of town and navigate by a fairly regular grid of roads that owe much to the law. But mainly, the Northwest Ordinance banned slavery everywhere it reached. Thus it established a precedent for future bans on slavery in the Louisiana Purchase and Pacific Northwest. When Dred Scott sued for his freedom, he did it based on his lengthy residence in two jurisdictions where that slavery ban operated: Illinois and Minnesota. A large part of Minnesota did not originally fall in the Northwest Territory, nor even the United States at the time of passage, but legally Minnesota Territory originates in Wisconsin Territory. Wisconsin sits entirely within the Old Northwest and inherited its slavery ban through a few previous territorial enactments that go back to the Ordinance.

Thus we learn in school that the Founders, those great and good men, set slavery on a path to ultimate extinction. Antislavery Americans believed the same thing, from less ideological politicians like Abraham Lincoln to leading ideologists like Salmon P. Chase. An entire tradition of antislavery constitutionalism flows from the words

There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted

David Wilmot

David Wilmot

Restrictions on slavery’s expansion, all the way up to the Wilmot Proviso, use that language. It meant a great deal to people in the nineteenth century and as we, at least officially, declare our sympathy with those same people we carry on their position. It becomes for us, just as it did for them, a usable past. We can rest assured that our nation really did have its conception in liberty and something simply went awry sometime between 1787 and 1860.

Seeking comfort in history may make us human, but doesn’t necessarily make us good historians. What if we have it wrong? Antislavery Americans took the Northwest Ordinance as a precedent and it absolutely functioned as one down the road, but what did it look like in the 1780s? What might its slavery ban have meant to the men who voted for it? And how well did it function? Looking at these questions makes for a far more complicated picture.

We must begin with the ignoble birth of the slavery article. It came into the bill as an afterthought, at the last moment, and passed without debate. If you read the full law, you will find it replete with references to free inhabitants. For that distinction to have meaning, it must mean that the law contemplates the presence of unfree inhabitants: slaves. The law’s authors didn’t see fit to revise it to remove them, but rather voted the slavery ban through without debate that might have shed some light on their understanding of the issue. Thanks, guys.

We can say that the Northwest Ordinance protects the property and inheritance laws of the French inhabitants of the region. They owned slaves and would pass them on by inheritance. Does the property rights provision or the antislavery provision take precedence? The Confederation Congress may not have known that these people had slaves at the time, but when they and eventually the federal government confronted that issue the slavery ban collapsed into a weak ban on importing new slaves to the territory. It freed no one, but rather as a practical matter protected slavery to the degree it already existed in the territory. Nor, perhaps, should we expect otherwise of a law that could win the united votes of the southern states.

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

The point of precedent still matters, but already we have a very qualified precedent that exists more retrospectively and in form than function. We must indict the Northwest Ordinance further, also on the grounds of precedent. These words immediately follow the slavery ban:

Provided, always, That any person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service as aforesaid.

The Northwest Ordinance predates the Constitution. Thus here, for the very first time, we have a fugitive slave clause. This grants to the slave states a power they had previously lacked. Until the ratification of the Constitution, a slave who dared steal his or her body and made it across a state line might have just won permanent freedom. No provision existed under the Articles of Confederation for the recovery of fugitive slaves. When the Constitution introduced that power, it became a sticking point for anti-federalists in Massachusetts. If we grant at the Ordinance set an antislavery precedent in principle, we must also grant that it set a proslavery one in practice. Here, for the first time, slavery attains the kind of extra-territorial status which it will have down through the antebellum.

That may well have sweetened the pot enough to keep the South on board with the Ordinance, but the antislavery features of the law found frustration in another way still. The Ordinance did not grant any clear authority to any body to enforce its antislavery ban. You could sue in the courts, petition the government, or act through the legislature to protect property, but only the extremely dubious and generally inaccessible courts remained open for a person enslaved in defiance of the law. I don’t know that any enslaved person tried them when it mattered, but their prospects with a jury or courts established by a constituency that kept asking Congress to repeal the limited exclusion of slavery that did function in the territory can’t have looked good. The Indians had more avenues to defend their rights.

We must also look at what the Ordinance did not do. It did not cover the whole of the west, as a previously proposed version had. By excluding slavery from a marginal region, the South could have understood the ban as cutting off competition for slaves and in tobacco and hemp. No such ban existed in the Southwest Territory, which soon became Tennessee. Nor would any come in the lands to the south of it. Partitioning the west and surrendering the least appealing part of it might well have looked like a bargain to ensure slavery elsewhere, particularly as southerners proved more energetic in westward expansion during the very early republic. Kentucky and Tennessee both gain statehood in the eighteenth century, a distinction shared in the North only by Vermont.

This leaves us with a Northwest Ordinance that served as an important legal and rhetorical touchstone for the antislavery movement, fair enough. But the facts on the ground on either side of the Ohio or the Appalachians don’t really support an unqualified assertion that it set the nation on a path toward abolition. Rather, looked at in detail and in context, the Northwest Ordinance appears more like the other kind of precedent: an ambiguous law that does little to restrict slavery in practice while trying harder to reinforce and defend it. We might call it the first proslavery-tilting antebellum compromise as easily as the first antislavery law.

The State of the Union in 1855: A History of Aggressions

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

We left Franklin Pierce declaring that everything in the United States had gone perfectly well until those dirty abolitionists stirred up sectional discord by breaking faith with the constitutional compact. They had responsibilities to return slaves who dared steal themselves. They organized to disrupt slavery in the South. They replaced sectional comity with meddling impositions. Had such a thing happened between two nations, they would have already come to blows. By contrast, the South behaved in an exemplary fashion, its traditional constitutional scruples intact.

In putting the entire burden of sectional strife on the North, Pierce knew he went against many of his fellow Yankees. They could point to sectional aggression from the slave states going back down the entire history of the Republic. Having chosen antislavery Americans as his debating partners, Pierce took them on all down the line:

the States which either promote or tolerate attacks on the rights of persons and of property in other States, to disguise their own injustice, pretend or imagine, and constantly aver, that they, whose constitutional rights are thus systematically assailed, are themselves the aggressors. At the present time this imputed aggression, resting, as it does, only in the vague declamatory charges of political agitators, resolves itself into misapprehension, or misinterpretation, of the principles and facts of the political organization of the new Territories of the United States.

The president wouldn’t quite say that antislavery Americans lied their way through politics, any more than he would call out William Walker by name, but he made his meaning clear. To prove the point, he turned to “the voice of history.” All the way back to the Northwest Ordinance, Pierce averred, the South had yielded to the North. Virginia gave up “that vast territory,” now five of the larger states, to freedom. That a large territory south of the Ohio river remained enslaved did not enter into it. Nor did the conflicting claims of various other Connecticut and Massachusetts, decidedly not southern states, deserve consideration. This would have come as a surprise to the people of Connecticut, who maintained their ownership of a section of modern Ohio until 1800. Neither of the two northern states claimed the whole of the future Northwest Territory, but together their claims covered a large portion of it. If Virginia yielded up her territory, then they did no less.

Pierce then moved to Louisiana, insisting that the entire nation gained from it. The abolitionists needed only look at a map to see that the Louisiana Purchase narrowed down to almost nothing on its southern end, but widened dramatically as one steamed up the Mississippi. Furthermore, securing New Orleans ensured the commercial health of the Northwest. Thomas Jefferson bought the land for that express purpose. Pierce has a point here, but even he acknowledges that in terms of development, the Purchase skewed heavily southern.

No map could save the acquisition of Florida; you can’t get much more southern than the Sunshine State. Pierce justified it as a land swap. The United States surrendered claims to territory west of the Mississippi in exchange for it. In doing so, the Union secured its coastal commerce and security. Both sections won, even if Florida clearly would do no other than join the South.

This brought events up to the Missouri Controversy, which Pierce cast as more antislavery imperialism. The Northwest Ordinance had prohibited slavery, but it did not apply to the Louisiana Purchase. According to Pierce, the letter of the law permitted slavery west of the Mississippi all the way up to Canada. The North would not accept that and “the zeal of social propagandism” demanded concessions from the poor South. As such, the slave states nobly accepted a new slavery ban extending to states that did not then yet exist in exchange for retaining slavery in Missouri and Arkansas. The free states received that sacrifice on their behalf

with angry and resentful condemnation and complaint, because it did not concede all which they had exactingly demanded.

On paper, the North might look like a sore winner back in the 1820s. While the section lost Missouri, it gained almost the whole remainder of the Louisiana Purchase. But that additional territory failed to rush into the Union. Lands so empty,and so long remaining empty, of white settlement amounted to a meager victory indeed. Pierce rightly noted that antislavery Americans took the Missouri Compromise as a defeat. This all made for some deep irony when free soilers a generation so cherished the settlement, but they had that same generation to live with it and faced more radical proslavery advances than their fathers had. In 1819-20, the slave power demanded slavery remain where it already existed. In the 1850s, it spread slavery to places where the law had banned the institution.

The Positive Necessities and Good Evils

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Gentle Readers, should you excite my jealousy by going into the archives or bump shoulders with me at the Library of Google, you will find condemnations of slavery in abundance. You can read Thomas Jefferson’s indictment in Notes on the State of Virginia, which abolitionists took for a time as a foundational text. No Southerner could dismiss the Sage of Monticello as an ignorant foreigner., though plenty came to question his judgment. Over his life, Jefferson owned north of six hundred slaves. In his personal correspondence, which I found through Monticello’s helpful article on the subject, Jefferson proclaimed slavery a “moral and political depravity” and “hideous blot” upon the nation. He even rightly identified it as the greatest threat to the Union’s survival.

Leave the section with the founders’ papers and go a few decades to the side. There you’ll find antislavery Americans rehearsing the same themes. They too condemn slavery. They, like Jefferson, hold that it degrades the morals of the enslaver. It threatens the Union. It must go. To rid themselves of it, these Americans did not propose immediate emancipation. They advocated indirect measures to set slavery on the road to extinction, particularly in ending the Atlantic slave trade and banning it from the territories. When Congress could ban the import of slaves, Jefferson urged it to do so at the earliest opportunity, The idea of keeping it from territories goes back to his Northwest Ordinance, though the third president later changed his mind on the wisdom of that.

Neither Jefferson nor later generations of antislavery whites expected to see much progress in their lifetimes. Slavery would fade over ages, helped along by plans of gradual emancipation. From Maryland and Virginia all the way down to South Carolina, whites would free their slaves. Those slaves would go somewhere out of sight and mind, rather than remembering

ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.

LincolnOn the surface, Jefferson doesn’t sound very different from Abraham Lincoln. Neither proposed direct, hostile action against slavery where it already existed. Both saw emancipation as the project of a decades to come. The antislavery movement of the late Antebellum recognized the similarity and claimed Jefferson’s project as their own, understanding themselves as taking the next logical steps. As people who consider slavery an evil and naturally look in our past for praiseworthy opposition to it, we might very well agree. We might even argue that these men differ from the more radical abolitionists only on questions of tactics.

Closer consideration, however, shows something different: Thomas Jefferson pulled a fast one. His condemnation of slavery, however sincere, comes only in its defense. The Necessary Evil argument for slavery ran thus: We have this awful slavery. We dream of a day, long hence, when we shall be rid of it. We endorse the high principle of graduated emancipation, so gradual as to come up on the calendar quarter to never. In practical terms, with slavery that already exists rather than some hypothetical future slavery which someone else would have to deal with in the West, the necessary evil school stands for slavery in perpetuity. The argument might grant some points to advocates of genuine antislavery, but it does so in the course of forestalling the practical advance of the latter: Yes, we agree with you that slavery is bad. But what can we do about it? Along the way, of course, they planned to keep reaping the profit from reaping the bodies of enslaved people. As problems go, we must all agree that having great fortunes thrown your way ranks near the top. Slavery, to necessary evil advocates, did not amount to an unqualified good. It did, however, beat all the alternatives they understood as available to them. By preserving them from race war and endowing the enslavers with considerable wealth, the necessary evil had a decidedly positive and good application.

Jefferson and his generation kept faith with the argument through thick and thin. They held to it when it seemed slavery might just really go away on its own in an era of sinking tobacco profits, despite the trade business in rice and cotton down in the Carolina and Georgia lowcountry. They continued when the cotton gin opened up the inland South to cotton cultivation, when Andrew Jackson and company violently purged the old Southwest of Indians, and slave labor camps spread across the American empire. With new markets in need of slave labor, many Upper South enslavers could take their tender sentiments and cry all the way to the bank.

Then things changed. A new generation of enslavers, most prominently in the person of John C. Calhoun, responded rising antislavery sentiment in the North and the Missouri and Nullification controversies by articulating a new theory. They called slavery a Positive Good. No longer did they cede rhetorical ground and admit, even in theory, that slavery ought to end. Instead it should go on forever not simply for lack of a means to emancipate, but because slavery benefited the slaves too. They learned civilization and Christianity. It lifted them from African squalor and put them to useful work. In fact, slavery did far better for them than free labor did for whites:

I may say with truth, that in few countries so much is left to the share of the laborer, and so little exacted from him, or where there is more kind attention paid to him in sickness or infirmities of age. Compare his condition with the tenants of the poor houses in the more civilized portions of Europe—look at the sick, and the old and infirm slave, on one hand, in the midst of his family and friends, under the kind superintending care of his master and mistress, and compare it with the forlorn and wretched condition of the pauper in the poorhouse.

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

Positive Good arguments came initially, as they do now, as a shock. The nation had agreed. Every good American hated slavery and wanted it gone. Now this man from South Carolina, who looked like a cross between Beethoven and a supervillain broke the rules. The argument took a long time to catch on even in the South. As late as the last years before the Civil War, particularly in the Upper South, Necessary Evil argument never went entirely out of style.

But the seeds of  predated Calhoun’s infamous speech on the subject. Calhoun preached the Positive Good gospel to the Senate in 1837. In 1814, Thomas Jefferson trotted out remarkably similar arguments:

Nor in the class of laborers do I mean to withold from the comparison that portion whose color has condemned them, in certain parts of our Union, to a subjection to the will of others. even these are better fed in these states, warmer clothed, & labor less than the journeymen or day laborers of England. they have the comfort too of numerous families, in the midst of whom they live, without want, or the fear of it; a solace which few of the laborers of England possess. they are subject, it is true, to bodily coercion: but are not the hundreds of thousands of British soldiers & seamen subject to the same, without seeing, at the end of their career, & when age & acciden[t] shall have rendered them unequal to labor, the certainty, which the other has, that he will never want? and has not the British seaman, as much as the African been reduced to this bondage by force, in flagrant violation of his own consent, and of his natural right in his own person? and with the laborers of England generally, does not the moral coercion of want subject their will as despotically to that of thei[r] employer, as the physical constraint does the soldier, the seaman or the slave?

Jefferson took free and unfree labor as practiced by the United Kingdom as his point of comparison where Calhoun and others would point to urban workers in the North, but the argument otherwise runs the same: an employer has no reason to treat his employees well. They live always on the edge of starvation, one firing away from utter destitution. They thus depend on their employer’s whim in a way that Jefferson imagines not very different from how slaves suffer under his own whims. If the British can impress sailors, then why not Americans enslave Africans? If the Royal Navy flogs a sailor, then how does it differ from his overseer putting stripes on some slave’s back? Note, however, that Jefferson doesn’t simply call the situations comparable. He goes a step further and declares the slaves better off: They have better food, warmer clothes, and don’t work near so hard. Only in the negatives does Jefferson find similarity. Otherwise, slaves come out better off.

A sentence later, Jefferson realized he might have revealed to much and disavowed any intention of advocating for slavery. Should one take his word on it, one might also come to the relief of an inconvenienced Nigerian prince or find an investment in bridges of particular interest.

Calhoun couldn’t have said it better himself. The antislavery movement could never agree, preaching instead the moral, political, and economic superiority of free labor. The Jefferson who loathed manufactures and cities could never go along with that. If this doesn’t transform him into Calhoun in drag, then it does clearly place the two men and their schools of thought close together and fundamentally aligned. Both want to preserve slavery where it existed, believing it and the culture it produced superior to free labor despite the occasional imperfections writ large on the bodies of the enslaved and small in the paranoia of the enslavers. The rhetorical shift matters; it aroused considerable controversy within even South Carolina, but we should not mistake that controversy for a genuine and thoroughgoing antislavery movement within the section. Nor should we confuse the rhetorically-convenient qualms of some Southerners with a willingness to align with outsiders in some kind of shared antislavery project. Whether advocating necessary evil or positive good theories of slavery, the speakers remained the peculiar institution’s committed defenders.