Saturday, August 14, 2010

Charles Sumner Visited Kentucky

Who knew! So, I'm reading Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War by David Herbert Donald and I come across a section that explained that in the summer of 1855 Sumner visited Kentucky. Maybe I shouldn't be so surprised. He was after all a known traveler, having made a trip Europe in the late 1830s and again in 1858 while he was recovering from his caning by South Carolinian Preston Brooks two years before. But it is interesting that as vehement as he was against the institution of slavery, he would visit a western slave state. Actually he not only stopped in Kentucky, he also visited Tennessee and Missouri. Of course, Sumner probably had some minor experiences with slavery before, what with working in Washington D.C. (where slavery was legal) as a Massachusetts senator since 1851.

Apparently after visiting his friend Salmon Chase (who would later become Secretary of the Treasury under in the Lincoln administration) in Cincinnati, he crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky and made his first significant contact slavery. He was guided by native Kentuckian and emancipationist Cassius Clay while in the Commonwealth and was impressed by the agriculture and livestock of the state. At one point he inspected a slave quarters and found that it was well-kept and quite comfortable.

Not all of Sumner's impressions of Kentucky slavery proved so favorable though. At his stop in Lexington he witnessed a slave auction at the courthouse where he saw a slave being inspected by showing his teeth. At another time his coach was delayed several minutes while a driver helped punish a slave. And, while dining at at a hotel he saw "the revolting spectacle of a poor slave, yet a child, almost felled to the floor by a blow on the head from a clenched fist." Sumner carefully observed but didn't intrude in any of these instances. After visiting the Bluegrass region of the state, where the slave population was heaviest, he traveled on to Mammoth Cave and then to Nashville, Tennessee and eventually to St. Louis.

Looking at the endnotes from this passage the author recovered this information about Sumner's Kentucky visit from a letter to a William Schouler (at this time a Cincinnati newspaper editor and then Attorney General of Ohio). The footnote has an interesting addition that says, " During the 1855 campaign the Boston Post charged that Sumner, while in Kentucky, had been so impressed by the 'perfect happiness and contentment' of the Negroes that 'he could but confess that his previous belief concerning slavery had been...wholly incorrect.' Sumner promptly issued 'a point blank contradiction.'" Yet again it seems that the mid-nineteenth century press was as artful in their news "spinning" as any cable news network television show today...OK, maybe not that bad.

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