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Chapter 6:

  • Mr. Sumner's Eulogy on Mr. Justice Story.
  • -- his Tribute to the memory of John Pickering. -- oration before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University. -- reference to Dr. Channing. -- eloquent Extract from the oration. -- Mr. Sumner's method of meeting the slave power. -- his Compliment to John Q. Adams. -- his Apostrophe to Daniel Webster. -- his letter to R. C. Winthrop. -- his Distrust of the Whig party. -- argument on the Validity of Enlistments. -- speech on the war, in Faneuil Hall. -- “White slavery in the Barbary States.” -- his interest in Prison Discipline, -- oration on “fame and glory.” -- Extract from the same. -- speech in the Whig Convention at Springfield.

Et magis, magisque viri nunc gloria claret.

Rest not! life is sweeping by:
Go and dare before you die.
Something mighty and sublime
Leave behind to conquer time.

In the autumn of this year (1845), Mr. Sumner was called to mourn the loss by death of his beloved friend and counsellor, Chief Justice Story, whom Lord Campbell characterized in the House of Lords as “the first of living writers on the law.” In “The Boston daily Advertiser,” Sept. 16, 1845, there appeared from Mr. Sumner's hand a most eloquent and discriminating eulogy of this great [75] American jurist. In it he says, “It has been my fortune to know or see the chief jurists of our times in the classical countries of jurisprudence,--France and Germany. I remember well the pointed and effective style of Dupin, on the delivery of one of his masterly opinions in the highest court of France; I recall the pleasant converse of Pardessus, to whom commercial and maritime law is under a larger debt, perhaps, than to any other mind, while he descanted on his favorite theme; I wander in fancy to the gentle presence of him with flowing silver locks, who was so dear to Germany,--Thibaut, the expounder of the Roman law, and the earnest and successful advocate of a just scheme for the reduction of the unwritten law to the certainty of a written text; from Heidelberg I fly to Berlin, where I listen to the grave lecture and mingle in the social circle of Savigny, so stately in person and peculiar in countenance, whom all the continent of Europe delights to honor: but my heart and my judgment, untrammelled, fondly turn to my Cambridge teacher and friend. Jurisprudence has many arrows in her golden quiver; but where is one to compare with that which is now spent in the earth? . . . I remember him in my childhood; but I first knew him after he came to Cambridge as professor while I was yet an undergraduate; and remember freshly, as if the words [76] were of yesterday, the eloquence and animation with which at that time, to a youthful circle, he enforced the beautiful truth that no man stands in the way of another. ‘The world is wide enough for all,’ he said, ‘and no success which may crown our neighbor can affect our own career.’ ”

Mr. Sumner prepared for “The Law Reporter” of June, 1846, another beautiful tribute, to the memory of the eminent scholar John Pickering, who died on the 5th of May preceding; and, in the course of the eulogy of his friend, indicates the magic of his own success: “His talisman,” said he,

was industry. He was pleased in referring to those rude inhabitants of Tartary, who placed idleness in the torments of the world to come; and often remembered the beautiful proverb in his Oriental studies, that by labor the leaf of the mulberry-tree is turned to silk. His life is a perpetual commentary on those words of untranslatable beauty in the great Italian poet:--

Seggendo in piuma,
In fama non si vien, ne sotto coltre:
Senza la qual chi sua vita consuma.
Cotal vestigio in terra di se lascia,
Qual fumo in áere ed in acqua la schiuma.

Dante, Inferno, Canto XXV.

On the twenty-seventh day of August, 1846, Mr. Sumner pronounced his splendid oration on “The [77] Scholar, the Jurist, the Artist, the Philanthropist,” before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University; in which he eloquently portrays the characters, and commemorates the names, of his illustrious friends, John Pickering, Joseph Story, Washington Allston, and William Ellery Channing, each of whom had but recently finished his career. This oration abounds with singular affluence of illustration, and with glowing thoughts clothed in choice and elegant language. From it the authors of our best school reading-books have drawn several passages as models for the student. At the dinner following the delivery of this admirable discourse, John Quincy Adams justly gave this sentiment: “The memory of the scholar, the jurist, the artist, the philanthropist; and not the memory, but the long life, of the kindred spirit who has this day embalmed them all.”

In characterizing the eloquence of Channing, the orator unconsciously described himself: “His eloquence had not the character and fashion of forensic efforts or parliamentary debates. It ascended above these, into an atmosphere as yet unattempted by the applauded orators of the world. Whenever he spoke or wrote, it was with the loftiest aims,--not for display, not to advance himself, not for any selfish purpose, not in human strife, not in any question of pecuniary advantage; but in the service [78] of religion and benevolence, to promote the love of God and man. In these exalted themes are untried founts of truest eloquence.”

His peroration glows with hope, and seems almost prophetic:--

Go forth into the many mansions of the house of life. Scholars, store them with learning; jurists, build them with justice; artists, adorn them with beauty; philanthropists, let them resound with love. Be servants of truth, each in his vocation; doers of the word, and not hearers only. Be sincere, pure in heart, earnest, enthusiastic. . . . Like Pickering, blend humility with learning. Like Story, ascend above the present in place and time. Like Allston, regard fame only as the eternal shadow of excellence. Like Channing, bend in adoration of the right. Cultivate alike the wisdom of experience, and the wisdom of hope. Mindful of the future, do not neglect the past: awed by the majesty of antiquity, turn not with indifference from the future. True wisdom looks to the ages before us as well as behind us. Like the Janus of the Capitol, one front thoughtfully regards the past, rich with experience, with memories, with the priceless traditions of virtue: the other is earnestly directed to the All Hail Hereafter, richer still with its transcendent hopes and unfulfilled prophecies. [79]

We stand on the threshold of a new age, which is preparing to recognize new influences. The ancient divinities of violence and wrong are retreating to their kindred darkness. The sun of our moral universe is entering a new ecliptic, no longer deformed by those images Cancer, Taurus, Leo, Sagittarius, but beaming with mild radiance of those heavenly signs, Faith, Hope, and Charity.

There's a fount about to stream;
There's a light about to beam;
There's a warmth about to glow;
There's a flower about to blow;
There's a midnight blackness changing Into gray:
Men of thought and men of action, Clear the way!

Aid the dawning, tongue and pen;
Aid it, hopes of honest men;
Aid it, paper; aid it, type;
Aid it, for the hour is ripe,
And our earnest must not slacken Into play:
Men of thought and men of action, Clear the way!

The age of chivalry has gone. An age of humanity has come. The horse, whose importance, more than human, gave the name to that early period of [80] gallantry and war, now yields his foremost place to man. In serving him, in promoting his elevation, in contributing to his welfare, in doing him good, there are fields of bloodless triumph nobler far than any in which Bayard or Da Guesclin ever conquered. Here are spaces of labor wide as the world, lofty as heaven. Let me say, then, in the benison once bestowed upon the youthful knight: Scholars, jurists, artists, philanthropists, heroes of a Christian age, companions of a celestial knighthood, “Go forth; be brave, be loyal, and successful.”

In a letter to Mr. Sumner dated September, 1846, Theodore Parker says:--

I thank you most heartily for your noble and beautiful Phi Beta Kappa Address. It did me good to read it. I like it, like it all, all over and all through. I like especially what you say of Allston and Channing. That sounds like the Christianity of the nineteenth century, the application of religion to life. You have said a strong word, and a beautiful, planted a seed ‘out of which many and tall branches shall arise,’ I hope. The people are always true to a good man who truly trusts them. You have had opportunity to see, hear, and feel the truth of that oftener than once. I think you will have enough more opportunities yet: men will look for deeds noble as the words a man speaks. I take these words [81] as an earnest of a life full of deeds of that heroic sort. --See Life and correspondence of Theodore Parker, vol. i., p. 316.

Mr. Sumner was no revolutionist. He held in profound reverence the organic law of the land. He would meet the commanding question of slavery on constitutional grounds alone. He believed that the provisions of the constitution in favor of the slaveholder were merely temporary, and that the instrument itself, which nowhere speaks of the slave as a chattel or recognized slavery as an institution, was framed in the expectation that the inhuman traffic in flesh and blood would be soon abandoned.

“There is,” said he, in an able speech before the Whig State Convention at Faneuil Hall, Sept. 23, 1846, “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 [82] 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.”

Assuming as a watchword, “repeal of slavery under the Constitutional laws of the Federal government,” he said: “The time has passed when this can be opposed on constitutional grounds. It will not be questioned by any competent authority that Congress may by express legislation abolish slavery, first in the District of Columbia; second in the Territories, if there should be any; third, that it may abolish the slave-trade on the high seas between the States; fourth, 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.”

Mr. Sumner then paid this brief, but memorable compliment to John Quincy Adams, “the old man eloquent,” who, as a true representative of the anti-slavery sentiment of the North, was fearlessly opposing the aggressions of the slaveholding power: [83] “Massachusetts has a venerable representative, 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!” He then, in this bold apostrophe, addresses Daniel Webster of the Senate, and points out a policy which it had. been well for the imperious leader of the old Whig party to have heeded: “Dedicate, sir,” said Mr. Sumner,

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 [84] teach 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.

In a characteristic letter to Robert C. Winthrop, dated Oct. 25, 1846, Mr. Sumner sharply criticises that gentleman's course in respect to the Mexican War; charging him with want of sympathy “with those who seek to carry into our institutions that practical conscience which declares it to be equally wrong in individuals and in states to sanction slavery.” “Through you,” continues Mr. Sumner, “they [the Bostonians] have been made to declare an unjust and cowardly war with falsehood in the cause of slavery. Through you they have been made partakers in the blockade of Vera Cruz, in the seizure of California, in the capture of Santa Fe, in the bloodshed of Monterey. It were idle to suppose that the poor soldier or officer only, is stained by this guilt. It reaches far back, and incarnadines the halls of Congress; nay, more,--through you it reddens the hands of your constituents in Boston;” and he concludes the letter by the assertion that [85] more than one of his neighbors will be obliged to say,--

Cassio, I love thee,
But never more be officer of mine.

In this forcible letter, the writer uses these memorable words indicating the eternal source of rectitude as the guide for the settlement of the great political question: “Aloft on the throne of God, and not below in the footprints of a trampling multitude of men, are to be found the sacred rules of right, which no majorities can displace or overturn.”

In a speech against the Mexican War at a public meeting in November following, when Dr. Samuel G. Howe was brought forward as a Congressional candidate in opposition to Mr. Winthrop, Mr. Sumner said, “It is with the Whigs that I have heretofore acted, and may hereafter act; always confessing a loyalty to principles higher than any party ties.”

On this solid platform of conscience and of duty, dealing his blows against the peculiar institution, Mr. Sumner proudly stood. He clearly saw and openly rebuked the subservience of his party to the slaveocracy of the South; and though not then an aspirant for political power, he caught prophetic glimpses of a rupture in the Whig organization, and of the ultimate triumph of the right. With the [86] uncompromising Garrison he had not yet come into sympathy; but within the constitution of the United States, he declared himself an eternal foe to slavery. His wing of the party soon received the title of “Conscience Whigs;” and conscience over might or cotton will eventually prevail.

Mr. Sumner was not for a moment idle. In January, 1847, he made a very able argument before the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, against the validity of enlistments in the regiment of volunteers raised by the State for the Mexican War. As counsel for one of the petitioners, he argued that the act of Congress of 1846, providing for the officering of the companies, was in some of the provisions unconstitutional, that the enlistments were not in accordance with that act, that the militia acts of Massachusetts had been fraudulently used in forming the regiment, and also that a minor could not be held by his contract of enlistment under the act. The validity of proceedings was sustained; but the minors were discharged. On the 4th of February following, he made a short but telling speech in Faneuil Hall, for the withdrawal of the American troops from Mexico, in which he said, “The war is not only unconstitutional: it is unjust; it is vile in its object and character. It has its origin in a well-known series of measures to extend and perpetuate slavery. [87] It is a war which must ever be odious in history, beyond the common measure allotted to the outrages of brutality which disfigure other nations and times. It is a slave-driving war. In its principle, it is only a little above those miserable conflicts between the barbarian chiefs of Central Africa, to obtain slaves for the inhuman markets of Brazil. Such a war must be accursed in the sight of God. Why is it not accursed in the sight of man?”

“Let a voice,” he eloquently closing said, “go forth from Faneuil Hall to-night, awakening fresh echoes throughout the kindly valleys of New England, swelling as it proceeds and gathering new reverberations in its ample volume, traversing the whole land, and still receiving other voices, till it reaches our rulers at Washington, and in tones of thunder demands the cessation of this unjust war.”

On the 17th of the same month he read before the Boston Mercantile Library Association a curious and brilliant paper on “White slavery in the Barbary States.”

Taking up its origin, history, and character brings into his subject a surprising wealth of learning and of illustration, drawn from English, French, and Spanish literature, and traces with a masterly hand the iniquities of slavery in the Barbary States [88] from the earliest times until its final extinction by Lord Exmouth, under the direction of His Royal Highness the Prince Regent of England, in 1816. In this discourse he adroitly aims a blow at slavery at home. The theme was new, the speaker's heart in sympathy with it: his researches were exhaustive; and he so graphically portrays the horrors of the slave system, and so breathes the spirit of humanity and Christian love into his lecture, as to render it a study worthy of the enlightened philanthropist and historian.

As gleams of golden light upon the thunder-cloud, so Mr. Sumner's tender sympathies relieved the gloomy scenes which he presents. Thus glowingly, in a charming passage, his kind regard for the unfortunate breaks forth: “Endeavors for freedom are animating; nor can any honest nature hear of them without a throb of sympathy. As we dwell on the painful narrative of the unequal contest between tyrannical power and the crushed captive or slave, we resolutely enter the lists on the side of freedom; and as we behold the contest waged by a few individuals, or perhaps by one alone, our sympathy is given to his weakness as well as to his cause. To him we send the unfaltering succor of our good wishes. For him we invoke vigor of arm to defend, and fleetness of foot to escape. The enactments of [89] human laws are vain to restrain the warm tides of the heart. We pause with rapture on those historic scenes in which freedom has been attempted or preserved through the magnanimous self-sacrifice of friendship or Christian aid. With palpitating bosom we follow the midnight flight of Mary of Scotland from the custody of her stern jailers; we accompany Grotius in his escape from prison in Holland, so adroitly promoted by his wife; we join with Lavalette in France in his flight, aided also by his wife; and we offer our admiration and gratitude to Huger and Bollman, who, unawed by the arbitrary ordinances of Austria, strove heroically, though vainly, to rescue Lafayette from the dungeons of Olmutz.”

This admirable production, every page of which proclaims the scholar and the friend of human liberty, was beautifully printed in 1853, by John P. Jewett and Company, in a volume with elegant illustrations by Edwin T. Billings, and should find a place in every library.

While abroad, Mr. Sumner's attention was naturally drawn to the condition of European prisons; and he availed himself of the opportunities afforded him by intercourse with distinguished friends of humanity, to study their various systems of discipline. On returning he continued his investigations on this subject; and in connection with Dr. Samuel [90] G. Howe, the Rev. Francis Wayland, and other gentlemen, became deeply interested in the course of the Boston Prison Discipline Society, and in the improvement of the condition of the prisons of our own country. Of the various systems in vogue, Mr. Sumner deprecated that of the promiscuous commingling of prisoners in one company, and also that of absolute solitude, endangering the health and preventing reformation. With the distinguished M. de Tocqueville, he favored the Pennsylvania system which embraced these element,--separation, labor in the cell, exercise in the pen air, visits, and books, together with moral and religious instruction. In a speech of much power before the Boston Prison Discipline Society, at the Tremont Temple, June 18, 1847, he criticised the partial and inefficient course of that body, and presented his enlightened views upon the subject, which gave fresh impulse to the efforts made for the amelioration of the systems of our penal institutions.

The next notable literary effort of Mr. Sumner was an address entitled “Fame and glory,” delivered before the literary societies of Amherst College, at their anniversary, Aug. 11, 1847. Although the theme was commonplace, the genius of the speaker unfolded it from such a lofty standpoint, and so affluently illustrated it with classic lore, as to impart [91] to it the charm of novelty, and to secure the warm approval of the college and the public. As in his oration on “The true grandeur of nations,” so in this, he condemned the art and the atrocities of war, and breathed forth his aspirations for the reign of universal peace and brotherhood. His positions, founded on the eternal principles of good — will to man, of truth and justice, were in advance of time, and by some persons, deemed Utopian; but he was introduced into the world to be a leader, not a follower; and, as William Cullen Bryant nobly says,--

Truth crushed to earth shall rise again:
     The eternal years of God are hers:
But Error, wounded, writhes in pain,
     And dies among his worshippers.

After passing in review the career of warriors, as Alexander, drunk with victory and wine; Caesar, trampling on the liberties of Rome; Frederick of Prussia, playing the game of robbery with human lives for dice,--he beautifully says, “There is another and a higher company, who thought little of praise or power, but whose lives shine before men with those good works which truly glorify their authors. There is Milton, poor and blind, but ‘bating not a jot of heart or hope;’ in an age of ignorance, the friend of education; in an age of servility [92] and vice, the pure and uncontaminated friend of freedom, tuning his harp to those magnificent melodies which angels might stoop to hear, and confessing his supreme duties to humanity in words of simplicity and power. ‘I am long since persuaded,’ was his declaration, ‘that to say or do aught worth memory and imitation, no purpose or respect should sooner move us than love of God and mankind.’ There is St. Vincent de Paul of France, once in captivity in Algiers. Obtaining his freedom by a happy escape, this fugitive slave devoted himself with divine success to labors of Christian benevolence, to the establishment of hospitals, to visiting those in prison, to the spread of amity and peace. Unknown, he repaired to the galleys at Marseilles, and, touched by the story of a poor convict, personally assumed his heavy chains, that he might be excused to visit his wife and children. And, when France was bleeding with war, this philanthropist appears in a different scene. Presenting himself to her powerful minister, the Cardinal Richelieu, on his knees he says, Give us peace: have pity upon us; give peace to France. ‘ There is Howard, the benefactor of those on whom the world has placed its brand, whose charity — like that of the Frenchman, inspired by the single desire of doing good — penetrated the gloom of the dungeon as with angelic presence. ’ A [93] person of more ability, ‘ he says with sweet simplicity, ’ with my knowledge of facts, would have written better; but the object of my ambition was not the fame of an author. Hearing the cry of the miserable, I devoted my time to their relief. ‘ And, lastly, there is Clarkson, who while yet a pupil of the university commenced those life-long labors against slavery and the slave-trade, which have embalmed his memory. Writing an essay on the subject as a college-exercise, his soul warmed with the task; and at a period when even the horrors of the ’ middle passage ‘ had not excited condemnation, he entered the lists, the stripling champion of the right.--He has left a record of the moment when this duty seemed to flash upon him. He was on horseback, on his way from Cambridge to London. ’ Coming in sight of Wade's Mill, in Hertfordshire, ‘ he says, I sat down disconsolate on the turf by the roadside, and held my horse. Here a thought came over my mind, that, if the contents of my essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end.’ Pure and noble impulse to a beautiful career!”

After such exalted models Mr. Sumner formed the ideal for his own life. In the Whig State Convention at Springfield, Sept. 29, 1847, he made a stirring speech against supporting any pro-slavery man for the presidential chair, and urging uncompromising [94] resistance against the extension of slavery to any territory to be acquired from Mexico.

“The Missouri compromise, the annexation of Texas, the war with Mexico,” said he,

are only a portion of the troubles caused by the slave-power. It is an ancient fable, that the eruptions of Etna were produced by the restless movements of the giant Enceladus, who was imprisoned beneath. As he turned on his side, or stretched his limbs, or struggled, the conscious mountain belched forth flames, fiery cinders, and red-hot lava, carrying destruction and dismay to all who dwelt upon its fertile slopes. The slavepower is the imprisoned giant of our constitution. It is there confined and bound to the earth. But its constant and strenuous struggles have caused, and ever will cause, eruptions of evil to our happy country, in comparison with which the flames, the fiery cinders, and red-hot lava, of the volcano are trivial and transitory. The face of nature may be blasted; the land may be struck with sterility; villages may be swept by floods of flame, and whole families entombed alive in its burning embrace: but all these evils shall be small by the side of the deep, abiding, unutterable curse of an act of national wrong.

Let us, then, pledge ourselves in the most solemn form, by united exertions at least to restrain this destructive influence within its original constitutional [95] bounds. Let us at all hazards prevent the extension of slavery, and the strengthening of the slave-power. Our opposition must keep right on, and not look back.

Like to the Pontic Sea,
Whose icy current and compulsive course
Ne'er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on
To the Propontic and the Hellespont.

In this contest, let us borrow from the example of the ancient Greek, who when his hands were cut off fought with his stumps, and even with his teeth. . . .

Loyalty to principle is higher than loyalty to party. The first is a heavenly sentiment, from God: the other is a device of this earth. Far above any flickering light or mere battle-lantern of party is the everlasting sun of truth, in whose beams are displayed the duties of men.

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