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Chapter 14:

  • Mr. Sumner represents the spirit of the North.
  • -- “the crime against Kansas.” -- Exordium. -- Analysis of the speech. -- slave Masters. -- freedom of speech. -- William Lloyd Garrison. -- by Nature every man is Free. -- property in man not recognized by the constitution. -- closing words. -- remarks of Mr. Chestnut. -- Mr. Sumner's reply. -- Reception of his speech by the public press. -- the opinion of S. P. Chase. -- of Carl Schurz. -- of N. Hall. -- personal violence attempted. -- a body-guard.- -- resolutions of the Massachusetts legislature. -- nomination of the Presidential Candidates, 1860. -- Mr. Sumner's speeches at Cooper Institute, Worcester, and other Places.

No skill had he with veering winds to veer;
     By trampling on the good, himself to rise;
To run for any port, indifferent where,
     So tongue and conscience make fair merchandise.

Spiriti piu nobili del sue, io non ne avea mai conosciuti, pari al suo, pochi.
Le Mie Prigione di Silvio Pellico.

Such earnest natures are the fiery pith,
     The compact nucleus, round which systems grow;
Mass after mass becomes inspired therewith,
     And whirls impregnate with the central glow.

Although Mr. Sumner attended to some minor senatorial duties, and watched with an eagle eye the logic of events, it was not until the fourth day of June, 1860, that he came [253] grandly up to the work on hand, and showed the country that Richard was on his feet again. On the Bill for the Admission of Kansas as a Free State, then before the Senate, he made one of the most masterly speeches of his life, sending broadside after broadside of solid shot into the strongholds of slavery, and utterly demolishing every defence and fortress of its partisans. He had the learning, the statesmanship, the eloquence, the heroism, the brutum fulmen, which the exigence demanded; and with Titanic force he stood forth, mailed in the armor of truth, as the best representative of the spirit of a free people, and as the strongest champion living of the inalienable rights of the colored race. The rising of Mr. Sumner in that seat where he had four years previously been stricken down by the hand of violence, to pronounce again, in front of a vindictive power, the doom of slavery, was a spectacle of moral grandeur such as when the dauntless Mirabeau at the point of bayonet rose, in 1789, to vindicate the Third-Estate in the presence of the French Assembly. In allusion to the solemnity of the occasion, and the death of Mr. Butler and of Mr. Brooks, he said:--
Mr. President,--Undertaking now, after a silence of more than four years, to address the Senate on this important subject, I should suppress the emotions natural to such an [254] occasion, if I did not declare on the threshold my gratitude to that supreme Being through whose benign care I am enabled, after much suffering and many changes, once again to resume my duties here, and to speak for the cause which is so near my heart. To the honored Commonwealth whose representative I am, and also to my immediate associates in this body, with whom I enjoy the fellowship which is found in thinking alike concerning the Republic, I owe thanks which I seize this moment to express, for the indulgence shown me throughout the protracted seclusion enjoined by medical skill; and I trust that it will not be thought unbecoming in me to put on record here, as an apology for leaving my seat so long vacant, without making way, by resignation, for a successor, that I acted under the illusion of an invalid, whose hopes for restoration to his natural health constantly triumphed over his disappointments.

When last I entered into this debate, it became my duty to expose the crime against Kansas, and to insist upon the immediate admission of that Territory as a State of this Union, with a constitution forbidding slavery. Time has passed; but the question remains. Resuming the discussion precisely where I left it, I am happy to avow that rule of moderation, which, it is said, may venture even to fix the boundaries of wisdom itself. I have no personal griefs to utter: only a barbarous egotism could intrude these into this chamber. I have no personal wrongs to avenge: only a barbarous nature could attempt to wield that vengeance which belongs to the Lord. The years that have intervened and the tombs that have been opened since I spoke have their voices too, which I cannot fail to hear. Besides, what am I?--what is any man among the living or among the dead,--compared with the question now before us? It is this alone which I [255] shall discuss; and I open the argument with that easy victory which is found in charity.

Mr. Sumner entitled his Speech “The crime against Kansas;” and he thus indicated the manner in which it was to be discussed:--

Motive is to crime as soul to body; and it is only when we comprehend the motive, that we can truly comprehend the crime. Here, the motive is found in slavery and the rage for its extension. Therefore, by logical necessity, must slavery be discussed; not indirectly, timidly, and sparingly, but directly, openly, and thoroughly. It must be exhibited as it is, alike in its influence and in its animating character, so that not only its outside but its inside may be seen.

This is no time for soft words or excuses. All such are out of place. They may turn away wrath; but what is the wrath of man? This is no time to abandon any advantage in the argument. Senators sometimes announce that they resist slavery on political grounds only, and remind us that they say nothing of the moral question. This is wrong. Slavery must be resisted not only on political grounds, but on all other grounds, whether social, economical, or moral. Ours is no holiday contest; nor is it any strife of rival factions,--of White and Red Roses, of theatric Neri and Bianchi: but it is a solemn battle between right and wrong, between good and evil. Such a battle cannot be fought with excuses or with rosewater. There is austere work to be done; and Freedom cannot consent to fling away any of her weapons.

His weapons were directed against the claims put forth especially by Mr. Davis: first, that slavery is a [256] form of civilization; and second, that property in man is placed beyond the reach of Congressional prohibition. To the first said he,--

I oppose the essential barbarism of slavery, in all its influences, whether high or low, as Satan is Satan still, whether towering in the sky, or squatting in the toad. To the second I oppose the unanswerable, irresistible truth, that the Constitution of the United States nowhere recognizes property in man. These two assumptions naturally go together. They are ‘twins’ suckled by the same wolf: they are the “couple” in the present slave-hunt; and the latter cannot be answered without exposing the former. It is only when slavery is exhibited in its truly hateful character, that we can fully appreciate the absurdity of the assumption which, in defiance of the express letter of the constitution, and without a single sentence, phrase, or word upholding human bondage, yet foists into this blameless text the barbarous idea that man can hold property in man.

He represented the barbarism of slavery under the law of slavery in five distinct elements,--

First, assuming that man can hold property in man; secondly, abrogating the relation of husband and wife; thirdly, abrogating the parental tie; fourthly, closing the gates of knowledge; and fifthly, appropriating the unpaid labor of another.

In respect to the last element he said,--

By such a fallacy is a whole race pauperized; and yet this transaction is not without illustrative example. A solemn poet, whose verse has found wide favor, pictures a creature who [257]
“With one hand put
A penny in the urn of poverty,
And with the other took a shilling out.1

And a celebrated traveller through Russia, more than a generation ago, describes a kindred spirit, who, while on his knees before an altar of the Greek Church, devoutly told his beads with one hand, and with the other deliberately picked the pocket of a fellow-sinner by his side.

The speaker then, by a careful comparison between the industrial, social, and literary condition of the slave and the free States, presented the sad results of slavery.

In speaking of the influence of the slave-system on the characters of the slave-masters he said,--

Barbarous standards of conduct are unblushingly avowed. The swagger of a bully is called chivalry; a swiftness to quarrel is called courage; the bludgeon is adopted as the substitute for argument; and assassination is lifted to be one of the fine arts. Long ago it was fixed certain that the day which made man a slave “took half his worth away,” --words from the ancient harp of Homer, resounding through long generations. Nothing here is said of the human being at the other end of the chain. To aver that on this same day all his worth is taken away, might seem inconsistent with exceptions which we gladly recognize; but, alas! it is too clear, both from reason and from evidence, that, bad as slavery is for the slave, it is worse for the master.


In confirmation of this point, he adds these words, which Col. Mason, a slave-master from Virginia, used in debate on the adoption of the national constitution: “They produce the most pernicious effect on manners. Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of Heaven on a country.”

In reference to suppression of freedom of speech, Mr. Sumner truly said,--

Looking now at the broad surface of society where slavery exists, we shall find its spirit actively manifest in the suppression of all freedom of speech or of the press, especially with regard to this wrong. Nobody in the slave States can speak or print against slavery, except at the peril of life or liberty. St. Paul could call upon tie people of Athens to give up the worship of unknown gods; he could live in his own hired house at Rome, and preach Christianity in this heathen metropolis: but no man can be heard against slavery in Charleston or Mobile.

He noticed in this connection the ridiculous attempt of a Southern governor to secure the person of a distinguished advocate of freedom at the North.

A citizen, “said he,” of purest life and perfect integrity, whose name is destined to fill a conspicuous place in the history of freedom,--William Lloyd Garrison. Born in Massachusetts, bred to the same profession with Benjamin Franklin, and like his great predecessor becoming an editor, he saw with instinctive clearness the wrong of slavery; and, at a period when the ardors of the Missouri Question had given way to indifference [259] throughout the North, he stepped forward to denounce it. The jail at Baltimore, where he then resided, was his earliest reward. Afterwards, January 1, 1831, he published the first number of “The Liberator,” inscribing for his motto an utterance of Christian philanthropy, “My country is the world: my countrymen are all mankind,” and declaring, in the face of surrounding apathy, “I am in earnest. I will not equivocate; I will not retreat a single inch: and I will be heard.” In this sublime spirit he commenced his labors for the slave, proposing no intervention by Congress in the States, and on well-considered principle avoiding all appeals to the bondmen themselves. Such was his simple and thoroughly constitutional position, when, before the expiration of the first year, the legislature of Georgia, by solemn act, a copy of which I have now before me, “approved” by Wilson Lumpkin, Governor, appropriated five thousand dollars “to be paid to any person who shall arrest, bring to trial, and prosecute to conviction under the laws of this State, the editor or publisher of a certain paper called “The Liberator,” published at the town of Boston and State of Massachusetts.” This infamous legislative act, touching a person absolutely beyond the jurisdiction of Georgia, and in no way amenable to its laws, constituted a plain bribe to the gangs of kidnappers engendered by slavery. With this barefaced defiance of justice and decency, slave-masters inaugurated the system of violence by which they have sought to crush every voice that has been raised against slavery.

Under the second claim of the slaveocracy he said:--

This assumption may be described as an attempt to Africanize the constitution by introducing into it the barbarous [260] law of slavery, derived as we have seen originally from barbarous Africa; and then, through such Africanization of the constitution, to Africanize the Territories, and to Africanize the national government. . . . Under what ordinance of nature or of nature's God is one human being stamped an owner, and another stamped a thing? God is no respecter of persons. Where is the sanction for this respect of certain persons to a degree which becomes outrage to other persons? God is the Father of the human family; and we are all his children. Where, then, is the sanction of this pretension by which a brother lays violent hands upon a brother? To ask these questions is humiliating; but it is clear there can be but one response. There is no sanction for such pretension, no ordinance for it, or title. On all grounds of reason, and waiving all questions of “positive” statute, the Vermont judge was nobly right, when, rejecting the claim of a slave-master, he said, “No; not until you show a bill of sale from the Almighty.” Nothing short of this impossible link in the chain of title would do. I know something of the great judgments by which the jurisprudence of our country has been illustrated; but I doubt if there is any thing in the wisdom of Marshall, the learning of Story, or the completeness of Kent, which will brighten with time like this honest decree.

In closing his grand argument, Mr. Sumner used these hopeful words:--

Let the answer become a legislative act, by the admission of Kansas as a free State. Then will the barbarism of slavery be repelled, and the pretension of property in man be rebuked. Such an act, closing this long struggle by the assurance of peace to the Territory, if not of tranquillity to the whole country, [261] will be more grateful still as the herald of that better day, near at hand, when freedom shall be installed everywhere under the national government; when the national flag, whereever it floats, on sea or land, within the national jurisdiction, will not cover a single slave; and when the Declaration of Independence, now reviled in the name of slavery, will once again be reverenced as the American Magna Charta of human rights. Nor is this all. Such an act will be the first stage in those triumphs by which the Republic — lifted in character so as to become an example to mankind — will enter at last upon its noble “prerogative of teaching the nations how to live.”

This magnificent speech was unanswerable except by menace and vituperation. It struck the heart of the barbarous system, and was in respect to argument a death-blow. As soon as Mr. Sumner resumed his seat, Mr. Chestnut of South Carolina rose, and in the bitter spirit of the doomed institution said,--

After ranging over Europe, crawling through the back doors to whine at the feet of British aristocracy, craving pity, and reaping a rich harvest of contempt, the slanderer of States and men re-appears in the Senate. We had hoped to be relieved from the outpourings of such vulgar malice. We had hoped that one who had felt, though ignominiously he failed to meet, the consequences of a former insolence, would have become wiser, if not better, by experience. . . .

It has been left for this day, for this country, for the abolitionists of Massachusetts, to deify the incarnation of malice, [262] mendacity, and cowardice. Sir, we do not intend to be guilty of aiding in the apotheosis of pusillanimity and meanness. We do not intend to contribute, by any conduct on our part, to increase the devotees at the shrine of this new idol. We know what is expected, and what is desired. We are not inclined again to send forth the recipient of Punishment howling through the world, yelping fresh cries of slander and malice. These are the reasons, which I feel it due to myself and others to give to the Senate and the country, why we have quietly listened to what has been said, and why we can take no other notice of the matter.

“Only one word,” said Mr. Sumner, who with difficulty gained the floor: “I exposed to-day the barbarism of slavery. What the senator has said in reply to me, I may well print in an appendix to my speech as an additional illustration. That is all.”

Mr. Sumner commenced his speech about twelve o'clock, at noon, and continued till about four. The galleries of the Senate were filled with gentlemen and ladies from the North and South; and the most ominous silence prevailed. Mr. Wilson, Mr. King, Mr. Bingham, and Mr. Burlingame sat near the speaker, and, had any attempt at personal violence been made by Messrs. Keitt, Hammond, Toombs, Wigfall, or others who were present, smarting under the scourge of slavery, would doubtless have been ready to repel it.

In commenting on this speech, the correspondent of “The Chicago press and Tribune” wrote, “The [263] speech of Charles Sumner yesterday was probably the most masterly argument against human bondage that has ever been made in this or any other country since man first commenced to oppress his fellowman.”

Frederic Douglass in his paper truly said, “The network of his argument, though wonderfully elaborate and various, is everywhere and in all parts strong as iron. The whole slave-holding propaganda of the Senate might dash themselves against it, a compact body, without breaking the smallest fibre of its various parts.”

The London Punch said, “All the bludgeons in the hands of all the chivalry of the South cannot beat that demonstration of Mr. Sumner's case out of the heads of the public, in and out of the States.”

The Democratic papers, however, took a different view; and their general opinion may be seen from this remark of “The Albany Atlas and Argus:” “No one can rise from a perusal of this speech without a contempt for the author, and a conviction of his unfitness for the place.” Several of the Republican papers thought the speech too strong, and that it might retard the passage of the bill; but desperate cases require effective remedies.

Mr. Sumner received a large number of letters congratulating him for this splendid effort on behalf [264] of human rights. “It will reach every corner of the land,” wrote Salmon P. Chase: “ ‘cogens omnes ante thronum.’ ‘C’ est presqu'un discours antique, ‘ said a French gentleman to me last Saturday. I say, ’ C ‘est bien plus.’ ”

“It did me good,” wrote Carl Schurz, “to hear again the true ring of the moral anti-slavery sentiment.” “I do not know,” wrote the Rev. Nathaniel Hall, “in our day a nobler instance of moral bravery.” “It is the best arranged and by far the most complete exposure of the horrid rite of slavery,” wrote John Bigelow from New York, “to be found within the same compass in any language, so far as known.”

“I take pleasure in saying,” said Horace White, in a letter written from Chicago, “that in my opinion your recent effort ranks with Demosthenes on the Crown, and with Burke on Warren Hastings.” “Your speech,” wrote A. A. Sargent (now senator from California) to Mr. Sumner, “stirred my heart with feelings of pride for the representative of my native State.”

It was greatly feared by the friends of Mr. Sumner that personal violence would again be offered him; and, indeed, the attempt was made.

On the eighth day of June, a stranger called on him in the evening, stating that he had come to hold him [265] responsible for his speech, when Mr. Sumner directed him to leave the room. He departed after some delay, with the menace that he and his three friends from Virginia would call again. Mr. Sumner sent immediately for Mr. Wilson; and in the course of the evening three men came to the door, desiring. to see Mr. Sumner alone; but, as he was in company, they left word at the door, that, if they could not have a private interview, they would cut his throat before another night.

Messrs. Burlingame and Sherman remained as a guard until the next morning.

The friends of Mr. Sumner were much alarmed; and among others G. B. Weston thus wrote to him from Duxbury, Mass., “I am ready to shoulder my musket, and march to the Capitol, and there sacrifice my life in defence of free speech and the right.” By the foresight of A. B. Johnson, Mr. Sumner's private secretary, a body-guard armed with revolvers was arranged, which attended him, without his knowledge, to and from the Senate-chamber.

Prompt to sustain him in his heroic defence of truth, the legislature of Massachusetts passed on the 20th of June these resolutions--

Resolved, That the thanks of the people of this Commonwealth are due, and are hereby tendered, to the Hon. Charles Sumner for his recent manly and earnest assertion [266] of the right of free discussion on the floor of the United-States Senate; and we repeat the well-considered words of our predecessors in these seats, in approval of “Mr. Sumner's manliness and courage in his fearless declaration of free principles, and his defence of human rights and free instititutions.”

Resolved, That we approve the thorough, truthful, and comprehensive examination of the institution of slavery, embraced in Mr. Sumner's recent speech; that the stern morality of that speech, its logic, and its power, command our entire admiration; and that it expresses with fidelity the sentiments of Massachusetts upon the question therein discussed.

The Republican party in convention at Chicago in May, 1860, nominated Abraham Lincoln — who had manifested his ability and his devotion to the cause of freedom especially in his controversy with Stephen A. Douglas in Illinois, and who had said, “He who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave” --as its candidate for the Presidential chair.

John C. Breckenridge (nominated at Charleston, S. C.) was the Southern, Stephen A. Douglas the Northern Democratic, and John Bell (of Kentucky) the Union candidate. The grand question before the country was: Shall free or servile labor have the ascendency? Shall the vast territories of the Union come under the baleful domination of slavery, or be irradiated by the genial beams of freedom? The aim of the progressive party was the dethronement of the slave-power in the national [267] government, and the repression of that power to within the limits of the sovereignty of the States.

Mr. Sumner clearly saw and felt the magnitude of the question now at issue between the parties, and with all the power of his commanding eloquence threw himself into the exciting contest. In a splen-did speech before an immense audience at Cooper Institute, on the eleventh day of July, he said that by the election of Abraham Lincoln “we shall put the national government right, at least in its executive department;” “we shall save the Territories from the five-headed barbarism of slavery;” “we shall save the country and the age from that crying infamy, the slave-trade;” “we shall save the constitution, at least within the executive influence, from outrage and perversion;” “we shall help save the Declaration of Independence, now dishonored and disowned in its essential, life-giving truth,--the equality of men;” “and, finally, we shall help expel the slave oligarchy from all its seats of national power, driving it back within the States.” In conclusion he said,

Others may dwell on the past as secure; but, to my mind, under the laws of a beneficent God the future also is secure, on the single condition that we press forward in the work with heart and soul, forgetting self, turning from all temptations of the hour, and, intent only on the cause, [268]

With mean complacence ne'er betray our trust,
Nor be so civil as to prove unjust.

In a strong speech at the State Convention of the Republican party at Worcester, Aug. 29, he laid open the fallacy of the double-headed doctrine of popular sovereignty proposed by Mr. Douglas, “who was ready to vote slavery up, or vote it down.” So in open-air meetings at Myrick's Station, Sept. 18, and at Framingham, Oct. 11, he made an admirable vindication of the policy of the Republican party. At the latter place he said,--

“Freedom, which is the breath of God, is a great leveller; but it raises where it levels. Slavery, which is the breath of Satan, is also a great leveller; but it degrades every thing, carrying with it master as well as slave. Choose ye between them; and remember that your first duty is to stand up straight, and not bend before absurd threats, whether uttered at the South or repeated here in Massachusetts. Let people cry ‘Disunion!’ We know what the cry means; and we answer back, ‘The Union shall be preserved, and made more precious by its consecration to freedom.’ ”

On the evening (Nov. 5), before the grand triumph of the Republican party in the election of Mr. Lincoln, he said with rapturous emotion, in old [269] Faneuil Hall, “To-morrow we shall have not only a new president, but a new government. A new order of things will begin; and our history will proceed on a grander scale, in harmony with those sublime principles in which it commenced. Let the knell sound!

Ring out the old, ring in the new!
     Ring out the false, ring in the true!
Ring out a slowly-dying cause,
     And ancient forms of party strife!
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
     With sweeter manners, purer laws!

1 Pollok's Course of Time, Book VIII., 632.

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