- The Conflict with Slavery (Charles Sumner and the State Department.) by John Greenleaf Whittier
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The Conflict with Slavery
Charles Sumner and the State Department.

by John Greenleaf Whittier


The wise reticence of the President elect in the matter of his cabinet has left free course to speculation and conjecture as to its composition. That he fully comprehends the importance of the subject, and that he will carefully weigh the claims of the possible candidates on the score of patriotic services, ability, and fitness for specific duties, no one who has studied his character, and witnessed his discretion, clear insight, and wise adaptation of means to ends, under the mighty responsibilities of his past career, can reasonably doubt.

It is not probable that the distinguished statesman now at the head of the State Department will, under the circumstances, look for a continuance in office. History will do justice to his eminent services in the Senate and in the cabinet during the first years of the rebellion, but the fact that he has to some extent shared the unpopularity of the present chief magistrate seems to preclude the idea of his retention in the new cabinet. In looking over the list of our public men in search of a successor, General Grant is not likely to be embarrassed by the number of individuals fitted by nature, culture, and experience for such an important post. The newspaper press, in its wide license of conjecture and suggestion, has, as far as I have seen, mentioned but three or four names in this connection. Allusions have been made to Senator Fessenden of Maine, ex-Minister Motley, General Dix, ex-Secretary Stanton, and Charles Sumner of Massachusetts.

Without disparaging in any degree his assumed competitors, the last-named gentleman is unquestionably preeminently fitted for the place. He has had a lifelong education for it. The entire cast of his mind, the bent of his studies, the habit and experience of his public life, his profound knowledge of international law and the diplomatic history of his own and other countries, his well-earned reputation as a statesman and constitutional lawyer, not only at home, but wherever our country has relations of amity and commerce, the honorable distinction which he enjoys of having held a foremost place in the great conflict between freedom and slavery, union and rebellion, all mark him as the man for the occasion. There seems, indeed, a certain propriety in assigning to the man who struck the heaviest blows at secession and slavery in the national Senate the first place under him who, in the field, made them henceforth impossible. The great captain and the great senator united in war should not be dissevered in peace.

I am not unaware that there are some, even in the Republican party, who have failed to recognize in Senator Sumner the really wise and practical statesmanship which a careful review of his public labors cannot but make manifest. It is only necessary to point such to the open record of his senatorial career. Few men have had the honor of introducing and defending with exhaustive ability and thoroughness so many measures of acknowledged practical importance to his imrnedicte constituents, the country at large, and the wider interests of humanity and civilization. In what exigency has he been found wanting? What legislative act of public utility for the last eighteen years has lacked his encouragement? At the head of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, his clearness of vision, firmness, moderation, and ready comprehension of the duties of his time and place must be admitted by all parties. It was shrewdly said by Burke that "men are wise with little reflection and good with little self- denial, in business of all times except their own." But Charles Sumner, the scholar, loving the "still air of delightful studies," has shown himself as capable of thoroughly comprehending and digesting the events transpiring before his eyes as of pronouncing judgment upon those recorded in history. Far in advance of most of his contemporaries, he saw and enunciated the true doctrine of reconstruction, the early adoption of which would have been of incalculable service to the country. One of the ablest statesmen and jurists of the Democratic party has had the rare magnanimity to acknowledge that in this matter the Republican senator was right, and himself and his party wrong.

The Republicans of Massachusetts will make no fractious or importunate demand upon the new President. They are content to leave to his unbiased and impartial judgment the selection of his cabinet. But if, looking to the best interests of the country, he shall see fit to give their distinguished fellow-citizen the first place in it, they will feel no solicitude as to the manner in which the duties of the office will be discharged. They will feel that "the tools are with him who can use them." Nothing more directly affects the reputation of a country than the character of its diplomatic correspondence and its foreign representatives. We have suffered in times past from sad mismanagement abroad, and intelligent Americans have too often been compelled to hang their heads with shame to see the flag of their country floating over the consular offices of worthless, incompetent agents. There can be no question that so far as they are entrusted to Senator Sumner's hands, the interest, honor, and dignity of the nation will be safe.

In a few weeks Charles Summer will be returned for his fourth term in the United States Senate by the well-nigh unanimous vote of both branches of the legislature of Massachusetts. Not a syllable of opposition to his reelection is heard from any quarter. There is not a Republican in the legislature who could have been elected unless he had been virtually pledged to his support. No stronger evidence of the popular estimate of his ability and integrity than this could be offered. As a matter of course, the marked individuality of his intense convictions, earnestness, persistence, and confident reliance upon the justice of his conclusions, naturally growing out of the consciousness of having brought to his honest search after truth all the lights of his learning and experience, may, at times, have brought him into unpleasant relations with some of his colleagues; but no one, friend or foe, has questioned his ability and patriotism, or doubted his fidelity to principle. He has lent himself to no schemes of greed. While so many others have taken advantage of the facilities of their official stations to fill, directly or indirectly, their own pockets or those of their relatives and retainers, it is to the honor of Massachusetts that her representatives in the Senate have not only "shaken their hands from the holding of bribes," but have so borne themselves that no shadow of suspicion has ever rested on them.

In this connection it may be proper to state that, in the event of a change in the War Department, the claims of General Wilson, to whose services in the committee on military affairs the country is deeply indebted, may be brought under consideration. In that case Massachusetts would not, if it were in her power, discriminate between her senators. Both have deserved well of her and of the country. In expressing thus briefly my opinion, I do not forget that after all the choice and responsibility rest with General Grant alone. There I am content to leave them. I am very far from urging any sectional claim. Let the country but have peace after its long discord, let its good faith and financial credit be sustained, and all classes of its citizens everywhere protected in person and estate, and it matters very little to me whether Massachusetts is represented at the Executive Council board, or not. Personally, Charles Sumner would gain nothing by a transfer from the Senate Chamber to the State Department. He does not need a place in the American cabinet any more than John Bright does in the British. The highest ambition might well be satisfied with his present position, from which, looking back upon an honorable record, he might be justified in using Milton's language of lofty confidence in the reply to Salmasius: "I am not one who has disgraced beauty of sentiment by deformity of conduct, or the maxims of a freeman by the actions of a slave, but, by the grace of God, I have kept my life unsullied."

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