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13 January, 2012
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."