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AGAINST CAPITAL PUNISHMENT.
LETTER TO A COMMITTEE OF THE MASSACHUSETTS LEGISLATURE,
FEBRUARY 12, 1855.
SENATE CHAMBER, February 12, 1855. EAR SIR, — In response to your inquiry, I beg
leave to say, that I am happy in an opportunity to bear my testimony against Capital Punishment. My instincts were ever against it, and, from the time when, while yet a student of law, I read the classical report to the Legislature of Louisiana, by that illustrious jurist, Edward Livingston, I have been constantly glad to find my instincts confirmed by reason. Nothing of argument or experience since has in any respect shaken the original and perpetual repugnance with which I have regarded it. Punishment is justly inflicted by human power, with a twofold purpose: first, for the protection of society, and, secondly, for the reformation of the offender. Now it seems to me clear, that, in our age and country, the taking of human life is not necessary to the protection of society, while it reduces the period of reformation to a narrow, fleeting span. If not necessary, it cannot come within the province of self-defence, and is unjustifiable.
It is sad to believe that much of the prejudice in favor of the gallows may be traced to three discreditable sources: first, the spirit of vengeance, which surely does not properly belong to man; secondly, unworthy timidity, as if a powerful, civilized community would be in peril, if life were not sometimes taken by the government; and, thirdly, blind obedience to the traditions of another age. But rack, thumbscrew, wheel, iron crown, bed of steel, and every instrument of barbarous torture, now rejected with horror, were once upheld by the same spirit of vengeance, the same timidity, and the same tradition of another age.
I trust that the time is at hand, when Massachusetts, turning from the vindictive gallows, will provide a comprehensive system of punishment, which by just penalties and privations shall deter from guilt, and by just benevolence and care shall promote the reformation of its unhappy subjects. Then, and not till then, will our beloved Commonwealth imitate the Divine Justice, which “ desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness and live.”
Believe me, dear Sir, very faithfully yours,
TO THE CHAIRMAN OF THE COMMITTEE
THE DEMANDS OF FREEDOM :
REPEAL OF THE FUGITIVE SLAVE ACT.
SPEECH IN THE SENATE AGAINST MR. TOUCEY'S BILL, AND FOR THE
REPEAL OF THE FUGITIVE SLAVE ACT, FEBRUARY 23, 1855.
On the 23d of February, 1855, on motion of Mr. Toucey, of Connecticut, the Senate proceeded to the consideration of “a bill to protect officers and other persons acting under the authority of the United States,” by which it was provided that “suits commenced or pending in any State Court against any officer of the United States, or other person, for or on account of any act done under any law of the United States, or under color thereof, or for or on account of any right, authority, claim, or title set up by such officer or other person, under any law of the United States," should be removed for trial to the Circuit Court of the United States. It was seen at once that under these words an attempt was made to oust the State Courts of cases arising from trespasses and damages under the Fugitive Slave Act; and the bill was pressed, as everything for Slavery was always pressed, even on Friday, to the exclusion of the private claims to which that day was devoted under the rules of the Senate. A debate commenced, which was continued with much animation and feeling late into the night.
Mr. Sumner seized this opportunity to urge again his proposition to repeal the Fugitive Slave Act.' Just before the final question, he took the floor and spoke as follows.
R. PRESIDENT, - On a former occasion, as Sla
very was about to clutch one of its triumphs, I rose to make my final opposition at midnight. It is now the same hour. Slavery is pressing again for its accustomed victory, which I undertake again for the moment to arrest. It is hardly an accidental conjunction which constantly brings Slavery and midnight together.
Since eleven o'clock this forenoon we have been in our seats, detained by the dominant majority, which, in subservience to Slavery, refuses to postpone this question or to adjourn. All other things are neglected. Various public interests, at this late stage of the session, demanding attention, are put aside. According to usage of the Senate, Friday is devoted to private claims. I am accustomed to call it our day of justice, - glad, that, since these matters are referred to us, at least one day in the week is thus set apart. But Slavery grasps this whole day, and changes it to a day of injustice. By the calendar, which I hold in my hand, it appears that upwards of seventy-five private bills, with which are associated hopes and fears of widows and orphans, and of all who come to Congress for relief, are on your table, - neglected, ay, Sir, sacrificed, to the bill now urged with so much pertinacity. Like Juggernaut, the bill is driven over prostrate victims. And here is another sacrifice to Slavery.
I do not adequately expose this bill, when I say it is a sacrifice to Slavery. It is a sacrifice to Slavery in its most odious form. Bad as Slavery is, it is not so bad as hunting slaves. There is seeming apology for Slavery at home, in States where it prevails, founded on difficulties in the position of the master and the relations of personal attachment it sometimes excites; but every apology fails, when you seek again to enslave the fugitive whom the master cannot detain by duress or kindness, and who, by courage and intelligence, under guidance of the North Star, can achieve a happy freedom. Sir, there is wide difference between Slaveholder and Slave-Hunter.
But the bill before you is to aid in the chase of slaves. This is its object. This is its “ being's end and aim." And this bill, with this object, is pressed upon the Senate by the honorable Senator from Connecticut [Mr. TOUCEY]. Not from slave soil, but from free soil, comes this effort. A Senator from the North, a Senator from New England, lends himself to the work, and with unnatural zeal helps to bind still stronger the fetter of the slave.
MR. Rusk (of Texas) [interrupting]. Will the honorable Senator allow me to interrupt him ?
MR. SUMNER. Certainly.
MR. Rusk. I ask him to point out the words in this bill where Slavery is mentioned.
MR. SUMNER. I am glad the Senator from Texas asks the question, for it brings attention at once to the true character of this bill. I know its language well, and also its plausible title. On its face it purports to be “a bill to protect officers and other persons acting under the authority of the United States ”; and it provides for the transfer of certain proceedings from State Courts to the Circuit Courts of the United States. And yet, Sir, by the admission of this whole debate, stretching from noon to midnight, it is a bill to bolster up the Fugitive Slave Act.
MR. RUSK. I have not listened to the debate, but I ask the Senator to point out in the bill the place where Slavery is mentioned. If the Constitution and laws appoint officers, and require them to discharge duties, will he abandon them to the mob?
MR. SUMNER. The Senator asks me to point out any place in this bill where “ Slavery” is mentioned. Why, Sir, this is quite unnecessary. I might ask the Senator