By Susan Martin, Collection Services
It was the summer of 1850, and the Massachusetts Free Soil Party needed a standard-bearer. The party was just two years old and struggled to make headway against the two-party juggernaut of Democrats and Whigs. Free Soilers had seated only a handful of their candidates in Congress so far, but with the upcoming U.S. Senate election, they saw a chance to cement their influence on public policy.
Founded in 1848 by disillusioned anti-slavery Democrats and Whigs, the party’s primary issue was opposition to slavery in new territories acquired by the United States. Thus its slogan: “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor, Free Men.” To be a Free Soiler was not necessarily to be an abolitionist; the party platform didn’t call for an end to slavery, merely opposed its extension into new American land.
The Free Soilers’ sense of urgency was warranted. On 2 February 1848, with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War, the U.S. had annexed a massive amount of land, including Texas, California, and most of the American Southwest. The debate was raging: Would slavery be the law of the land in this new territory?
Then, on 7 March 1850, “the great Massachusetts Statesman” Daniel Webster gave a fateful speech. In his Seventh of March Speech, as it came to be known, Senator Webster argued in favor of the Compromise of 1850, including the abhorrent Fugitive Slave Law, as necessary to preserve the Union. Anti-slavery partisans in Massachusetts, where opposition to the compromise was strongest, were shocked and angry. Even more so when Webster was appointed Secretary of State by President Millard Fillmore in July.
To make matters worse, the nominee chosen by the Massachusetts Whig Party, Samuel A. Eliot, came out in support of Webster’s speech. The Whigs were the dominant party in the state, but Free Soilers could not, in good conscience, back Eliot’s candidacy. Tired of concessions to “the great Slave Power,” they met on 8 August to choose their own nominee.
They settled on Boston lawyer Charles Sumner, a staunch “anti-extensionist” and former “Conscience” (anti-slavery) Whig. The 39-year-old Sumner was an impressive orator notorious for delivering a controversial anti-war speech at Boston’s official Independence Day celebration five years earlier. He’d also recently argued against racial segregation in public schools in the landmark case of Roberts v. Boston, alongside African-American lawyer Robert Morris. And although he’d run for a Congressional seat once before and lost, Sumner was a logical choice, and Free Soilers were hopeful.
On 9 August 1850, Chairman William Bates and Secretary James W. Stone of the Massachusetts Free Soil Party wrote a letter to Sumner offering him the nomination. The letter, recently acquired by the MHS, reads in part:
You know well however the condition of our cause here. It is in its infancy. It requires all the energy of its advocates, all the perseverance of its friends and the vigilance of its defenders, in the absence of a daily press to counterbalance and expose the efforts of those who, we fear, might betray the citadel of freedom. There has never been a time when the clear manifestation of the principles we represent and maintain was more important than at present.
Sumner initially demurred. Then Congress passed the Compromise of 1850, and Sumner accepted the nomination.
He was a divisive candidate, to say the least. It took four months of repeated and contentious voting in Congress for Sumner to win the absolute majority necessary to take the seat, which he finally did in April 1851. It was the start of a long and illustrious career. Sumner would go on to serve in the Senate for almost 23 years, as a Free Soiler and then a Republican, until his death in 1874. Probably most famous as the victim of an assault by fellow Congressman Preston Brooks in 1856, Sumner is widely acknowledged as one of the most influential U.S. legislators during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras.
Blue, Frederick J. Charles Sumner and the Conscience of the North. Arlington Heights, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, 1994.
Blue, Frederick J. The Free Soilers: Third Party Politics, 1848-54. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1973.
Taylor, Anne-Marie. Young Charles Sumner and the Legacy of the American Enlightenment, 1811-1851. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001.