Nonfiction > Ralph Waldo Emerson > The Complete Works
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).  The Complete Works.  1904.
Vol. XI. Miscellanies
VIII. The Assault upon Mr. Sumner
Speech at a Meeting of the Citizens in the Town Hall, in Concord, May 26, 1856

              His erring foe,
Self-assured that he prevails,
Looks from his victim lying low,
And sees aloft the red right arm
Redress the eternal scales.

MR. CHAIRMAN: 1 I sympathize heartily with the spirit of the resolutions. The events of the last few years and months and days have taught us the lessons of centuries. I do not see how a barbarous community and a civilized community can constitute one state. I think we must get rid of slavery, or we must get rid of freedom. Life has not parity of value in the free state and in the slave state. In one, it is adorned with education, with skilful labor, with arts, with long prospective interests, with sacred family ties, with honor and justice. In the other, life is a fever; man is an animal, given to pleasure, frivolous, irritable, spending his days in hunting and practising with deadly weapons to defend himself against his slaves and against his companions brought up in the same idle and dangerous way. Such people live for the moment, they have properly no future, and readily risk on every passion a life which is of small value to themselves or to others. Many years ago, when Mr. Webster was challenged in Washington to a duel by one of these madcaps, his friends came forward with prompt good. sense and said such a thing was not to be thought of; Mr. Webster’s life was the property of his friends and of the whole country, and was not to be risked on the turn of a vagabond’s ball. Life and life are incommensurate. The whole state of South Carolina does not now offer one or any number of persons who are to be weighed for a moment in the scale with such a person as the meanest of them all has now struck down. The very conditions of the game must always be,—the worst life staked against the best. It is the best whom they desire to kill. It is only when they cannot answer your reasons, that they wish to knock you down. If, therefore, Massachusetts could send to the Senate a better man than Mr. Sumner, his death would be only so much the more quick and certain. Now, as men’s bodily strength, or skill with knives and guns, is not usually in proportion to their knowledge and mother-wit, but oftener in the inverse ratio, it will only do to send foolish persons to Washington, if you wish them to be safe.
  The outrage is the more shocking from the singularly pure character of its victim. Mr. Sumner’s position is exceptional in its honor. He had not taken his degrees in the caucus and in hack politics. It is notorious that, in the long time when his election was pending, he refused to take a single step to secure it. He would not so much as go up to the state house to shake hands with this or that person whose good will was reckoned important by his friends. He was elected. It was a homage to character and talent. In Congress, he did not rush into party position. He sat long silent and studious. His friends, I remember, were told that they would find Summer a man of the world like the rest; ‘’t is quite impossible to be at Washington and not bend; he will bend as the rest have done.’ Well, he did not bend. He took his position and kept it. He meekly bore the cold shoulder from some of his New England colleagues, the hatred of his enemies, the pity of the indifferent, cheered by the love and respect of good men with whom he acted; and has stood for the North, a little in advance of all the North, and therefore without adequate support. He has never faltered in his maintenance of justice and freedom. He has gone beyond the large expectation of his friends in his increasing ability and his manlier tone. I have heard that some of his political friends tax him with indolence or negligence in refusing to make electioneering speeches, or otherwise to bear his part in the labor which party organization requires. I say it to his honor. But more to his honor are the faults which his enemies lay to his charge. I think, sir, if Mr. Sumner had any vices, we should be likely to hear of them. They have fastened their eyes like microscopes for five years on every act, word, manner and movement, to find a flaw,—and with what result? His opponents accuse him neither of drunkenness nor debauchery, nor job, nor speculation, nor rapacity, nor personal aims of any kind. No; but with what? Why, beyond this charge, which it is impossible was ever sincerely made, that he broke over the proprieties of debate, I find him accused of publishing his opinion of the Nebraska conspiracy in a letter to the people of the United States, with discourtesy. Then, that he is an abolitionist; as if every sane human being were not an abolitionist, or a believer that all men should be free. And the third crime he stands charged with, is, that his speeches were written before they were spoken; which, of course, must be true in Sumner’s case, as it was true of Webster, of Adams, of Calhoun, of Burke, of Chatham, of Demosthenes; of every first-rate speaker that ever lived. It is the high compliment he pays to the intelligence of the Senate and of the country. When the same reproach was cast on the first orator of ancient times by some caviller of his day, he said, “I should be ashamed to come with one unconsidered word before such an assembly.” Mr. Chairman, when I think of these most small faults as the worst which party hatred could allege, I think I may borrow the language which Bishop Burnet applied to Sir Isaac Newton, and say that Charles Sumner “has the whitest soul I ever knew.”  2
  Well, sir, this noble head, so comely and so wise, must be the target for a pair of bullies to beat with clubs. The murderer’s brand shall stamp their foreheads wherever they may wander in the earth. But I wish, sir, that the high respects of this meeting shall be expressed to Mr. Sumner; that a copy of the resolutions that have been read may be forwarded to him. I wish that he may know the shudder of terror which ran through all this community on the first tidings of this brutal attack. Let him hear that every man of worth in New England loves his virtues; that every mother thinks of him as the protector of families; that every friend of freedom thinks him the friend of freedom. And if our arms at this distance cannot defend him from assassins, we confide the defence of a life so precious to all honorable men and true patriots, and to the Almighty Maker of men. 2  3
Note 1. One evening in May, Judge Hoar came to Mr. Emerson’s house, evidently deeply stirred, and told in a few words the startling news that the great Senator from Massachusetts had been struck down at his desk by a Representative from South Carolina, and was dangerously hurt. The news was heard with indignant grief in Concord, and a public meeting was held four days later in which Mr. Emerson and others gave vent to this feeling.
  Among Mr. Emerson’s papers are the fragmentary notes on Sumner, given below, without indication as to when they were used.

  Clean, self-poised, great-hearted man, noble in person, incorruptible in life, the friend of the poor, the champion of the oppressed.
  Of course Congress must draw from every part of the country swarms of individuals eager only for private interests, who could not love his stern justice. But if they gave him no high employment, he made low work high by the dignity of honesty and truth. But men cannot long do without faculty and perseverance, and he rose, step by step, to the mastery of all affairs intrusted to him, and by those lights and upliftings with which the spirit that makes the Universe rewards labor and brave truth. He became learned, and adequate to the highest questions, and the counsellor of every correction of old errors, and of every noble reform. How nobly he bore himself in disastrous times. Every reform he led or assisted. In the shock of the war his patriotism never failed. A man of varied learning and accomplishments.
  He held that every man is to be judged by the horizon of his mind, and Fame he defined as the shadow of excellence, but that which follows him, not which he follows after.
  Tragic character, like Algernon Sydney, man of conscience and courage, but without humor. Fear did not exist for him. In his mind the American idea is no crab, but a man incessantly advancing, as the shadow of the ideal or the heavenly body that casts it. The American idea is emancipation, to abolish kingcraft, feudalism, black-letter monopoly, it pulls down the gallows, explodes priestcraft, opens the doors of the sea to all emigrants, extemporizes government in new country.
  Sumner has been collecting his works. They will be the history of the Republic for the last twenty-five years, as told by a brave, perfectly honest and well instructed man, with social culture and relation to all eminent persons. Diligent and able workman, with rare ability, without genius, without humor, but with persevering study, wide reading, excellent memory, high stand of honor (and pure devotion to his country), disdaining any bribe, any compliances, and incapable of falsehood. His singular advantages of person, of manners, and a statesman’s conversation impress every one favorably. He has the foible of most public men, the egotism which seems almost unavoidable at Washington. I sat in his room once at Washington whilst he wrote a weary procession of letters,—he writing without pause as fast as if he were copying. He outshines all his mates in historical conversation, and is so public in his regards that he cannot be relied on to push an office-seeker, so that he is no favorite with politicians. But wherever I have met with a dear lover of the country and its moral interests, he is sure to be a supporter of Sumner.
  It characterizes a man for me that he hates Charles Sumner: for it shows that he cannot discriminate between a foible and a vice. Sumner’s moral instinct and character are so exceptionally pure that he must have perpetual magnetism for honest men; his ability and working energy such, that every good friend of the Republic must stand by him. Those who come near him and are offended by his egotism, or his foible (if you please) of using classic quotations, or other bad tastes, easily forgive these whims, if themselves are good, or magnify them into disgust, if they themselves are incapable of his virtue.
  And when he read one night in Concord a lecture on Lafayette we felt that of all Americans he was best entitled by his own character and fortunes to read that eulogy.
  Every Pericles must have his Cleon: Sumner had his adversaries, his wasps and back-biters. We almost wished that he had not stooped to answer them. But he condescended to give them truth and patriotism, without asking whether they could appreciate the instruction or not.
  A man of such truth that he can be truly described: he needs no exaggerated praise. Not a man of extraordinary genius, but a man of great heart, of a perpetual youth, with the highest sense of honor, incapable of any fraud, little or large; loving his friend and loving his country, with perfect steadiness to his purpose, shunning no labor that his aim required, and his works justified him by their scope and thoroughness.
  He had good masters, who quickly found that they had a good scholar. He read law with Judge Story, who was at the head of the Law School at Harvard University, and who speedily discovered the value of his pupil, and called him to his assistance in the Law School. He had a great talent for labor, and spared no time and no research to make himself master of his subject. His treatment of every question was faithful and exhaustive, and marked always by the noble sentiment. [back]
Note 2. With this message of comfort to Sumner, struck down for his defence of Liberty, may be contrasted what is said of Webster when he abandoned her cause:—
  “Those to whom his name was once dear and honored, as the manly statesman to whom the choicest gifts of Nature had been accorded, disown him:… he who was their pride in the woods and mountains of New England is now their mortification,—they have torn his picture from the wall, they have thrust his speeches into the chimney,” etc.—“Address on the Fugitive Slave Law,” at Concord, 1851. [back]
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