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Analysis of Senetor Charles Sumner's Crime Against Kansas Speech

Updated on February 20, 2013

Charles Sumner

Sumner and the Crime Against Kansas

Sumner’s speech is an obvious rebuke towards the Senators from South Carolina and Illinois. However, depending on the tone, the first line seems a censure of the Senate, itself: “Senators who have raised themselves to eminence on this floor in championship of human wrong”. He describes slavery as a “human wrong”, “ugly”, “polluted” and a “harlot”. His argument is that slavery is repugnant and converse to the Republic and equality. Sumner is saying that by arguing Slave States cannot have “Equality under the Constitution,” unless allowed to practice slavery in all its appalling forms, those making such an argument are, in fact, being contemptuous of the fathers of the Republic and the equality they fought for. He expresses his condemnation with a passion and horror of what happens to slaves evocative of a true idealist.

Sumner’s speech is, as was Hammond’s Mudsill speech, a mudsling at the opposition, though perhaps more creatively and openly insulting. Unlike Hammond’s speech there is no comparison between slavery and the Northern system of wage labour, nor mention of beggars, inferiority of blacks, or the necessity of menial labour. There is no attempt to couch objectionable notions in accepted truths and thus sway his audience. Sumner skips allusion for more a direct harangue and makes all his arguments in the form of sarcasm and insult. Though he names both the Senator of South Carolina and that of Illinois in his opening statement, the Senator of South Carolina seems to be his particular target. The Senator of Illinois is likened with Sancha Panza, an arguably more flattering comparison than that of the Senator of South Carolina, who was equated with Don Quixote. Sancha Panza, while a lackey and follower of a loon, is not himself ludicrously unsound.

The Senator of South Carolina, on the other hand, suffers the well-hewn barb of being referred to not only as the mad Don Quixote, tilting at the windmills of anti slavery, but also as uninformed, insolent, a mulish sectionalist and “one of the maddest zealots.” Sumner not only directly insults the Senator, but by referring to him as Don Quixote and, by extension, delusional, and further stating “he believes himself a chivalrous knight, with sentiments of honor and courage”, he is in fact implying the exact opposite. The portrait of the Senator so creatively depicted is one of a boorish, delusory, stupid and unoriginal, obstinate, presumptuous, misguided, dishonourable, cowardly, extremist. Such a biting attack on the one Senator over the other appears indicative of an animosity towards the South Carolinian Senator. It would be interesting to see what the reason was for Sumner’s harsh treatment of the Senator of South Carolina, if there was one.

Sumner notes the undertaking of the South Carolinian Senator to direct scornful prose at those in opposition, and then proceeds to derisively depict the denunciations of said Senator, such as “sectional and fanatical”, and as lacking “all grace of originality and all sentiment of truth.” The converse of the Senators accusations are the truth, according to Sumner. The Senator, due to being unaware of his position and “his inability to see himself as others do”, adamantly, audaciously and without shame stands for the sectionalism of which he accuses others. It is after righting the “perversion of terms” wherein those fighting to return America to its original constitution “when Freedom and not Slavery was national, while Slavery and not Freedom was sectional” that Sumner states the main thrust of his argument: that the Republican party is national and fighting against the sectionalism espoused by the Southern states. “I affirm that the Republican party of the Union is in no just sense sectional, but, more than any other party, national—and that it now goes forth to dislodge from the high places that tyrannical sectionalism of which the Senator from South Carolina is one of the maddest zealots…”


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