Words That Men Live By
Sen. Charles Sumner (1856)
WASHINGTON, D. C., May, 1856 - As this month draws to a close, lowering the curtain on perhaps the most heated debates yet held in Congress over the question of slavery, the steamy atmosphere of the nation's capital seems to quiver in echoes to words said and deeds done without precedent in the history of Capitol Hill.
Senator Charles Sumner, of Massachusetts, lies grievously hurt* in his bed as a result of a beating administered to him on May 22 by Mr. Preston S. Brooks, nephew of Senator Andrew Pickens Butler, of South Carolina. Yet while Senator Sumner suffers physically, Senator Butler and Senator Stephen A. Douglas, of lllinois, carry the unseen but colorful bruises of such a tongue-lashing as never has been heard here in public debate.
The Massachusetts Senator, already noted for his mastery of invective, went beyond propriety in a two-day oration on the floor of the Senate, in which he denounced with all his abolitionist fervor what he termed "The Crime Against Kansas" - the compromise measure by which admission of Kansas as a State of the Union was predicated upon recognition of the right of perpetuation of slavery by the Southern states and within certain I other territories yet to be admitted as States.
Senator Sumner's speech, has further clouded the slavery issue with bitter personal animosities.
*Senator Sumner was three years in recovering from these injuries and never made a complete recovery.
The wickedness, which I now begin to expose is immeasurably aggravated by the motive which prompted it. Not in any common lust for power did this uncommon tragedy have its origin. It is the rape of a virgin Territory, compelling it to the hateful embrace of slavery; and it may be clearly traced to a depraved longing for a new slave State, the hideous offspring of such a crime, in the hope of adding to the power of slavery in the National Government. Yes, sir; when the whole world, alike Christian and Turk, is rising up to condemn this wrong, and to make it a hissing to the nations, here in our Republic, force - ay, sir, force - has been openly employed in compelling Kansas to this pollution, and all for the sake of political power. There is the simple fact, which you will in vain attempt to deny, but which in itself presents an essential wickedness that makes other public crimes seem like public virtues. ..Printable version
But, before entering upon the argument, I must say something of a general character, particularly in response to what has fallen from Senators who have raised themselves to eminence on this floor in championship of human wrongs. I mean the Senator from South Carolina (Mr. Butler), and the Senator from Illinois (Mr. Douglas), who, though unlike as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, yet, like this couple, sally forth together in the same adventure. I regret much to miss the elder Senator from his seat; but the cause, against which he has run a tilt, with such activity of animosity, demands that the opportunity of exposing him should not be lost; and it is for the cause that I speak. The Senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight, with sentiments of honor and courage.
Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and, who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight - I mean the harlot, Slavery. For her, his tongue is always profuse in words. Let her be impeached in character, or any proposition made to shut her out from the extension of her wantonness, and no extravagance of manner or hardihood of assertion is then too great for this Senator. The frenzy of Don Quixote, in behalf of his wench, Dulcinea del Toboso, is all surpassed. The asserted rights of slavery, which shock equality of all kinds, are cloaked by a fantastic claim of equality. If the slave States cannot enjoy what, in mockery of the great fathers of the Republic, he misnames equality under the Constitution - in other words, the full power in the national territories to compel fellow-men to unpaid toil, to separate husband and wife, and to sell little children at the auction block-then, sir, the chivalric Senator will conduct the State of South Carolina out of the Union! Heroic knight! Exalted Senator! A second Moses come for a second Exodus!
But not content with this poor menace, which we have been twice told was "measured," the Senator in the unrestrained chivalry of his nature, has undertaken to apply opprobrious words to those who differ from him on this floor. He calls them "sectional and fanatical"; and opposition to the usurpation in Kansas he denounces as "an uncalculating fanaticism." To be sure these charges lack all grace of originality, and all sentiments of truth; but the adventurous Senator does not hesitate. He is the uncompromising, un- blushing representative on this floor of a flagrant sectionalism, which now domineers over the Republic. ...
As the Senator from South Carolina is the Don Quixote, the Senator from lllinois (Mr. Douglas) is the squire of slavery, its very Sancho Panza, ready to do all its humiliating offices. This Senator, in his labored address, vindicating his labored report-piling one mass of elaborate error upon an- other mass-constrained himself, as you will remember, to unfamiliar decencies of speech. Of that address I have nothing to say at this moment, though before I sit down I shall show something of its fallacies. But I go back now to an earlier occasion, when, true to his native impulses, he threw into this discussion, "for a charm of powerful trouble," personalities most discreditable to this body. I will not stop to repel the imputations which he cast upon myself; but I mention them to remind you of the "sweltered venom sleeping got," which, with other poisoned ingredients, he cast into the cauldron of this debate.
...Standing on this floor, the Senator issued his rescript, requiring sub- mission to the usurped power of Kansas; and this was accompanied by a manner-all his own-such as befits the tyrannical threat. Very well! Let the Senator try. I tell him now that he cannot enforce any such submission. The Senator, with the slave power at his back, is strong; but he is not strong enough for this purpose. ...He may convulse this country with a civil feud. Like the ancient madman, he may set fire to this temple of constitutional liberty, grander than the Ephesian dome; but he cannot enforce obedience to that tyrannical usurpation.