1856 – U.S. Senator Charles Sumner spoke out against slavery


When Charles Sumner spoke out against slavery in 1856, he incurred the violent wrath of congressman Preston Brooks. (Wikimedia Commons)

At first it just seemed like a longwinded speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate—a five-hour, 112-handwritten-page address delivered over the course of two days in May 1856. But Charles Sumner, a senator for Massachusetts, had no way of knowing that “The Crime Against Kansas,” his fiery soliloquy that spoke out on the behalf of disenfranchised slaves, would become one of American history’s most inflammatory—and dangerous—speeches.

Sumner’s target was the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which gave citizens of the newly created territories “popular sovereignty,” and the right to vote for or against slavery. Sumner found the new law tantamount to “the rape of a virgin Territory,” and targeted several Southern senators, including Andrew Butler, for an extra dose of his scorn.

Butler, a pro-slavery senator from South Carolina, was absent that day and unable to defend himself. Nonetheless, Sumner decried Butler’s position on slavery. He mocked his notion of chivalry, saying “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.”

umner was the rare northerner who combined an anti-slavery stance with abolitionism and an absolute conviction in equal rights. Before he began his career in politics, he worked as a lawyer on a number of cases concerning African-American rights. In 1843 he opposed a state law that prohibited interracial marriage; in 1849 he represented the young Sarah Roberts, an African-American girl, in a school segregation case. Upon entering Congress, his first memorable speech was “Freedom National,” in which he critiqued the Fugitive Slave Act.

The Massachusetts senator’s provocative language and firm stance made him so unpopular that he was regularly jeered by other senators, denied the floor, and blocked from participating in congressional committees. But Sumner’s vocal advocacy for African-Americans didn’t go unnoticed. Shortly after making his “Freedom National Speech,” Frederick Douglass wrote him an encouraging letter. “All the friends of freedom, in every state, and of every color, may claim you, just now, as their representative. As one of your sable constituents—My dear Sir, I desire to thank you, for your noble speech for freedom.”

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Resource: Smithsonian