Sunday, April 17, 2016

Confederate "Heritage" Month, April 17: In which Charles Sumner goes Biblical on the Slave Power

Southern slaveowners justified their Peculiar Institution of slavery as ordained by God. Charles Sumner in his Barbarism of Slavery speech didn't hesitate to dispute that assumption:

... I oppose the essential Barbarism of Slavery in all its influences, whether high or low, as Satan is Satan still, whether towering in the sky or squatting in the load. ...

Language is feeble to express all the enormity of this institution, which is now vaunted as in itself a form of civilization, "ennobling" at least to the master, if not the slave. Look at it in whatever light you will, and it is always the scab, the canker, the "bare bones," and the shame of the country; wrong, not merely in the abstract, as is often admitted by its apologists, but wrong in the concrete also, and possessing no single element of right. Look at it in the light of principles, and it is nothing less than a huge insurrection against the eternal law of God, involving in its pretensions the denial of all human rights, and also the denial of the Divine Law which God himself is manifest, thus being practically the grossest lie and the grossest Atheism. Founded in violence, sustained only by violence, such a wrong must by a sure law of compensation blast the master as well as the slave; blast the lands on which they live; blast the community of which they are a part; blast the Government which does not forbid the outrage; and the longer it exists, and the more completely it prevails, must its blasting influences penetrate the whole social system. Barbarous in origin; barbarous in its law; barbarous in all its pretensions; barbarous in the instruments it employs; barbarous in consequences; barbarous in spirit; barbarous wherever it shows itself, Slavery must breed barbarians, while it develops everywhere alike in the individual, and in the society of which he forms a part, the essential elements of Barbarism. ...

Idolatry has been often exposed in the presence of idolaters, and hypocrisy has been chastised in the presence of Scribes and Pharisees. Such examples may give encouragement to a Senator who undertakes in this presence to expose Slavery; nor can any language, directly responsive to the assumptions now made for this barbarism, be open to question. Slavery can only be painted in the sternest colors; but I cannot forget that nature's sternest painter has been called the best.
Sumner proceeds to undertake what academics call an immanent critique of slavery by looking at the laws on slavery and explicating what they mean in practical, human terms:

Sir, look at its plain import, and see the relation which it establishes. The slave is held simply for the use of his master, to whose behests his life, liberty and happiness are devoted, and by whom he may be bartered, leased, mortgaged, bequeathed, invoiced, shipped as cargo, stored as goods, sold on execution, knocked off at public auction, and even staked at the gaming table, on the hazard of a card or die; all according to law. Nor is there anything within the limit of life inflicted on a beast which may not be inflicted on a slave. He may be marked like a hog, branded like a mule, yoked like an ox, hobbled like a horse, driven like an ass, sheared like a sheep, maimed like a cur, and constantly beaten like a brute; all according to law. And should life itself be taken, what is the remedy? The Law of Slavery, imitating that rule of evidence which in barbarous days and barbarous countries prevented a Christian from testifying against a Mohamedan, openly pronounces the incompetency of the whole African race, whether bond or free, to testify in any case against a white man; and thus having already surrendered the slave to all possible outrage, crowns its tyranny by excluding the very testimony through which the bloody cruelty of the Slave-master might be exposed.

Thus in its Law does Slavery paint itself ....
The New York Times has the text of the speech online. I rely here on the text from the version published in 1863 as Barbarism of Slavery.

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