He could not withhold the following burst of indignation:
The soul sickens in the contemplation of this legalized 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 bye-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.
France, letting slip the dogs of religious persecution by the revocation of the edict of Nantes; nor Charles I. of England, arousing the patriot rage of Hampden, by the extortion of Ship-money; nor the British Parliament, provoking, in our own country, spirits kindred to Hampden, by the tyranny of the Stamp Act and 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 with 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 far 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!
I have already likened this Bill to the Stamp Act, and I trust that the parallel may be continued yet further by a burst of popular feeling against all action under it, similar to that which glowed in the breasts of our fathers.
Listen to the words of John Adams, as written in his Diary for the time:—
The year 1765 has been the most remarkable year of my life.
That enormous engine, fabricated by the British Parliament, for battering down all the rights and liberties of America,—I mean the Stamp Act, —has raised and spread through the whole continent a spirit that will be recorded to our honor with all future generations.
In every colony, from Georgia to New Hampshire inclusively, the stamp distributors and inspectors have been compelled by the unconquerable rage of the people to renounce their offices.
Such and so universal has been the resentment of the people, that every man who has dared to speak in favor of the stamps, or to soften the detestation in which they are held, how great soever his abilities and virtues had been esteemed before, or whatever his fortune, connections, and influence had been, has been seen to sink into universal contempt and ignominy.
Surely the love of Freedom cannot have so far cooled among us, the descendants of those who opposed the Stamp Act, that we are insensible to the Fugitive Slave Bill.
The unconquerable rage of the people, in those other days, compelled the stamp distributors and inspectors to renounce their offices, and held up to detestation all who dared to
speak in favor of the stamps.
And shall we be more tolerant of those who volunteer in favor of this Bill—more tolerant of the Slave-Hunter, who, under its safeguard, pursues his prey upon our soil?
The Stamp Act could not be executed here.
Can the Fugitive Slave Bill?
And here, Sir, let me say, that it becomes me to speak with peculiar caution.
It happens to me to sustain an important relation to this Bill.
Early in professional life I was designated by the late Mr. Justice Story one of the Commissioners of the Courts of the United States, and, though I have not very often exercised the functions of this post, yet my name is still upon the lists.
As such I am one of those before whom, under the recent Act of Congress, the panting fugitive may be brought for the decision of the question, whether he is a freeman or a slave.
But while it becomes me to speak with caution, I shall not hesitate to speak with plainness.
I cannot forget that I am a man, although I am a Commissioner.
He thus gives vent to his own feelings:
Surely, no person of humane feelings, and with any true sense of justice—living in a land ‘where bells have knolled to church’—whatever may be the apology of public station, could fail to recoil from such service.
For myself let me say, that I can imagine no office, no salary, no consideration, which I would not gladly forego, rather than become in any way an agent in enslaving my brother-man.
Where for me would be comfort and solace, after such a work!
In dreams and in waking hours, in solitude and in the street, in the meditations of the closet, and in the affairs of men, wherever I turned, there my victim would stare me in the face; from the distant rice-fields and sugar plantations of the South, his cries beneath the vindictive lash, his moans at the thought of Liberty once his, now alas!
ravished from him, would pursue me, repeating the tale of his fearful doom, and sounding, forever sounding in my ears, ‘Thou art the man!’