previous next


So far as Mr. Sumner had been a party man, he had been counted among the Whigs, for he had more hopes, he said, that they would be the party of freedom. He had been elected to a Whig State Convention, which assembled at Faneuil Hall on the 23d of September, 1846, where a good deal of curiosity was excited, and some solicitude felt, in regard to the course he would take. But at an early stage of the meeting, being called upon by the President, he delivered a powerful speech upon ‘The Anti-Slavery Duties of the Whig Party,’ which produced a profound impression of admiration among all, for the boldness, the candor, and the manliness of his words. But by a large majority of the Convention it was regarded as a speech for unhealthy agitation; the Whigs were not prepared to go so far. Neither Mr. Webster nor Mr. Everett sympathized with the sentiments of Mr. Sumner, nor did they approve of the policy of any such course as he recommended. Both of those eminent men were still looking forward to larger rewards for their public services. They were both held in high honor at home and abroad; Mr. [22] Everett being regarded as of much riper scholarship and higher intellectual culture than almost any other man in America; while men felt as profound a veneration for the majesty and power of Webster's mind, and placed a loftier estimate upon his eloquence than perhaps upon that of any other living statesman. Nor could it be expected that these illustrious citizens, who were much older than Mr. Sumner, and who had won their enviable reputation in the calmer days of the republic, could enter very warmly into such radical views as the rising orator was now putting forth. Long experience generally teaches the wisdom of conciliation; and the proverbial conservatism of age is always roused into alarm or hostility, when the young reformer enters the field.

In the beginning of his speech, Mr. Sumner did not conceal his regret that the Convention had not been summoned to sit in the country, ‘believing that the opinions of the country, free as its bracing air, more than those of Boston, would be in harmony with the tone which it became them to adopt at the present crisis.’ ‘In the country,’ he said, ‘is the spirit of freedom; in the city, the spirit of commerce; and though these two spirits may at times act in admirable conjunction, and with irresistible strength, yet it sometimes occurs that the generous and unselfish impulses of the one, are checked and controlled by the careful calculations of economy suggested by the other. Even Right and Liberty are, in some minds, of less significance than dividends and dollars.’

But I am happy, said he, that the Convention has been convoked in Faneuil Hall. This place is vocal with inspiring accents, and though, on other occasions, words have been uttered here which the lover of [23] morals, of freedom, and humanity must regret, these walls, faithful only to Freedom, refuse to echo them. The Whigs of Massachusetts, assembled in Faneuil Hall, must be true to this early scene of the struggles for Freedom; they must be true to their own name, which has descended to them from those who partook of those struggles.

We are a Convention of Whigs. And who are the Whigs? Some may say they are the supporters of the tariff; others, that they are the advocates of internal improvements; of measures to restrain the exercise of the veto power; or of a bank. All these are now, or have been, prominent articles in the faith of the party. But this enumeration does not do justice to the character of the Whigs.

The Whigs, as their name imports, are, or ought to be, the party of Freedom. They seek, or should seek, on all occasions, to carry out fully and practically the principles of our institutions. The principles which our fathers declared, and sealed with their blood, their Whig children should seek to manifest in their acts. The Whigs, therefore, reverence the Declaration of Independence, as embodying the vital truths of freedom, especially that great truth, ‘that all men are born equal.’ They reverence the Constitution of the United States, and seek to guard it against infractions; believing that under the Constitution, Freedom can be best preserved. They reverence the Union of the States; believing that the peace, happiness, and welfare of all depend upon this blessed bond. They reverence the public faith, and require that it should be punctiliously kept in all laws, charters, and obligations. They reverence the principles of morality, of truth, of justice, of right. They seek to advance their country, rather than individuals; and to promote the welfare of the people, rather than of their leaders. A member of such an association, founded on the highest moral sentiments, recognizing conscience and benevolence as its animating ideas, cannot be said ‘to give to party what was meant for mankind;’ for all the interests of the party must be coincident and commensurate with the manifold interests of humanity.

Such is, as I trust, or certainly should be, the Whig party of Massachusetts. It refuses to identify itself exclusively with those measures of transient policy, which may, like the Bank, become ‘obsolete ideas;’ but connects itself with everlasting principles, which can never fade or decay. In doing this, it does not neglect other things; as the tariff, or internal improvements. But it treats these as subordinate. Far less does it show indifference to the Constitution or the Union; for [24] it seeks to render these the guardians and representatives of the lofty principles to which we are attached.

The Whigs have been called by you, Mr. President, the conservatives. In a just sense, they should be conservatives; not of forms only, but of substance; not of the letter only, but of the living spirit. The Whigs should be the conservators of the spirit of our ancestors; conservators of the great animating ideas of our institutions. They should profess that truest and highest conservatism, which watches, guards, and preserves the great principles of Truth, Right, Freedom, and Humanity. Such a conservatism is not narrow and exclusive; but broad and expansive. It is not trivial and bigoted; but manly and generous. It is the conservatism of the Whigs of ‘76.

Let me say, then, that the Whigs of Massachusetts are—I hope it is not my wish only that is father to the thought—the party who seek the establishment of Truth, Freedom, Right and Humanity, under the Constitution of the United States, and by the Union of the States. They are Unionists, Constitutionalists, Friends of the Right.

And the question here arises, how shall this party, inspired by these principles, now act? The answer is easy. In accordance with their principles. It must utter them with distinctness, and act upon them with energy.

The time, I believe, has gone by when the question is asked, What has the North to do with Slavery? It might almost be answered, that, politically, it had little to do with anything else, so are all the acts of our government connected, directly or indirectly, with this institution. Slavery is everywhere. It constitutionally enters the halls of Congress, in the disproportionate representation of the slave States. It shows its disgusting front in the District of Columbia, in the shadow of the Capitol, under the legislative jurisdiction of the nation; of the North as well as the South. It sends its miserable victims on the high seas, from the ports of Virginia to the ports of Louisiana, beneath the protecting flag of the republic. It follows into the free States, in pursuance of a provision of the Constitution, those fugitives, who, under the inspiration of freedom, seek our altars for safety; nay, more, with profane hands it seizes those who have never known the name of slave, colored freemen of the North, and dooms them to irremediable bondage. It insults and exiles from its jurisdiction the honored representatives of Massachusetts, who seek, as messengers of the Commonwealth, to secure for her colored citizens the peaceful safeguard of the laws of the Union. It not only uses the Constitution for its purposes, but abuses [25] it also. It violates the Constitution at pleasure, to build up new slaveholding States. It seeks perpetually to widen its area, while professing to extend the area of freedom. It has brought upon the country war with Mexico, with its enormous expenditures, and more enormous guilt. By the spirit of union among its supporters, it controls the affairs of government; interferes with the cherished interests of the North, enforcing and then refusing protection to her manufactures; makes and unmakes presidents; usurps to itself the larger portion of all offices of honor and profit, both in the army and navy, and also in the civil department; and stamps upon our whole country the character, before the world, of that monstrous anomaly and mockery, a slaveholding republic, with the living truths of freedom on its lips, and the dark mark of slavery printed on its brow.

And shall this Commonwealth continue in any way to sustain an institution which its laws declare to be contrary to natural right, to justice, to humanity and sound policy? Shall the Whigs support what is contrary to the fundamental principles of the party? Here the consciences of good men respond to the judgment of the court. If it be wrong to hold a single slave, it must be wrong to hold many. If it be wrong for an individual to hold a slave, it must be wrong for a State. If it be wrong for a State, in its individual capacity, it must be wrong also, in association with other States. Massachusetts does not allow any of her citizens within her borders to hold slaves. Let her be consistent, and call for the abolition of slavery wherever she is, to any extent, responsible for it, wherever she is a party to it, wherever it may be reached by her influence; that is, everywhere beneath the constitution and laws of the Federal Government. ‘If any practice exist,’ said Mr. Webster, in one of those earlier efforts which commended him to our admiration, his address at Plymouth in 1820—‘If any practices exist, contrary to the principles of justice and humanity, within the reach of our laws or our influence, we are inexcusable if we do not exert ourselves to restrain and abolish them.’

Certainly, to labor in this cause is far higher and nobler than to strive merely for a repeal of the Tariff, which was once mentioned as the tocsin to rally the Whigs. Repeal of Slavery under the Constitution and laws of the Federal Government is a more Christian and more potent watchword, because it embodies a higher sentiment, and a more commanding duty.

The time has passed when this can be opposed on constitutional grounds. It will not be questioned by any competent authority, that [26] Congress may, by express legislation, abolish slavery, 1st, in the District of Columbia; 2d, in the Territories, if there should be any; 3d, that it may abolish the slave trade on the high seas between the States; 4th, that it may refuse to admit any new State with a constitution sanctioning slavery. Nor can it be questioned that the people of the United States may, in the manner pointed out by the Constitution, proceed to its amendment. It is, then, by constitutional legislation, and even by amendment of the Constitution, that slavery may be reached.

And here the question arises: Are there any compromises in the Constitution of such a character as to prevent action on this subject? I wish to say, distinctly, that there is no compromise on the subject of slavery, of a character not to be reached legally and constitutionally, which is the only way in which I propose to reach it. Wherever power and jurisdiction are secured to Congress, they may unquestionably be exercised in conformity with the Constitution. And even in matters beyond existing powers and jurisdiction, there is a constitutional method of action. The Constitution contains an article pointing out how, at any time, amendments may be made thereto. This is an important element, giving to the Constitution a progressive character; and allowing it to be moulded to suit new exigencies and new conditions of feeling. The wise framers of this instrument did not treat the country as a Chinese foot—never to grow after its infancy—but anticipated the changes incident to its growth. They openly declare, ‘Legislate, as you please, in conformity with the Constitution; and even make amendments in this instrument, rendered proper by change of opinion or character, following always the manner therein prescribed.’

Nor can we dishonor the memories of the revered authors of the Constitution, by supposing that they set their hands to it, believing that slavery was to be perpetual—that the republic, which, reared by them to its giant stature, had snatched from Heaven the sacred fire of freedom, was to be bound, like another Prometheus, in the adamantine chains of fate, while slavery, like another vulture, preyed upon its vitals. Let Franklin speak for them. He was President of the earliest Abolition Society in the United States, and in 1790, only two years after the adoption of the Constitution, addressed a petition to Congress, calling upon them ‘to step to the very verge of the power vested in them for discouraging every species of traffic in our fellow-men.’ Let Jefferson speak for them. His desire for the abolition of slavery was often expressed with philanthropic warmth and emphasis. Let Washington speak for them. ‘It is among my first wishes,’ he said, in a letter to [27] John Fenton Mercer, ‘to see some plan adopted by which slavery in this country may be abolished by law.’ And in his will, penned with his own hand, in the last year of his life, he bore his testimony again, by providing for the emancipation of all his slaves. It is thus that Washington speaks, not only by words, but by actions louder than words, ‘Give freedom to your slaves.’ The Father of his country requires, as a token of the filial piety which all profess, that his example should be followed. I am not insensible to the many glories of his character; but I cannot contemplate this act, without a fresh gush of admiration and gratitude. The martial scene depicted on that votive canvas may fade from the memories of men; but this act of justice and benevolence shall never perish.

I assume, then, that it is the duty of the Whigs, professing the principles of the fathers, to express themselves openly, distinctly, and solemnly against slavery; not only against its further extension, but against its longer continuance under the Constitution and laws of the Union. But while it is their duty to enter upon this holy warfare, it should be their aim to temper it with moderation, with gentleness, with tenderness, towards slave owners. These should be won, if possible, rather than driven, to the duties of emancipation. But emancipation should always be presented as the cardinal object of our National policy.

Our representatives must be courageous and willing on all occasions to stand alone, provided Right is with them. ‘Though every tile were a devil,’ said Martin Luther, ‘yet will I enter Worms.’ Such a spirit is needed now by the advocates of Right. They must not be ashamed of the name which belongs to Franklin, Jefferson and Washington— and which express the idea to which they should be devoted—Abolitionist. They must be thorough, uncompromising advocates of the repeal of slavery, of its abolition under the laws and Constitution of the United States. They must be Repealers, Abolitionists.

There are a few such men now in Congress. Massachusetts has a venerable representative, John Quincy Adams, whose aged bosom still glows with inextinguishable fires; like the central heats of the monarch mountain of the Andes, beneath its canopy of snow. To this cause he dedicates the closing energies of a long and illustrious life. Would that all would join him!

There is a Senator of Massachusetts, whom we had hoped to welcome here to-day, whose position is one of commanding influence. Let me address him with the respectful frankness of a constituent and a [28] friend:—You have, Sir, by various labors, already acquired an honorable place in the history of our country. By the vigor, argumentation, and eloquence with which you have upheld the Union, and that interpretation of the Constitution which makes us a Nation, you have justly earned the title of Defender of the Constitution. By the successful and masterly negotiation of the treaty of Washington, and by your efforts to compose the strife of the Oregon, you have earned another title-Defender of Peace. There are yet other duties, claiming your care, whose performance will be the crown to a life of high public service. Let me ask you, when again at your post in the Senate, not to forget them. Dedicate, Sir, the golden years of experience happily in store for you, to the grand endeavor, in the name of Freedom, to remove from your country its greatest evil. In this cause you shall find inspirations to eloquence, higher than any you have yet confessed;

To heavenly themes sublimer strains belong.

Do not shrink from the task. With your marvellous powers, and the auspicious influences of an awakened public sentiment, under God, who always smiles upon conscientious labors for the welfare of man, we may hope for beneficent results. Assume, then, these unperformed duties. The aged shall bear witness to you; the young shall kindle with rapture, as they repeat the name of Webster; and the large company of the ransomed shall teach their children, and their children's children, to the latest generation, to call you blessed; while all shall award to you yet another title, which shall never be forgotten on earth or in heaven—Defender of Humanity; by the side of which that earlier title shall fade into insignificance; as the Constitution, which is the work of mortal hands, dwindles by the side of Man, who is created in the image of God.

Let us here then, in Faneuil Hall, beneath the images of our fathers, vow ourselves to perpetual allegiance to the Right—and to perpetual hostility to slavery. Ours is a noble cause; nobler even than that of our fathers, inasmuch as it is more exalted to struggle for the freedom of others than for our own. The love of Right, which is the animating impulse of our movement, is higher even than the love of Freedom. But Right, Freedom, and Humanity all concur in demanding the abolition of slavery.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)
hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
September 23rd, 1846 AD (2)
1820 AD (2)
1790 AD (2)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: