All Rights Reserved.
Site last updated
26 June, 2013
The Conflict with Slavery
The Censure of Sumner.
by John Greenleaf Whittier
A letter to the Boston Daily Advertiser in reference to the petition
for the rescinding of the resolutions censuring Senator Sumner for
his motion to erase from the United States flags the record of the
battles of the civil war.
I beg leave to occupy a small space in the columns of the Advertiser for
the purpose of noticing a charge which has been brought against the
petitioners for rescinding the resolutions of the late extra session
virtually censuring the Hon. Charles Sumner. It is intimated that the
action of these petitioners evinces a lack of appreciation of the
services of the soldiers of the Union, and that not to censure Charles
Sumner is to censure the volunteers of Massachusetts.
As a matter of fact, the petitioners express no opinion as to the policy
or expediency of the senator's proposition. Some may believe it not only
right in itself, but expedient and well-timed; others that it was
inexpedient or premature. None doubt that, sooner or later, the thing
which it contemplates must be done, if we are to continue a united
people. What they feel and insist upon is that the proposition is one
which implies no disparagement of the soldiers of Massachusetts and the
Union; that it neither receives nor merits the "unqualified condemnation
of the people" of the state; and that it furnishes no ground whatever for
legislative interference or censure. A single glance at the names of the
petitioners is a sufficient answer to the insinuation that they are
unmindful of that self-sacrifice and devotion, the marble and granite
memorials of which, dotting the state from the Merrimac to the
Connecticut, testify the gratitude of the loyal heart of Massachusetts.
I have seen no soldier yet who considered himself wronged or "insulted"
by the proposition. In point of fact the soldiers have never asked for
such censure of the brave and loyal statesman who was the bosom friend
and confidant of Secretary Stanton (the great war-minister, second, if at
all, only to Carnot) and of John A. Andrew, dear to the heart of every
Massachusetts soldier, and whose tender care and sympathy reached them
wherever they struggled or died for country and freedom. The proposal of
Senator Sumner, instead of being an "insult," was, in fact, the highest
compliment which could be paid to brave men; for it implied that they
cherished no vindictive hatred of fallen foes; that they were too proudly
secure of the love and gratitude of their countrymen to need above their
heads the flaunting blazon of their achievements; that they were as
magnanimous in peace and victory as they were heroic and patient through
the dark and doubtful arbitrament of war. As such they understand it. I
should be sorry to think there existed a single son of Massachusetts weak
enough to believe that his reputation and honor as a soldier needed this
censure of Charles Sumner. I have before me letters from men, ranking
from orderly sergeant to general, who have looked at death full in the
face on every battlefield where the flag of Massachusetts floated, and
they all thank me for my efforts to rescind this uncalled-for censure,
and pledge me their hearty support. They cordially indorse the noble
letter of Vice-President Wilson offering his signature to the petition
for rescinding the obnoxious resolutions; and if these resolutions are
not annulled, it will not be the fault of Massachusetts volunteers, but
rather of the mistaken zeal of men more familiar with the drill of the
caucus than with that of the camp.
I am no blind partisan of Charles Sumner. I have often differed from him
in opinion. I regretted deeply the position which he thought it his duty
to take during the late presidential campaign. He felt the atmosphere
about him thick and foul with corruption and bribery and greed; he saw
the treasury ringed about like Saturn with unscrupulous combinations and
corporations; and it is to be regretted more than wondered at if he
struck out wildly in his indignation, and that his blows fell sometimes
upon the wrong object. But I did not intend to act the part of his
apologist. The twenty years of his senatorial life are crowded with
memorials of his loyalty to truth and free dom and humanity, which will
be enduring as our history. He is no party to this movement, in which my
name has been more prominent than I could have wished, and no word of his
prompted or suggested it. From its inception to the present time he has
remained silent in his chamber of pain, waiting to bequeath, like the
testator of the dramatist,
"A fame by scandal untouched
To Memory and Time's old daughter Truth."
He can well afford to wait, and the issue of the present question before
our legislature is of far less consequence to him than to us. To use the
words of one who stood by him in the dark days of the Fugitive Slave Law,
the Chief Justice of the United States,--"Time and the wiser thought will
vindicate the illustrious statesman to whom Massachusetts, the country,
and humanity owe so much, but the state can ill afford the damage to its
own reputation which such a censure of such a man will inflict."
AMESBURY, 3d month, 8, 1873.