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[391] that he was always ready to answer anything in the shape of an argument; but he did not consider any senator who did not keep within the rules as his peer. Other Southern senators who referred to him—Dawson, Bayard, and Benjamin—were entirely respectful. The last named senator, to whose kindness of manner and conformity to the proprieties of debate Sumner bore testimony, pressed him closely on the point whether he and those whose opinions he represented really recognized any constitutional obligation on the part of the free States, or of Congress, to provide for the return of fugitive slaves. Sumner declined to answer the question without a prior answer from Benjamin as to whether he was ready to support legislation to enforce the rights of Northern colored citizens in the slave States. Benjamin made the point, and a fair one it was, that Sumner, who had claimed that his sentiments had been misconstrued, was bound to answer the question, and that he evaded the issue by interposing a series of inquiries.1

Sumner's assertion of his right in his votes as a senator to construe the Constitution as he understood it, and his consequent denial of any obligation on his part, personally or officially, to return fugitive slaves, disturbed many conservative minds now coming into general agreement with him. Some journals, still under the spell of old antagonisms, gave a prominence to his position in this respect altogether out of proportion to its relative importance. Those who criticised him most elaborately were, however, as often happened, only a few steps behind him. Three years later, when the Supreme Court denied to Congress the power to prohibit slavery in the territories, there was not a Republican in the United States, legislator or citizen, who thought himself bound to accept that construction of the Constitution.

The antislavery party were not disposed, in parliamentary fencing, to be explicit on the point as to what they conceived to be their constitutional duty in relation to fugitive slaves. Though pushed by their adversaries, they did not consider themselves required, in advance of the repeal of the existing Act, condemned as it was by the Constitution and humanity, to state what they would do. The truth is that the return of fugitive slaves had become revolting to the moral sense of

1 Benjamin answered one of Sumner's questions by admitting the legislation of South Carolina as to colored seamen to be unconstitutional.

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