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Chapter 26: the national election.—editing Vesey, Jr.—dangerous illness. 1844.—Age, 33.

The national election of 1844, in which the Whigs had counted with great confidence on the promotion of their favorite leader, Henry Clay, to the Presidency, ended, to their great disappointment, in the election of the Democratic candidate, James K. Polk. Sumner was not a partisan; and did not, by speech or pen, enter into the canvass. He desired however, as a citizen, the success of the Whigs, and without doubt voted for their candidates. With their peculiar policy relating to the tariff and a national bank, which drew to them more than to any party in our history capitalists, large manufacturers, men of acquired fortune, he expressed no sympathy. One of his type of mind would be inspired with party enthusiasm only where the primary convictions of right and duty were the basis of political doctrine and action.1 His letters to friends and his published communications on the ‘Right of Search’ and the ‘Creole’ case show that, among the political questions of the day, those relating to Slavery were then uppermost in his thoughts.

There were some points aside from their distinctive measures in which the Whigs came nearer to his views than their opponents. While at this time refusing as a national party to take an antislavery position, they were less than the Democrats under the control of the slaveholding interest; and they had less complicity in the pro-slavery schemes of that day, of which the annexation of Texas was the foremost. They therefore held a large body of men, who, like Sumner, already regarded the issues concerning the extension and perpetuity of American slavery as transcending any economic questions. They had some public men, distinguished for their opposition to Slavery, —John Quincy Adams and Joshua R. Giddings being the most [280] conspicuous examples,—who, though not enjoying favor with the national party, were nevertheless faithfully sustained by Whig constituencies.

On foreign affairs, as well as upon this domestic question, Sumner placed more confidence in the Whigs. Their statesmen were pacific in policy, disposed to settle disputes by arbitration, and not striving to gain favor with our emigrant population by stimulating hostility to England.

The strength of the Whig party lay in the older Free States and among the intelligent classes; and from the circumstance that these elements entered largely into its composition, the cause of education and enterprises of philanthropy found strenuous support among its voters and leading men. The Democratic party loudly professed its devotion to the creed of freedom and equality inherited from Jefferson; and it is entitled to some credit for resisting the tendencies of the Whigs to favor capital and privilege: but controlled as it was by the slaveholders, and yielding always to their schemes, it had nothing but its highsounding declarations to attract a young man of liberal and progressive ideas. Among its partisans Sumner counted personal friends, like George Bancroft and Theodore Sedgwick, with whose culture and generous thought he was in full sympathy; but they seemed like exotics in a party which was stifling free speech in Congress and in the country, and conspiring, by the annexation of Texas, for the extension of Slavery to the Rio Grande.

Henry Clay stands more than any one public man as the historical representative of the Whig party; more even than Webster, who was his superior in intellectual power. At this time Sumner regarded Mr. Clay as a statesman whose purposes were patriotic, and whose views of the national future were large and ennobling. His enthusiasm for Mr. Webster as an orator and as the author of diplomatic despatches which marked, as he said, ‘a new era in State papers,’ and his confidence in that statesman as the constant supporter of international peace are familiar to the reader; and these sentiments were strengthened by an agreeable personal intercourse which continued till several years later, when the slavery question drew a sharp line of division between them. Even at this period, however, when in such general accord with him, Sumner stated with emphasis Mr. Webster's limitations, protesting against the doctrines of his ‘Creole’ [281] letter, and lamenting that he lacked the moral elevation and nobler spirit of Channing.

But, among public men, John Quincy Adams most enlisted his enthusiasm. Disapproving the ex-President's disregard at times of parliamentary restrictions, and dissenting strongly from his eccentric justification of England in her conduct towards China relative to the importation of opium, Sumner felt a profound admiration for his glorious defence of liberty as the representative of Massachusetts in Congress.2 In this veteran statesman were united thorough training, wide knowledge, dauntless courage, a long and distinguished public service abroad and at home, crowned, as his father's before him, by an election to the highest office in the Republic; and now, as it were, a second career more illustrious than the first, in which on the floor of Congress, single-handed, he held at bay and drove back again and again, discomfited, the chiefs of the slaveholding interest, with the whole country intently watching a combat which all felt involved the great question of our history. With such a character, such accomplishments, such services, and such a cause, he would have stood a grand figure in any forum of the world. Aged colleagues still surviving recall him as he threw, one after another, the pro-slavery champions who came out to meet him; and they renew their youthful enthusiasm as they repeat the ofttold story. More from their lips than from any page of history yet written, this generation can understand how strong must have been the hold which John Quincy Adams had upon young men, and upon all who, against organized capital, society, the traditions of party, and fear of change, even of revolution, made opposition to the extension and perpetuity of Slavery their highest duty to country and mankind.

In 1843-44 Sumner was engaged, on behalf of his State, in collecting the local proofs in the long-standing boundary controversy between Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and for that purpose visited the disputed territory. This service was rendered at the request of Mr. Webster and Mr. Choate, the counsel of Massachusetts, who certified, when the question of his compensation was pending, that ‘he conducted the matter most satisfactorily, and obtained much useful information.’ Massachusetts prevailed in the suit in March, 1846. Sumner was paid five hundred dollars [282] for his services,—a professional fee which it was rarely his good fortune to receive in a single case. To Mr. Choate's kindly interest he was doubtless indebted for the opportunity to earn it.3

In the winter of 1844-45, he was counsel before a legislative committee in a case of considerable interest,—the petition of the people of Chelsea, then a town of three thousand inhabitants, for a railroad designed to connect that and neighboring communities with Boston by a land route; the connection being then by a railroad with a terminus at East Boston, and thence by ferry to the city proper. His argument for the petitioners, in which he laid stress on the superior advantages of an avenue by land rather than by ferry, was carefully matured, as his notes, which are preserved, show. The committee reported adversely;4 but the Eastern Railroad Corporation, then a remonstrant, a few years later adopted substantially the location which he urged.

In the spring of 1844 Sumner undertook to edit the ‘Equity Reports’ of Francis Vesey, Jr., numbering twenty volumes, for a well-known law-publishing house in Boston, who were then issuing a series of ‘English Chancery Reports.’ They had already engaged Mr. Perkins, of Salem, to furnish the notes for Brown's ‘Reports;’ and they applied to Sumner to annotate Vesey, offering two thousand dollars. He was reluctant to enter upon the labor, recommending in his stead Mr. Perkins, who, was however, too much preoccupied to undertake it.

After conferring with Mr. Perkins as to the details and method of such work, he accepted the publishers' terms, and agreed to prepare a volume each fortnight,—the time beginning May 1, and lasting ten months. He entered upon his task April 10, fully persuaded that it would engross his time and tax his powers of endurance. It proved, however, even severer than he anticipated, requiring incessant application, night as well as day, withdrawal from society, and abstinence from exercise and recreation of all kinds.5 He pleaded with his publishers for a month's delay beyond the time fixed by the contract; but they, insisting that time was of the essence of the enterprise as well as of the contract, were inexorable: and so he bent to his task. [283]

The publication of the

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