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Chapter 8:

  • Mr. Sumner's literary Pursuits.
  • -- his political Views. -- his remarks on Utopian ideas. -- his position defined. -- oration before the American peace Society. -- encomium on peace. -- war pictures. -- a beautiful peroration. -- the Free-soil party. -- Convention at Worcester. -- address to the citizens of Massachusetts. -- argument in respect to colored schools. -- equality of all men before the Law. -- Daniel Webster's Subserviency to the South. -- the Fugitive-slave Law. -- Mr. Sumner's effective speech thereon. -- demands of the Free-soil party. -- Mr. Sumner's future course indicated. -- death of his brother Horace Sumner, and the Ossoli family.

Veuillez seulement, et les lois iniques disparoitront soudain, et la violence des oppresseurs se brisera contre votre fermete inflexible et juste. Rien ne resiste a l'union du droit et du devoir. --Livre du Peuple, par F. Lamennais.

For what avail
     The plough and sail,
Or land or life,
     If Freedom fail?

Mr. Sumner neither had nor cared to have much legal practice at this period. His time was, for the most part, spent either among his books — in close communion with the liberty-loving John Milton, with Nature's darling child William Shakspeare, with that glorious Florentine, [116] the God-gifted Dante, with the genial, quick-eyed Horace, with the blind old Homer, and other grand classical authors, from whom he drew fresh inspiration for the conduct of his life — in writing lectures for literary associations, or in the consideration of the commanding civil and political questions of the day. Occasionally he prepared an article for “The Christian Examiner,” or addressed a lyceum; but he had no desire to enter into the struggle for political place. His ambition was to be an independent thinker, entirely free from the trammels of office, and, in his own private way, to do something for the liberation of his fellowmen from bondage. He was called a theorizer and a visionary; but his thoughts were in advance of his age; and his opinions rested on the solid basis of eternal truth and equity. He had reached a higher level than the mercenary politicians of his time; and hence they could not understand him. “Much learning doth make thee mad,” said they; and so, alike unmindful of the ground-swell underneath and of the stars above, they went on drifting hard against the fatal breakers.

“If our aims,” said Mr. Sumner, in speaking of his views on peace, “are visionary, impracticable, Utopian, then the unfulfilled promises of the prophecies are vain; then the Lord's Prayer, in which we [117] ask that God's kingdom shall come on earth, is a mockery; then Christianity is an Utopia. Let me not content myself by reminding you that all the great reforms by which mankind have been advanced have encountered similar objections; that the abolition of the punishment of death for theft was first suggested in the ‘Utopia’ of Sir Thomas More; that the efforts to abolish the crime of the slave-trade were opposed, almost in our day, as impracticable and visionary: in short, that all the endeavors for human improvement, for knowledge, for freedom, for virtue, that all the great causes which dignify human history, which save it from being a mere protracted war-bulletin, a common sewer, a Cloaca Maxima, flooded with perpetual uncleanliness, have been pronounced Utopian; while, in spite of distrust, of prejudice, of enmity, all these causes have gradually found acceptance as they gradually became understood; and the Utopias of one age have become the realities of the next.”

In a letter dated Oct. 26, 1848, in which he most reluctantly accepts the nomination as the congressional candidate of the Free-soil party, Mr. Sumner says, “I have never held political office of any kind, nor have I ever been a candidate for any such office. It has been my desire and determination to labor in such fields of usefulness as are open to [118] every private citizen, without the honors, the emoluments, or the constraints of office. I would show by my example (might I so aspire!) that something may be done for the welfare of our race without the support of public sanction, or the accident of popular favor. In this course I hoped to be allowed to persevere unto the end. . . . The principles of Washington, of Jefferson, and of Franklin; the security of our constitution; the fair fame of our country; the interests of labor; the cause of freedom, of humanity, of right, of morals, of religion, of God,--all these are now at stake. Holier cause has never appeared in history. Let me offer to it, not my vows only, but my best efforts, wherever they can be most effectual.”

An ardent advocate of peace and good-will, Mr. Sumner delivered before the American Peace Society, on the 28th of May, 1849, a splendid oration on “The war systems of the Commonwealth of nations.” In this celebrated effort he displays the riches of a ripe scholarship, and a highly-cultivated imagination, to great advantage. Though some lack of logical method in arrangement, as in almost all his speeches, is observable, the positions taken are in harmony with the teachings of Christianity, and illustrated by a wealth of learning truly admirable. His pictures of the blessings attendant on peace, as [119] well as of the horrors of land and naval warfare, are drawn with the skill of a master. They are beautiful poems in prose, and are considered models in this kind of style. In his eloquent exordium he thus refers to the felicities of peace:--

Peace is the grand Christian charity, the fountain and parent of all other charities. Let peace be removed, and all other charities shall sicken and die. Let peace exert her gladsome sway, and all other charities shall quicken into celestial life. Peace is a distinctive promise and possession of Christianity: so much is this the case, that, where peace is not, Christianity cannot be. There is nothing elevated which is not exalted by peace. There is nothing valuable which does not contribute to peace. Of Wisdom herself it has been said, that all her ways are pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. Peace has ever been the longing and aspiration of the noblest souls, whether for themselves or for their country. In the bitterness of exile, away from the Florence which he has immortalized by his divine poem, pacing the cloisters of a convent, in response to the inquiry of the monk, “What do you seek?” Dante said, in words distilled from his heart, “Peace, peace.” In the struggles of civil war in England, while king and parliament were rending the land, a gallant supporter of the monarchy, renowned for the [120] bravery of battle, the chivalrous Falkland, cried, in words which consecrate his memory more than any feat of arms, “Peace, peace, peace!” Not in aspiration only, but in benediction, is this word uttered. As the apostle went forth on his errand, as the son left his father's roof, the choicest blessing was, “Peace be with you.” As the Saviour was born, angels from heaven, amidst quiring melodies, let fall that supreme benediction, never before tasted by the heathen tribes, addressed to all nations, and to all children of the human family, “Peace on earth, and good — will towards men.”

He thus vividly portrays the atrocities of war upon the land:--

I need not dwell now on the waste and cruelty of war. These stare us wildly in the face like lurid meteor-lights, as we travel the page of history. We see the desolation and death that pursue its demoniac footsteps. We look upon sacked towns, upon ravaged territories, upon violated homes: we behold all the sweet charities of life changed to wormwood and gall. Our soul is penetrated by the sharp moan of mothers, sisters, and daughters, of fathers, brothers, and sons, who, in the bitterness of their bereavement, refuse to be comforted. Our eyes rest at last upon one of those fair fields where Nature in her abundance spreads her cloth of gold, [121] spacious and apt for the entertainment of mighty multitudes; or, perhaps, from the curious subtlety of its position, like the carpet in the Arabian tale, seeming to contract so as to be covered by a few only, or to dilate so as to receive an innunerable host. Here, under a bright sun, such as shone at Austerlitz or Buena Vista, amidst the peaceful harmonies of nature, on the sabbath of peace, we behold bands of brothers, children of a common Father, heirs to a common happiness, struggling together in the deadly fight with the madness of fallen spirits; seeking with murderous weapons the lives of brothers who have never injured them or their kindred. The havoc rages. The ground is soaked with their commingling blood: the air is rent by their commingling cries. Horse and rider are stretched together on the earth. More revolting than the mangled victims, than the gashed limbs, than the lifeless trunks, than the spattering brains, are the lawless passions which sweep tempest-like through the fiendish tumult.

Nearer comes the storm and nearer, rolling fast and frightful on.
Speak, Ximena, speak and tell us, who has lost and who has won?
“Alas! alas! I know not: friend and foe together fall.
O'er the dying rush the living: pray, my sister, for them all.”


Horror-struck, we ask, Wherefore this hateful contest? The melancholy but truthful answer comes, that this is the established method of determining justice between nations.

His word-painting of warfare on the sea is still more vivid:--

The scene changes. Far away on the distant pathway of the ocean two ships approach each other, with white canvas broadly spread to receive the flying gales. They are proudly built. All of human art has been lavished in their graceful proportions and in their well-compacted sides, while they look in dimensions like floating happy islands of the sea. A numerous crew, with costly appliances of comfort, hives in their secure shelter. Surely these two travellers shall meet in joy and friendship: the flag at the mast-head shall give the signal of fellowship; the happy sailors shall cluster in the rigging, and even on the yard-arms, to look each other in the face, while the exhilarating voices of both crews shall mingle in accents of gladness uncontrollable. It is not so. Not as brothers, not as friends, not as wayfarers of the common ocean, do they come together, but as enemies. The gentle vessels now bristle fiercely with death-dealing instruments. On their spacious decks, aloft on all their masts, flashes the deadly musketry. From their sides spout cataracts [123] of flame, amidst the pealing thunders of a fatal artillery. They who had escaped “the dreadful touch of merchant-marring rocks,” who had sped on their long and solitary way unharmed by wind or wave, whom the hurricane had spared, in whose favor storms and seas had intermitted their immitigable war,--now at last fall by the hand of each other. The same spectacle of horror greets us from both ships. On their decks reddened with blood, the murderers of St. Bartholomew and of the Sicilian Vespers, with the fires of Smithfield, seem to break forth anew, and to concentrate their rage. Each has now become a swimming Golgotha. At length these vessels — such pageants of the sea, once so stately, so proudly built, but now rudely shattered by cannon-balls, with shivered masts and ragged sails — exist only as unmanageable wrecks, weltering on the uncertain waves whose temporary lull of peace is now their only safety. In amazement at this strange, unnatural contest away from country and home, where there is no country or home to defend, we ask again, Wherefore this dismal duel? Again the melancholy but truthful answer promptly comes, that this is the established method of determining justice between nations.

In his peroration these grand and hopeful ideas are most eloquently presented:-- [124]

Tell me not, then, of the homage which the world yet offers to the military chieftain. Tell me not of the glory of war: tell me not of the honor or fame that is won on its murderous fields. All is vanity. It is a blood-red phantom, sure to fade and disappear. They who strive after it, Ixionlike, embrace a cloud. Though seeming for a while to fill the heavens, cloaking the stars, it must, like the vapors of earth, pass away. Milton has likened the early contests of the Heptarchy to the skirmishes of crows and kites; but God, and the exalted Christianity of the future, shall regard all the bloody feuds of men in the same likeness; and Napoleon and Alexander, so far as they were engaged in war, shall seem to be monster crows and kites. Thus shall it be as mankind ascend from the thrall of brutish passions by which they are yet degraded. Nobler aims, by nobler means, shall fill the soul; a new standard of excellence shall prevail; and honor, divorced from all deeds of blood, shall become the inseparable attendant of good works alone. Far better, then, shall it be, even in the judgment of this world, to have been a door-keeper in the house of peace, than the proudest dweller in the tents of war.

There is a legend of the early Church, that the Saviour left his image miraculously impressed upon a [125] napkin which he placed upon his countenance. The napkin has been lost; and men now attempt to portray that countenance from the heathen models of Jupiter and Apollo. But the image of Christ is not lost to the world. Clearer than in the precious napkin, clearer than in the colors of the marble of modern art, it appears in every virtuous deed, in every act of self-sacrifice, in all magnanimous toil, in every recognition of the brotherhood of mankind. It shall yet be supremely manifest, in unimagined loveliness and serenity, when the commonwealth of nations, confessing the true grandeur of peace, shall renounce the wickedness of the war system, and shall dedicate to labors of beneficence all the comprehensive energies which have been so fatally absorbed in its support. Then, at last, shall it be seen that there can be no peace that is not honorable; and there can be no war that is not dishonorable.

Planted on the solid ground of opposition, under and within the constitution, to slavery and its extension, the Free-soil party commended itself more and more to the profound convictions of the Northern people, and, under the direction of such clearheaded men as Henry Wilson, Stephen C. Phillips, Charles A. Phelps, and Charles Sumner, gradually acquired position and commanding influence. At a convention of the party held at Worcester, Sept. 12, [126] 1849, Mr. Sumner, calling the members to order, said,--

“It was the sentiment of Benjamin Franklin, that great apostle of freedom, uttered during the trials of the Revolution, that ‘Where liberty is, there is my country.’ I doubt not that each member of this convention will be ready to respond, in a similar strain, ‘Where liberty is, there is my party.’ ”

A long and able address by Mr. Sumner to the citizens of Massachusetts on the Free-soil movement, was adopted by this convention, and widely circulated. Contrasting its position with the double dealing of the Whig party, he says, “Wherever we exist, in all parts of the country, East and West, North and South, we are truly a national party. We are not compelled to assume one face at the South, and another at the North; to blow hot in one place, and blow cold in another; to speak loudly of freedom in one region, and vindicate slavery in another,--in short, to present a combination in which the two extreme wings profess opinions on the great issue before the country, diametrically opposed to each other. We are the same everywhere; and the reason is, because our party, unlike the other parties, is bound together in support of certain fixed and well-defined principles. It is not a combination fixed by partisan zeal, and kept together, as with [127] mechanical force, by considerations of political expediency only; but a sincere, conscientious, inflexible union for the sake of freedom.”

Of the leading question of the party, he remarks, “It is an everlasting link in the golden chain of human progress. It is a cause which, though long kept in check throughout our country, as also in Europe, now confronts the people and their rulers, demanding to be heard. It can no longer be avoided or silenced. To every man in the land it now says, with clear, penetrating voice, ‘Are you for freedom, or are you for slavery?’ And every man in the land must answer this question when he votes.”

Towards the close of the year (Dec. 4) Mr. Sumner made a strong argument before the Supreme Court of the State, against the constitutionality of separate colored schools, establishing his positions both by the constitution and the legislation of the State, as well as by the decisions of the bench. In the course of the argument he said, in reference to the distinction between the Ethiopian and Caucasian races:

Each has received from the hand of God certain characteristics of color and form. The two may not readily intermingle; although we are told by Homer that Jupiter

Did not disdain to grace
The feast of Ethiopia's blameless race.


One may be uninteresting or offensive to the other, precisely as different individuals of the same race and color may be uninteresting or offensive to each other; but this distinction can furnish no ground for any discrimination before the law.

We abjure nobility of all kinds; but here is a nobility of the skin. We abjure all hereditary distinctions; but here is an hereditary distinction, founded not on the merit of the ancestor, but on his color. We abjure all privileges derived from birth; but here is a privilege which depends solely on the accident, whether an ancestor is black or white. We abjure all inequality before the law; but here is an inequality which touches not an individual, but a race. We revolt at the relation of caste; but here is a caste which is established under a constitution declaring that all men are born equal.

Closing his earnest plea for the rights of the slave, he nobly said, “Which way soever we turn, we are brought back to one single proposition,--the equality of men before the law. This stands as the mighty guardian of the rights of the colored children in this case. It is the constant, ever-present, tutelary genius of this Commonwealth, frowning upon every privilege of birth, upon every distinction of race, upon every institution of caste. You cannot slight it or avoid it. You cannot restrain it. God grant [129] that you may welcome it! Do this, and your words will be a ‘charter and freehold of rejoicing’ to a race which, by much suffering, has earned a title to much regard. Your judgment will become a sacred landmark, not in jurisprudence only, but in the history of freedom, giving precious encouragement to all the weary and heavy-laden wayfarers in this great cause. Massachusetts will then, through you, have a fresh title to regard, and be once more, as in times past, an example to the whole land.”

The South was steadily pressing for dominion; the Whig party of the North, weakened by the desertion from its ranks of many of the advocates of freedom, step by step gave way; and Daniel Webster, led on by a hope which dotage only could have entertained, of rising to the chief executive chair, in his fatal senatorial speech of March 7, 1850, bowed in most abject submission to the slaveholding interest. Keenly it was said by an honest farmer, as this mighty leader of the Whigs went down, “The masters never pay their slaves;” and never, after that false play for power, could his. words, once so grandly eloquent, reach the Northern heart.

By the death of President Taylor, July 9 of the same year, the executive power devolved on Millard Fillmore, who called Mr. Webster from the Senate to his cabinet. On the 18th of September following Mr. [130] Fillmore signed the infamous Fugitive-Slave Bill. “The North,” said one, “will never submit to this; and we shall make the breaking-point.” The sentiment of the lovers of freedom was aroused; and as a pent — up stream breaks through the dam arresting it, so the full torrent of indignation came rolling forth. In a speech at the Free-soil State Convention, held in Boston on the third day of October, 1850, Mr. Sumner denounced, in words of scathing power, the iniquity of this bill. The walls of Faneuil Hall had never echoed to more impassioned strains of eloquence. The words came from the heart, as winged with a celestial fire. A prophet greater than Daniel had come to judgment. “The soul sickens,” exclaimed Mr. Sumner,

in the contemplation of this outrage. In the dreary annals of the past there are many acts of shame; there are ordinances of monarchs, and laws, which have become a by-word and a hissing to the nations. But, when we consider the country and the age, I ask fearlessly, What act of shame, what ordinance of monarch, what law, can compare in atrocity with this enactment of an American Congress? I do not forget Appius Claudius, the tyrant decemvir of ancient Rome, condemning Virginia as a slave; nor Louis XIV. of France, letting slip the dogs of religious persecution by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes ; nor Charles I. of [131] England, arousing the patriot-rage of Hampden by the extortion of ship-money; nor the British Parliament, provoking in our country spirits kindred to Hampden, by the tyranny of the Stamp Act and the tea-tax. I would not exaggerate; I wish to keep within bounds: but I think no person can doubt that the condemnation now affixed to all these transactions and to their authors must be the lot hereafter of the Fugitive-Slave Bill, and of every one, according to the measure of his influence, who gave it his support. Into the immortal catalogue of national crimes this has now passed, drawing after it, by an inexorable necessity, its authors also, and chiefly him who as president of the United States set his name to the bill, and breathed into it that final breath without which it would have no life. Other presidents may be forgotten; but the name signed to the Fugitive-Slave Bill can never be forgotten. There are depths of infamy, as there are heights of fame. I regret to say what I must; but truth compels me. Better for him had he never been born! Better far for his memory, and for the good name of his children, had he never been president! Under this detestable, Heaven-defying bill, not the slave only, but the colored freeman of the North, may be swept into ruthless captivity; and there is no white citizen, born among us, bred in our schools, partaking [132] in our affairs, voting in our elections, whose liberty is not assailed also. Without any discrimination of color, the bill surrenders all who may be claimed as “owing service or labor” to the same tyrannical judgment. And mark once more its heathenism: by unrelenting provisions it visits with bitter penalties of fine and imprisonment the faithful men and women who may render to the fugitive that countenance, succor, and shelter which Christianity expressly requires. Thus, from beginning to end, it sets at nought the best principles of the constitution, and the very laws of God.

I will not dishonor the home of the Pilgrims and of the Revolution by admitting, nay, I cannot believe,--that this bill will be executed here. Individuals among us, as elsewhere, may forget humanity in a fancied loyalty to law; but the public conscience will not allow a man who has trodden our streets as a freeman to be dragged away as a slave. By his escape from bondage, he has shown that true manhood which must grapple to him every honest heart. He may be ignorant and rude, as he is poor; but he is of a true nobility. The fugitive slaves of the United States are among the heroes of our age. In sacrificing them to this foul enactment of Congress, we should violate every sentiment of hospitality, every whispering of the heart, every [133] dictate of religion. . . . But let me be understood: I counsel no violence. There is another power, stronger than any individual arm, which I invoke: I mean that invincible public opinion, inspired by love of God and man, which, without violence or noise, gently as the operations of nature, makes and unmakes laws. Let this opinion be felt in its Christian might, and the Fugitive-Slave Bill will become everywhere upon our soil a dead-letter. No lawyer will aid it by counsel: no citizen will become its agent. It will die of inanition, like a spider beneath an exhausted receiver. Oh! it were well the tidings should spread throughout the land, that here in Massachusetts this accursed bill has found no servants. “Sire, I have found in Bayonne honest citizens and brave soldiers only, but not one executioner,” was the reply of the governor of that place to the royal mandate of Charles IX. of France, ordering the massacre of St. Bartholomew.

But it rests with you, my fellow-citizens, by your works and your words and your example, by your calm determinations and your devoted lives, to do this work. From a humane, just, and religious people shall spring up a public opinion, to keep perpetual guard over the liberties of all within our borders. Nay, more: like the flaming sword of the cherubim at the gates of Paradise, turning on every [134] side, it shall prevent any slave-hunter from ever setting foot in this Commonwealth. Elsewhere he may pursue his human prey, he may employ his congenial blood-hounds, and exult in his successful game; but into Massachusetts he must not come. And yet, again I say, I counsel no violence. I would not touch his person. Not with whips and thongs would I scourge him from the land. The contempt, the indignation, the abhorrence, of the community shall be our weapons of offence. Wherever he moves, he shall find no house to receive him, no table spread to nourish him, no welcome to cheer him. The dismal lot of the Roman exile shall be his. He shall be a wanderer without roof, fire, or water. Men shall point at him in the streets, and on the highways.

Sleep shall neither night nor day
     Hang on his pent-house lid;
He shall live a man forbid.
     Weary seven nights, nine times nine,
Shall he dwindle, peak, and pine.

The villages, towns, and cities shall refuse to receive the monster: they shall vomit him forth, never again to disturb the repose of our community. . . .

“We demand, first and foremost,” continued he,

the instant repeal of the Fugitive-Slave Law. [135]

We demand the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia.

We demand the exercise by Congress, in all Territories, of the time-honored power to prohibit slavery.

We demand of Congress to refuse to receive into the Union any new slave State.

We demand the abolition of the domestic slave-trade so far as it can be constitutionally reached, but particularly on the high seas under the national flag.

And, generally, we demand from the federal government the exercise of all its constitutional power to relieve itself from the responsibility for slavery.

And yet one thing further must be done: the slave-power must be overturned, so that the federal government may be put openly, actively, and perpetually on the side of freedom.

These demands he lived to see fairly and squarely met.

Referring to his own future course, he indicates that line of action which he undeviatingly pursued until the close of life:--

“To vindicate freedom, and to oppose slavery, so far as I might constitutionally, with earnestness, and yet, I trust, without any personal unkindness on my part, has been the object near my heart. Would [136] that I could impress upon all who now hear me something of the strength of my own conviction of the importance of this work! Would that my voice, leaving this crowded hall to-night, could traverse the hills and valleys of New England, that it could run along the rivers and the lakes of my country, lighting in every humane heart a beacon-flame to arouse the slumberers throughout the land! In this cause I care not for the name by which I may be called. Let it be ‘Democrat’ or ‘Loco-foco,’ if you please: no man who is in earnest will hesitate on account of a name. I shall rejoice in any associates from any quarter, and shall ever be found with that party which most truly represents the principles of freedom. Others may become indifferent to these principles, bartering them for political success, vain and short-lived, or forgetting the visions of youth in the dreams of age. Whenever I shall forget them, whenever I shall become indifferent to them, whenever I shall cease to be constant in maintaining them, through good report and evil report, in any future combinations of party,--then may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!--may my right hand forget its cunning!”

In the summer of this year, Mr. Sumner was called to lament the loss of his brother Horace, who was drowned in his endeavor to escape from the [137] wreck of the ship “Elizabeth,” which was driven by a violent gale upon the beach of Fire Island early in the morning of the 16th of July. He was of a poetical temperament, and had been residing at Rome and Florence, for the sake of regaining his health, in the family of the gifted Margaret Fuller d'ossoli, who, on the 17th of May, with her husband, their child Angelo, and Mr. Sumner, embarked at Leghorn for New York. On the 15th of July the ship arrived in sight of land on the Jersey coast; but, the wind arising during the night, it was driven past Rockaway, and, early the next morning, struck upon the sand, and soon went to pieces in full sight of the people on the shore. In attempting to reach the land upon a plank, Mr. Sumner was lost; while the Ossoli family, remaining in the vessel, shared the same melancholy fate.

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