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Chapter 5:

  • The steady Increase and Arrogance of the slave-power.
  • -- Mr. Garrison's efforts to resist it. -- opprobrium cast upon the Abolitionists. -- the Annexation of Texas. -- Mr. Sumner's view of slavery in “the true grandeur of nations.” -- compliments of Richard Cobden, Chief-justice Story, and Theodore Parker. -- extracts from the speech. -- efforts to prevent the final vote on the Annexation of Texas. -- Mr. Sumner takes open ground against slavery in his speech of Nov. 4, 1845. -- extracts from this speech. -- notice of Mr. Sumner's stand by Mr. Wilson. -- Mr. Sumner's preparation for his course. -- his Persistency.

Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to doubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple. --John Milton.

Before thy mystic altar, heavenly Truth,
I kneel in manhood as I knelt in youth:
Thus let me kneel till this dull form decay,
And life's last shade be brightened by thy ray:
Then shall my soul, now lost in clouds below,
Soar without bound, without consuming glow.

During Mr. Sumner's residence in Europe from 1837 until 1840, and for many subsequent years, the slave-power, which had early struck its roots deeply into the councils of the [62] nation, continued to extend its baleful influence even to the contamination of the entire body politic.

Its steady and persisten aim was the complete dominion of the legislation of the country. To resist the encroachments, or even to discuss the principles, of the servile system was deemed fanatical and revolutionary. William Lloyd Garrison, an invicible champion of freedom, was indeed, though the columns of his “Liberator,” boldly denouncing the inhumanity of the peculiar institution and warning the public of the steady advance of the slavepower; but to accord to him or his compeers any word of sympathy was to forfeit political caste, and to be branded as an agitator and an abolitionist,--reproaches which it then demanded an unflinching heroism to incur. In spite, however, of this general opprobrium, of legislative menace, or the perils of a ruthless mob, the tide of sympathy for our fellowmen in bondage was slowly swelling; and one friend of freedom after another, as Edmund Quincy, Wendell Phillips, William H. Burleigh, and Henry Wilson, son, nobly rose to assert that the aggressions of the slave-power could and must be met. Now where will Mr. Sumner take his stand? He is the pride of the aristocratic circles of Boston, a popular alumnus of Harvard University, an intimate friend of Mr. Justice Story,--who said that he should die content, [63] if his young protege could take his empty chair in the Cambridge Law School,--and of whom Chancellor James Kent declared, “He is the only person in the country competent to fill it.” He is a gentleman of varied and extensive learning; and his culture is enhanced by foreign travel, and by personal intercourse with the ripest scholars and men of genius of his age. What course will he pursue? On the one hand there is the grand old Whig party, with Daniel Webster, Abbott Lawrence, and Robert C. Winthrop at the head, with fame and fortune in the distance. On the other hand, there are a few radical anti-slavery agitators, who are held by men in power as contemptible disturbers of the public peace, and who may incur the fate of Elijah Parish Lovejoy, murdered by the mob at Alton. Which line of action will this accomplished young civilian take? We shall soon see.

In the summer of 1844 Mr. Sumner had a severe sickness, from which it was feared he would not recover. William Prescott, the historian, thus refers to it in his journal, under the date of Nahant, July 21: “Been to town twice last week,--most uncommon for me,--once to see my friend Calderon, returned as minister from Spain; and once to see my poor friend Sumner, who has had a sentence of death passed on him by the physicians. His sister sat by [64] his side, struck with the same disease. It was an affecting sight to see brother and sister thus, hand in hand, preparing to walk through the dark valley. I shall lose a good friend in Sumner, and one who, though I have known him but a few years, has done me many kind offices.” His sister Mary, a very amiable and accomplished lady, succumbed to the disease, from which her brother Charles, owing to the unusual vigor of his constitution; soon recovered.

During the administration of John Tyler, himself a slaveholder, the gigantic scheme of annexing Texas to the Union was introduced by Southern members into Congress. This republic, which had declared itself free from Mexican rule in 1835, embraced an area of 237,500 square miles, extending from the Sabine and Red Rivers on the east, to the Rio Grande (as some held), separating it from Mexico, on the west. The acquisition of such a vast extent of territory would give the slave states the command of the Gulf of Mexico, and insure to them the balance of political power. “It would give,” said Gen. James Hamilton, “a Gibraltar to the South;” and “Texas or disunion!” became the Southern war-cry. Mr. Webster, with the Whig party, opposed the annexation; and Mr. Van Buren said it would “in all human probability draw after it a war with Mexico.” On this question turned the election of James K. [65] Polk, in 1844; and three days previous to the expiration of his term of office, John Tyler signed the bill for the annexation of Texas to the United States. On the 4th of July, 1845, the Texan legislature approved the bill of annexation; and on the same day Charles Sumner first came into the political arena by the delivery of his great speech on the The true grandeur of nations before the authorities of the city of Boston. In this celebrated address — prepared to meet the impending war with Mexico, and the consequent extension of the slave power--Mr. Sumner argues against the ordeal of war, from a Christian stand-point; and establishes his positions by a remarkable affluence of learning, presented with a warm enthusiasm and in a most felicitous diction. The address produced a profound sensation, and was sharply criticised by the advocates of the war-policy, but the English patriot Richard Cobden did not hesitate to pronounce it “the most noble contribution made by any modern writer to the cause of peace.”

In a letter to Mr. Sumner, Mr. Justice Story says of the oration, “It is certainly a very striking production, and will fully sustain your reputation for high talents, various reading, and exact scholarship. There are a great many passages in it which are wrought out with an exquisite finish and elegance of diction and classical beauty.” [66]

From Theodore Parker, Mr. Sumner received the following characteristic note, which opened the way to a permanent friendship between these two intrepid advocates of human rights:--

I hope you will excuse one so nearly a stranger to you as myself, for addressing you this note. But I cannot forbear writing. I have just read your oration on the ‘True Grandeur of Nations’ for the second time, and write to express to you my sense of the great value of that work, and my gratitude to you for delivering it on such an occasion. Boston is a queer little city. The public is a desperate tyrant there; and it is seldom that one dares disobey the commands of public opinion. I know the reproaches you have already received from your friends, who will now perhaps become your foes. I have heard all sorts of ill motives attributed to you, and know that you must suffer attack from men of low morals, who can only swear by their party, and who live only in public opinion.

I hope you will find a rich reward in the certainty that you have done a duty and service to mankind.

The oration abounds in narratives and illustrations of remarkable beauty and impressiveness, as for example:--

“In our age, there can be no peace that is not [67] honorable: there can be no war that is not dishonorable. The true honor of a nation is to be found only in deeds of justice and beneficence, securing the happiness of its people,--all of which are inconsistent with war. In the clear eye of Christian judgment, vain are its victories, infamous are its spoils. He is the true benefactor, and alone worthy of honor, who brings comfort where before was wretchedness; who dries the tear of sorrow; who pours oil into the wounds of the unfortunate; who feeds the hungry, and clothes the naked; who unlooses the fetter of the slave; who does justice; who enlightens the ignorant; who, by his virtuous genius, in art, in literature, in science, enlivens and exalts the hours of life; who, by words or actions, inspires a love for God and for man. This is the Christian hero: this is the man of honor in a Christian land. He is no benefactor, nor deserving of honor, whatever his worldly renown, whose life is passed in acts of brute force; who renounces the great law of Christian brotherhood; whose vocation is blood. Well may old Sir Thomas Browne exclaim, ‘The world does not know its greatest men!’ for thus far it has chiefly discerned the violent brood of battle, the armed men springing up from the dragon's teeth sown by hate; and cared little for the truly good men, children of love, guiltless [68] of their country's blood, whose steps on earth have been noiseless as an angel's wing.”

One of the most remarkable passages, however, in this eloquent speech, is Mr. Sumner's declaration of his opposition to the system of slavery. It has been said that he commenced the reading of “The Liberator,” the guiding star of freedom, anterior to Mr. Wendell Phillips, whose eloquent voice had long before been heard in anti-slavery assemblages; but it appears that this was Mr. Sumner's first open, public avowal of his sentiments in respect to the rights of the colored race. He was led, undoubtedly, to espouse their cause, not from any desire of political advancement or emolument, but simply from his profound sense of justice, and his love of human right and liberty. In reference to the liberation of the slave, he says,--

What glory of battle in England's annals will not fade by the side of that great act of justice by which her parliament, at a cost of one hundred million dollars, gave freedom to eight hundred thousand slaves! And when the day shall come (may those eyes be gladdened by its beams!) that shall witness an act of greater justice still,--the peaceful emancipation of three millions of our fellow-men, “guilty of a skin not colored as our own,” now, in this land of jubilant freedom, held in gloomy bondage,--then [69] shall there be a victory, in comparison with which that of Bunker Hill shall be as a farthing candle held up to the sun. That victory shall need no monument of stone. It shall be written on the grateful hearts of uncounted multitudes, that shall proclaim it to the latest generation. It shall be one of the famed landmarks of civilization; nay more, it shall be one of the links in the golden chain by which humanity shall connect itself with the throne of God.

This masterly production, though containing some views upon the war-question which Mr. Sumner himself afterwards was led to modify, brought him at once to the front rank of the great orators of his time.

It has been said, that, in making researches for this speech, Mr. Sumner's thoughts were first directed to the dreadful iniquity of the salve system. He found that it implied a state of continual war, and therefore came to the determination to employ in its overthrow whatever ability he possessed.

Although the conditions of annexation had been accepted by its legislature, Texas had not yet actually become a State of the Republic. Strenuous efforts were therefore made by the friends of freedom to prevent the consummation of this slaveholding scheme. Conventions were held, petitions [70] signed, in various sections of our State, and eloquent speeches made by Edmund Quincy, Henry Wilson, Theodore Parker, William Henry Channing, R. W. Emerson, and others, with the design of influencing Congress on the final vote, On the 4th of November, 1845, a large meeting was held in Faneuil Hall in Boston, at which resolutions drawn up by Mr. Sumner were presented, setting forth that the annexation of Texas was sought for the purpose of increasing the market in human flesh, of extending and perpetuating slavery, and of securing political power, and in the name of God, of Christ, and of humanity, protesting against its admission as a slave State. These resolutions were eloquently and earnestly supported by Mr. Sumner, Mr. John G. Palfrey, Mr. Wendell Phillips, Mr. W. L. Garrison, and other Able advocates of freedom.

During his remarks Mr. Sumner eloquently exclaimed:--

God forbid that the votes and voices of the freemen of the North should help to bind anew the fetter of the slave! God forbid that the lash of the slave-dealer should be nerved by any sanction from New England! God forbid that the blood which spurts from the lacerated, quivering flesh of the slave should soil the hem of the white garments of Massachusetts!


He also introduced into this speech, as descriptive of a Northern man with Southern principles, his apt comparison of the iron bolts of the ship drawn out by the magnetic mountain of the Arabian story.

Let Massachusetts continue to be known as foremost in the cause of freedom; and let none of her children yield to the fatal dalliance with slavery. You will remember the Arabian story of the magic mountain, under whose irresistible attraction the iron bolts which held together the strong timbers of a stately ship were drawn out, till the whole fell apart and became a disjointed wreck. Do we not find in this story an image of what happens to many Northern men under the potent magnetism of Southern companionship or Southern influence? Those principles which constitute the individuality of the Northern character, which render it staunch, strong, and seaworthy, which bind it together as with iron, are drawn out one by one, like the bolts from the ill-fated vessel; and out of the miserable, loosened fragments is formed that human anomaly,--a Northern man with Southern principles. Such a man is no true son of Massachusetts.

“This,” says Mr. Henry Wilson in his invaluable History of the rise and fall of the slave power in America, “was the first public participation of M. Sumner in that great conflict in which he subsequently [72] bore a part so important and honorable. His speech and the resolutions from his pen were based on the fixed and indestructible principles of justice, humanity, and moral rectitude. Stating that the object of the meeting was to strengthen the hearts and hands of those opposed to the admission of Texas into the family of States, and referring to the voices of discouragement they heard, that all exertion would be in vain, he declared that their efforts could not fail to accomplish great good, as no act of self-sacrifice and devotion to duty can ever be without its reward. Such an act as theirs, he said, must ever stand as a landmark; and future champions of equal rights and human brotherhood will derive new strength from these exertions. ‘Massachusetts,’ he said, ‘must continue foremost in the cause of freedom; nor can her children yield to dalliance with slavery. They must resist it at all times, and be fore-armed against its fatal influence,’ He closed by expressing the hope that it might be hereafter among the praises of Massachusetts that on this occasion she knew so well how to say ‘No!’ ”

Mr. Sumner here stood boldly forth, and announced the course he had elected; and to it he adhered, with the unwavering steadiness of one whose feet are planted on the everlasting rock of truth, until the [73] termination of his life. He had made the liberation of the slave a most profound constitutional and legal study. He had prepared himself to invest the question with the charms of eloquence and poetry. He had access to the halls of learning. He had gained position as an orator and a scholar; and therefore his assumption of the advocacy of human freedom was of immense importance to the cause. In him the prophet saw the leader of the young men of culture and of learning in the coming crusade against oppression; and through his voice the advanced heralds of human freedom spoke. Bitter opposition he encountered; but his course was chosen.

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