The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson - by R.W. Emerson Institute, Jim Manley, Director -

VIII The Assault Upon Mr. Sumner

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 : 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 mad-caps, 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, there-fore, 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 Sumner a man of the world like the rest ; ' 'tis 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 col-leagues, 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 in-creasing 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 he 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."

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.'

The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson