Charles Sumner (1811-74)
Bill Long 8/8/05
Three Essays on A Massachusetts Abolitionist
As I was reading myself to sleep last evening with old copies of the Congressional Globe, the "minutes" of Congress from the mid-nineteenth century, a resolution of Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts at the opening of the 39th Congress (Dec. 1865) not only plunged me back into the life of that period but started me thinking of the way that Sumner's spirit might be useful in the coming culture war between Darwinian evolution and Fundamentalist Christian thought (under the guise either of Creationism or its more temperate cousin "Intelligent Design"). Lest you miss the point--the big public intellectual battle of the next decade will relate to the teaching of science. I may have to retool myself as a natural historian in order to land a haymaker or two, but I look forward to the challenge. In a nutshell, what "big science" doesn't realize is that they have gotten a "free ride" intellectually in our culture for a very long time; they will get their comeuppance in the next decade, but probably will never understand how their complacency and arrogance contributed to their problems.
Oh, This Essay IS about Charles Sumner
Charles Sumner shared what I call the Massachusetts "disease"--which is the sense that a revolution is always around the corner and you feel you are uniquely called to lead it. Whereas Connecticut was known in the 18th-19th century as the "land of gentle habits," Massachusetts had its fiery political radicals and educational reformers. Charles Sumner was a typical son of Massachusetts in this regard. Harvard educated (B.A. 1830 and LL.B. 1834), he was elected to the US Senate in 1852 and served in that body until his death more than 20 years later. He rose to national fame not just because of his antislavery opinions, which would not have distinguished him from thousands of other Bostonians, but because he was beaten severely in the Senate Chamber after it had adjourned for the day on May 22, 1856. The person who beat him, US Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina, violated the first rule of political engagement--if you don't want people to listen to your opponent, you don't go and beat him to a pulp with a gutta-percha-tipped cane while he is sitting innocently at his desk.
Why would anyone beat a US Senator in the Senate chamber so severely that it took Sumner three years to recover? Well, Sumner had just penned and delivered a most rebarbative and vituperative speech on the Senate floor. It is such a long speech that it takes almost an hour just to read. It flows with Latin quotations and references to English and Roman history--flowery reminders that at one time people did believe that classical civilization provided great moral examples to be imitated or avoided in modern life. Yet make no mistake about it. This speech, delivered a few days before Sumner's beating, was a gauntlet thrown down, a challenge to the "Slave Power" to admit once and for all that it were encircling the free states with their tentacular grip and gradually siphoning off the breath of democracy-loving citizens. Hillary Clinton could have gotten her "vast right-wing conspiracy" idea directly from Sumner's words, even though she is not nearly as eloquent, learned and fiery as he was [Granted, the rules of political engagement in 2005 do not yet permit a female presidential candidate to be "fiery"].
Getting to Sumner's Speech
Sumner entitled his speech, "The Crime Against Kansas." Though the speech goes on for page after page, it really is very simply arranged. Sumner is arguing in it for the immediate admission of Kansas into the Union as a free state, without waiting until a larger population is in place (his fears of Missouri slave-holders crossing into KS, wreaking havoc with the population, cowing them into submission and imposing a proslavery government there were amply justified). But he is not content in the speech merely to argue placidly for KS's immediate admission to the Union. Rather, he turns his speech into an expose of the designs of what he calls the "Slave Power"--the unified and relentless machinations of the South gradually to enslave the free-states as they had enbondaged their Black slaves. The three major points he discusses are these: (1) The true crime against Kansas, in its origin and extent; (2) The apologies (i.e., the defenses offered up) for the crime; and (3) The true remedy for the crime.
While space doesn't permit an exposition of the speech, a few points stick out. Under (1) Sumner gives what would soon become the standard "Northern" historical account of this period--which still is presented in most US History textbooks--that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was a measure acceded to by the North under pressure from the slaveowning South and assurances that this would buy peace for the future; that during the years from 1820 until the KS-NE Act of 1854 the "Slave Power" had grown in influence; that the Act was, under the guise of the doctrine of "popular sovereignty," a sneaky way to extend slavery to the territories; that the ultimate goal of the South was to create a nation where liberty was sectional and slavery was national. Under (2) Sumner goes into four apologies or defenses of the system of slavery. The one I like the best is his so-called "apology imbecile" or "Apology of Imbecility." Under this head, Sumner argues that the Slaveholders' claim that the President has no power to arrest the riots in Kansas that were daily making headlines in the East was plainly false.
For, he claims, sounding very 19th Century, "Only lately, a vessel of war in the Pacific has chastised the cannibals of the Fejee Islands, for alleged outrages on American citizens." But then he hastens to add that no "person of ordinary intelligence will pretend that American citizens in the Pacific have received wrongs from these cannibals comparable in atrocity to those received by American citizens in Kansas." Thus, we will protect our citizens from cannibalism (of those dark natives, you know), but not from slavery.
Well, now we are getting to the point of why Sumner was beaten. The next essay describes that.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long