Sumner’s Fallacy of Sectional Vision
A demagogue like Charles Sumner was no match for a statesman like Andrew P. Butler of South Carolina, who corrected Sumner’s misunderstanding of New England’s slave-holding status at the time of the Revolution. After denigrating an absent Butler in the Senate in 1856, Sumner received swift punishment from the end of Preston Brook’s gutta-percha cane.
Bernhard Thuersam, Director
Cape Fear Historical Institute
Sumner’s Fallacy of Sectional Vision:
Mr. Sumner: “Sir, slavery never flourished in Massachusetts; nor did it ever prevail there at any time, even in the early Colonial days, to such a degree as to be a distinctive feature of her powerful civilization. And let me add that when this Senator (Butler) presumes to say that American Independence was won by the arms and treasure of slave-holding communities, he speaks either in irony or ignorance.”
Mr. Butler: “When the Declaration of Independence was made, was not Connecticut a slave-holding State?”
Mr. Sumner: “Not in any just sense.”
Mr. Butler: “Sir, you are not the judge of that. Was not New York a slave-holding State?”
Mr. Sumner: “Let the Senator (William Seward) from New York answer that.”
Mr. Butler: “Sir, if he answers, he will answer the truth, and perhaps it might not be exactly agreeable to you. Was not New Jersey a slave-holding State? Was not Rhode Island a slave-holding State?
Mr. Seward: “It is due the honorable gentleman from South Carolina that I should answer his question in reference to New York, since it has been referred it to me. At the time of the Revolution, every sixteenth man in the State of New York was a slave.”
Mr. Butler: “Was not New Hampshire a slave-holding State? Was not Pennsylvania a slave-holding State? Was not Delaware a slave-holding State?
Mr. Seward: “I am requested to make my answer a little more accurate, according to the truth. I understand, that at the time of the Revolution, every twelfth man in New York was a salve.”
Mr. Butler: “They can afford no refuge for historical falsehood such as the gentleman [Sumner] has committed in the fallacy of his sectional vision. I have shown that twelve of the original States were slave-holding communities. Now sir, I prove that the thirteenth, Massachusetts, was a slave-holding State before, and at the commencement of, the Revolution. As to the character of slavery in that State, that may be somewhat a different thing, which can not contradict the fact stated in the newspapers of the day, that Negroes were held, were advertised for sale, with another truth, that many were sent to other slave-holding States in the way of traffic. When slavery was abolished [in Massachusetts], many that had been slaves and might have been freemen were sold into bondage.”
Mr. Sumner: “By slave-holding States, of course, I mean States which were peculiarly, distinctively, essentially slave-holding, and not States which the holding of slaves seems to have been rather the accident of the hour, and in which all the people, or the greater part of the people, were ready to welcome emancipation.”
Mr. Butler: “Mr. President, I think the remarks of the Senator verify exactly what I said, that when he chooses to be rhetorical, it is upon an assumption of facts, upon his own construction, and by an accumulation of adjectives.”
(Extracts from the debate between Senators Charles Sumner and Andrew P. Butler in June, 1854, beginning on page 1.013 of the Appendix to the Congressional Globe, First Session, Thirty-third Congress. The Case of the South Against the North, B.F. Grady, Edwards & Broughton, 1899, 225-226)