Nonfiction > E.C. Stedman & E.M. Hutchinson, eds. > A Library of American Literature > 1835–1860
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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps.  A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes.  1891.
Vols. VI–VIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 1835–1860
 
The Effect of Slave Ownership
By Charles Sumner (1811–1874)
 
[Speech on the Admission of Kansas. U. S. Senate, 4 June, 1860.—Works of Charles Sumner. 1875–83.]

ONE of the choicest passages of the master Italian poet, Dante, is where we are permitted to behold a passage of transcendent virtue sculptured in “visible speech” on the long gallery leading to the Heavenly Gate. The poet felt the inspiration of the scene, and placed it on the wayside, where it could charm and encourage. This was natural. Nobody can look upon virtue and justice, if only in images and pictures, without feeling a kindred sentiment. Nobody can be surrounded by vice and wrong, by violence and brutality, if only in images and pictures, without coming under their degrading influence. Nobody can live with the one without advantage; nobody can live with the other without loss. Who could pass life in the secret chamber where are gathered the impure relics of Pompeii, without becoming indifferent to loathsome things? But if these loathsome things are not merely sculptured and painted,—if they exist in living reality,—if they enact their hideous, open indecencies, as in the criminal pretensions of Slavery,—while the lash plays and the blood spurts,—while women are whipped and children are sold,—while marriage is polluted and annulled,—while the parental tie is rudely torn,—while honest gains are filched or robbed,—while the soul itself is shut down in all the darkness of ignorance, and God himself is defied in the pretension that man can have property in his fellow-man,—if all these things are “visible,” not merely in images and pictures, but in reality, the influence on character must be incalculably deplorable.
  1
  According to irresistible law, men are fashioned by what is about them, whether climate, scenery, life, or institutions. Like produces like, and this ancient proverb is verified always. Look at the miner, delving low down in darkness, and the mountaineer, ranging on airy heights, and you will see a contrast in character, and even in personal form. The difference between a coward and a hero may be traced in the atmosphere which each has breathed,—and how much more in the institutions under which each is reared. If institutions generous and just ripen souls also generous and just, then other institutions must exhibit their influence also. Violence, brutality, injustice, barbarism, must be reproduced in the lives of all living within their fatal sphere. The meat eaten by man enters into and becomes part of his body; the madder eaten by the dog changes his bones to red; and the Slavery on which men live, in all its fivefold foulness, must become part of themselves, discoloring the very soul, blotting the character, and breaking forth in moral leprosy. This language is strong, but the evidence is even stronger. Some there may be of happy natures—like honorable Senators—who can thus feed and not be harmed. Mithridates fed on poison, and lived. It may be that there is a moral Mithridates, who can swallow without bane the poison of Slavery.  2
  Instead of “ennobling” the master, nothing is clearer than that the slave drags his master down; and this process, beginning in childhood, is continued through life. Living much in association with his slave, the master finds nothing to remind him of his own deficiencies, to prompt his ambition or excite his shame. He is only a little better than his predecessor in ancient Germany, as described by Tacitus, who was distinguishable from his slave by none of the charms of education, while the two burrowed among the same flocks and in the same ground. Without provocation to virtue, or elevating example, he naturally shares the Barbarism of the society he keeps. Thus the very inferiority which the Slave-Master attributes to the African explains the melancholy condition of the communities in which his degradation is declared by law.  3
  A single false principle or vicious thought may debase a character otherwise blameless; and this is practically true of the Slave-Master. Accustomed to regard men as property, the sensibilities are blunted and the moral sense is obscured. He consents to acts from which Civilization recoils. The early Church sacrificed its property, and even its sacred vessels, for the redemption of captives. On a memorable occasion this was done by St. Ambrose, and successive canons confirmed the example. But in the Slave States all is reversed. Slaves there are hawked as property of the Church; and an instance is related of a slave sold in South Carolina to buy plate for the communion-table. Who can estimate the effect of such an example?  4
  Surrounded by pernicious influences of all kinds, positive and negative, the first making him do that which he ought not to do, and the second making him leave undone that which he ought to have done,—through childhood, youth, and manhood, even unto age,—unable, while at home, to escape these influences, overshadowed constantly by the portentous Barbarism about him, the Slave-Master naturally adopts the bludgeon, the revolver, and the bowie-knife. Through these he governs his plantation, and secretly armed with these enters the world. These are his congenial companions. To wear these is his pride; to use them becomes a passion, almost a necessity. Nothing contributes to violence so much as wearing the instruments of violence, thus having them always at hand to obey a lawless instinct. A barbarous standard is established; the duel is not dishonorable; a contest peculiar to our Slave-Masters, known as a “street-fight,” is not shameful; and modern imitators of Cain have a mark set upon them, not for reproach and condemnation, but for compliment and approval. In kindred spirit, the Count of Eisenberg, presenting to Erasmus a handsome dagger, called it “the pen with which he used to combat saucy fellows.” How weak that dagger against the pen of Erasmus. I wish to keep within bounds; but unanswerable facts, accumulating in fearful quantities, attest that the social system so much vaunted by honorable Senators, which we are now asked to sanction and extend, takes its character from this spirit, and, with professions of Christianity on the lips, becomes Cain-like. And this is aggravated by the prevailing ignorance in the Slave States, where one in five of the adult white population of native birth is unable to read and write.
 “The boldest they who least partake the light,
As game-cocks in the dark are trained to fight.”
There are exceptions, which we all gladly recognize; but it is this spirit which predominates and gives the social law. Again we see the lordlings of France, as pictured by Camille Desmoulins, “ordinarily very feeble in arguments, since from the cradle they are accustomed to use their will as right hand and their reason as left hand.” Violence ensues. And here mark an important difference. Elsewhere violence shows itself in spite of law, whether social or statute; in the Slave States it is because of law, both social and statute. Elsewhere it is pursued and condemned; in the Slave States it is adopted and honored. Elsewhere it is hunted as a crime; in the Slave States it takes its place among the honorable graces of society.
  5
 
 
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