An Oration, Delivered Before the Municipal Authorities of the City of Boston, July 4, 1859
By, etc., etc. Boston. 1859. pp. 125.
THE opposition in the Common Council to the order (usual on such occasions in Boston) to print the oration of Mr. Sumner, and the series of assaults it has encountered from the administration press, have given it a considerable, though secondary, importance. Intrinsically a performance of great merit, those on whom the weight of his arguments and learning fell disclosed their sense of its power by the anger of their debate and their efforts to repel it.
Its value, as containing a fresh and instructive contribution to the knowledge of our Revolutionary history, derived from original sources of inquiry, explored by Mr. Sumner in person, would alone have rescued from neglect any ordinary Fourthof-July oration.
The services and aids of Spain, material and moral, pecuniary and diplomatic, to the American Revolutionary cause,— the introduction, through the fortunes of Captain John Lee of Marblehead, of the American question into the policy and politics of Spain,— the effect of the arrival of our National Declaration of the 4th of July, 1776, on the fate of that gallant New England cruiser, then detained as a pirate, for his heroic exploits under our infant and unknown flag,—the incidents of vast and varied labor and accomplishment in our behalf, connected with the name and administration of the eminent Spanish minister and statesman, Florida Blanca,—-the weaving and spreading out of that network of influences and circumstances, in the toils of which France and Spain entangled Great Britain, until she found herself confronted by much of the physical and all the moral power of the Continent, and from which all extrication was made hopeless, until the American Colonies should be free,— the origin of “the armed neutrality,” and the shock it gave to the naval power of England, in the very crisis of the hopes of American liberty,— are presented in a narrative, clear, condensed, and original.
.From the aspect of peace and freedom in which our country so happily reposes, going on prospering and increasing, “by confidence in democratic principles, by faith in the people, and by the spirit of mutual forbearance and charity,” the orator turns to that Europe to which our fathers looked for succor, now “echoing to the clang of arms, and hostile legions arrayed for combat.”
A tribute to Italy, for the gifts, poured out from her treasures of art, science, medical skill, and political knowledge, of literature and philosophy, to all the uses and adornments of human life, introduces a reference to the Italian Republics of the Middle Ages, which are shown to have been based on these great principles: — That all authority over the people emanates from the people,— should return to them at stated intervals, — and that its holders should be accountable to the people for its use. “ To those Republics,” it is added, “ we also owe the practical demonstration of the great truth, that no state can long prosper or exist where intelligent labor is not held in honor, and that labor cannot be honorable where it is not free.”
Mr. Sumner’s defence of democratic republican ideas,— of the fitness of the European peoples for self-government, — his repulse of those unbelieving theorists who would consign the French and the Italians to the eternal doom of oppression,—-are manly, powerful, and unanswerable. His hearty love of genuine democratic principles, as taught oy the old republican school of statesmen and philosophers, and his zealous pride of country, which always made him one of the most intensely American, in thought, word, and deed, of all the Americans who have ever sojourned in the Old World, shine forth from every page of the Oration. And in the honest ardor of his defence of the natural and political rights of man, as they were taught by Turgot, by Montesquieu, by Jefferson, not content with declamation or rhetoric, he ploughs deep into the reasoning by which they were demonstrated or defended, and ranges wide over the fields of learning by which they were illustrated. Careful for nothing but for the truth itself, he refutes the errors of a French writer who had charged practical ingratitude on the part of America towards de Beaumarchais, the agent of the first benefactions of France to these Colonies, and arraigns and exposes the historical mistakes of Lord Brougham and of President Fillmore, unfavorable to Republican France and to Continental liberty.
The crimes of Austria are shown to have been made possible by the moral support Austria has received from the government of England. The fruits of the reverses suffered by Hungary, and by other nationalities struggling for independence and popular liberty, are exhibited in the sacrifices since endured by England in the war in the Crimea, and in the embarrassments of the present hour.
Among our own duties and responsibilities to the great and world-wide cause of liberty,— discussed thus far in its relations to Europe,— Mr. Sumner proceeds to present the grand duty we owe, not less to ourselves than to Europe, of giving to the struggling nations an example of government true to the memories of our National Anniversary, and to the fundamental ideas of civil freedom “ implied in an independent, but rigidly responsible judiciary, and a complete separation of the legislative and judicial functions.”
From Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Marshall, and Story,— to say nothing of English and French jurists,— Mr. Sumner brings authority to define and illustrate the true place of the judicial office in the political system of a free government. And here, fidelity to those principles of liberty he had explained and defended, fidelity to the “good old cause” itself, at home and in the grand forum of the nations, demanded and received the frank avowal, that “ a recent scene in the Supreme Court of the United States has shown that Jefferson was no false prophet, and has furnished at the same time a serious warning to all who prefer a government based upon law to either despotism or anarchy.”
The clear and sharp, merciless and logical veracity with which he discriminates between the solemn judgment of a tribunal and a stump speech from the bench,— the startling narration of decisions and statutes, practice and precedent, condensed into a few of the closing pages of the Oration, with which the discussion read by Chief Justice Taney in the famous case of Dred Scott is confronted and exposed,— are among the greater merits of this elaborate and able discourse. It must have required of one not in the arena of political strife, who for a large part of his manhood has occupied himself abroad in the studies of an intelligent scholar and a patriotic American, somewhat of self-denial, to throw away the certainty of almost universal cheers for his performance, by incurring the displeasure of some of his audience and many of his countrymen.
It was not, however, in the interest of any opinion of African slavery that the case of Scott was here referred to. It was in the interest of republican liberty everywhere, endangered by all departures in the model republic of the world from fundamental principles of good government, and all the more perilled in proportion to the station, quality, and character of the active offender.
And Mr. Sumner was right. The truth of history, the law of this land, and of all lands where there is any law which marks a boundary between legal right and despotic usurpation, unite to denounce, and will forever condemn, the judicial magistrate whose great name is tarnished and whose “great office” is degraded by this political pronunciamento, uttered from the loftiest judicial place in America.
Stripped of verbiage and technicalities, the case is within the humblest comprehension. The chief justice and a majority of his associates held that Dred Scott, who sued his master for his freedom in the Federal court, had been already legally declared to be the slave of that same master by the highest court of the Stale of Missouri, in which State Scott resided at the time. They held that this decision of the Missouri court was binding on all other tribunals ; and that the Federal court had no authority to reverse it, even if wrong.
The merits of the cause then before the court were thus conclusively disposed of, whether the decision be regarded as bearing on the main issue between the parties, or on the plea in abatement filed by the defendant, avowing that Scott was not a citizen of Missouri,— an averment, if true, fatal to his standing in the Federal court.— since its jurisdiction of the cause depended on the citizenship of the litigants. In a word, if he was a slave, he was no citizen. If he was the slave of Sanford, his doom was fixed, his dream of rights dissolved. If the decision of the Missouri court was finally binding, the functions of the Federal tribunal were at an end.
What, then, was the pertinency of going on to argue the effect of the Ordinance of 1787 over Scott while a resident in Illinois, or of the Missouri Compromise on him during his residence in Wisconsin, or the effect of his color, race, or ancestral disabilities upon a cause controlled finally and beyond appeal by the authority of a decision already made and recorded !
Mr. Buchanan made hot haste to use this pronunciamento of his chief justice, issued only a few hours after his inauguration as President, and withheld until after the election of 1856 had taken place. He proclaimed — on its authority as a judicial exposition of a point of constitutional law— the existence of slavery in the Territory of Kansas. And he endeavored to make it efficient and powerful by practical application in the administration of the government of the Territory, and by interpolating these bastard dogmas, dropped from the Federal bench, into the creed of the political party of which he was the official chief.
These dicta of Mr. Chief Justice Taney made Dred Scott neither more nor less a slave, neither more nor less a citizen, than he had been without their utterance. But they aided the purpose of subjugating Kansas, of opening all American territory to slavery, of Africanizing the continent by reopening the slave-trade, of breaking down barriers which State legislation has interposed against the introduction of slaves, and of putting the propagandists of slavery in full possession of every power.
We gladly record our sense of the skill, learning, and intrepidity with which Mr. Sumner fulfilled his task of presenting, defining, and defending, within the brief limits of a single oration, the cause of Liberty, — Liberty,— American, European, universal.