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Section Fourth: orations and political speeches.


Mr. Sumner's political life was now to begin, and he chose for its opening the occasion of the National Anniversary of 1844, which was to be observed in Boston with unusual interest. A brief glance at the state of public affairs at the time, will faintly show what significance there was in the choice of the orator, and what important results were to follow his startling utterances.

American slavery was then in the zenith of its fearful [10] and unthreatened reign. It held the whole nation bound hand and foot. It dictated every law passed by Congress, and inspired every measure adopted in the Cabinet. It controlled the Press of a free, and exulted in the sanction of the Pulpit of a Christian, nation. It was extending its dark shadow over soil then free, and claiming its inhuman jurisdiction over every Northern hearth-stone. It unblushingly boasted that it would one day call the slave-roll on Bunker Hill—And why should the menace seem so unmeaning? Had not Boston seen William Lloyd Garrison, the chief apostle of freedom, dragged through her streets with a halter about his neck, within sight of that column of Liberty, with scarce a protest from her opulent and polite citizens? Had not the Governor and Legislature of Georgia set a price upon the head of that prophet of the coming dispensation of freedom; and should not the Northern Athens obey the behest of her cotton king?

African Slavery had become as sacred in the precincts of Faneuil Hall, as it was in the slave-den of Washington, where the sound of the auctioneer's hammer knocking down men, women, and children to the highest bidder, could be heard from the steps of the Capitol itself. More slave property was owned in Boston than in Charleston—abolitionist was as odious a name in Beacon Street as it was in the St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans—slavery had become the law of the great republic.

How then could Boston regard any word of irreverence towards that all-powerful Institution, as less than a declaration of war à l'outrance against the slaveholding States? And to inflame the indignity, these insulting words had been uttered by one of the most brilliant and [11] admired of her own long-descended aristocrats! What could not be tolerated, even in so plebeian a fanatic as Garrison, no longer than a rope could be thrown to a howling mob, rose when coming from the lips of the eloquent and travelled young patrician, the most atrocious blasphemy against God and the Constitution! And yet his great theme was ‘The True Grandeur of Nations,’ and the burden of his oration was Peace,—an oration which Cobden, the most eloquent advocate of peace in Europe, pronounced ‘the noblest contribution ever made by any modern writer to the cause of peace.’ But it gave offence to the magnates of the Whig Party in Massachusetts, since it was known that they were fast drifting, body and soul, into the embraces of the slave-power, which was demanding fresh aggressions upon the territory of Mexico, with a view to wrest from her some of her fairest possessions, to be devoted to the demon of human servitude. Mr. Sumner early foresaw that this would end in a collision with our sister republic, and which, under the dictation of the slave oligarchy, would be attended with outrages and injustice. The Whigs had been greatly weakened by the death of Harrison, and the wavering policy, and final defection of John Tyler; and the Democrats, preparing to regain their lost power, were also ready to bid for the pro-slavery vote. Thus both parties would hold up their hands for any measure that would give them votes, no matter how great the demolition of principle.


In this oration, Mr. Sumner uttered the memorable declaration which went through the world:—‘In our [12] age, there can be no peace that is not honorable; there can be no war that is not dishonorable.’ We shall give no space here to any part of that oration, since other speeches on the same subject were elicited by subsequent occasions, when his prophecies were fast becoming history, by the anticipations of war with Mexico being turned into the most active hostilities. But a careful reading of that oration, which marked Mr. Sumner's first appearance before the country as a public man, will satisfy any student of his Speeches, that on this Fourth of July, 1844, he gave clear indications of the policy he was to pursue in future life. Nor could a prophet have marked out with greater clearness, than the historian could afterwards, the course Mr. Sumner would take in whatever crisis might arise, involving the fortunes of freedom, or of peace, in the coming struggles of parties.

Another point should here be observed, for it gave an index to his character which distinguished him ever afterwards from nearly all the prominent men who were to flourish during the approaching times of excitement and trouble. We speak of his inflexibility of purpose; his steady persistence in opposing at any and at all hazards, whatever he believed to be morally, socially, or politically wrong,—his absolute insensibility to opposition or criticism, come from what quarter they might; and the admirable and absolutely unparalleled steadiness with which he pursued the great objects of his life.

He then began to experience, what he had so many occasions to encounter—the criticisms of his friends, as well as the assaults of his enemies; the one scarcely exceeding in bitterness the cold reproofs, or only halfconcealed [13] satire of the others. Without a single exception, no man in our history has had to pass through such ordeals as Charles Sumner. Whenever a new crisis rose in the country, he was found marching way ahead of the friends who had so reluctantly just come up to the last position he had taken; and thus they were continually falling off from him, one by one, all the time; and sometimes whole battalions of them together.

But with the single exception of the Supplemental Civil Rights Bill, which caused him almost the only lingering regret he had in dying so soon, he lived to see every public measure he had proposed involving a great principle of liberty, either fully incorporated into the Amended Constitution, or fairly expressed in some statute that was never afterwards to be repealed. And yet he seldom rose on the floor of the Senate to announce for the first time a new step in advance, without finding himself nearly alone; generally without supporters; sometimes without one:—and all through this protracted struggle for principle, he was not only subject to the violent persecution of the public press, and the desertion of personal friends, but the object of official insults, and even attempts at Senatorial degradation. Thus in tracing his career, we shall mark these points as we pass by them, only indicating them now in brief, that the reader may bear in mind these strong attributes of Mr. Sumner's character, to enable him more fully to comprehend how arduous was his warfare, how immovable was his integrity, how sublime was his faith; how he, more than any other man in our history, illustrated what was so well applied to Burke, that ‘he never gave up to party what was meant for mankind.’



Although Mr. Sumner had not yet taken any prominent part in the anti-slavery movement, of which Boston was the chief centre, yet, as early as 1838 he had become a member of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, and had fully made known his hostility to slavery. But he differed widely with

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