Cincinnati, Apr. 24, 1847.
C. Sumner, Esq., Boston.
My Dear Sir: I am much indebted to you for your very kind letter of March 12th, to which I should have replied earlier had I not been prevented by the fear of burdening you with an unprofitable correspondence. Your approbation of my argument for poor old Vanzandt1 is very grateful to me. I gave to the effort the best exertion of my ability, in the short time allowed me for preparation, and I had collected the material for the most part previously with a view to an oral discussion. I do not suppose that the judges of the Supreme Court regarded the argument as worth much attention. I have reason to believe that the case was decided before they received it; and that the opinion was designed for no more than a cursory notice of the points in the case, under the impression that it was not worth while to consider the views presented by the ––– on Vanzandt. I trust, however, and believe that the discussion will not be without a salutary effect upon the professional mind of the country, and if so, even though my poor old client be sacrificed, the great cause of humanity will be a gainer by it. I send you a notice of the decision which I prepared for the Morning Herald in this city. It is hurried and imperfect, but will serve perhaps to suggest something better to others. I hope you will give the argument of the court a review in the Reporter. It is, it seems to me, amazingly weak at all points. A worse decision, supported by feebler reasons, can hardly be found.
I was surprised by what you said of Judge Story. How could he regard the Prigg2 decision as a triumph of Freedom? The decision contains, indeed, a dictum in favor of the doctrine that slavery is local; just as the decision in the Mississippi case went upon the ground, so far as it related to the interstate slave trade, that under the Constitution all men are persons. But who, that knows anything of slaveholding aggression, will believe that, when the question of the locality of slavery comes directly in issue, there will be more regard paid to the dictum of the Prigg case, opposed as it is to the whole spirit of that most unfortunate decision, than was paid in the Vanzandt case to the doctrine of Groves and Slaughter3 that slaves are persons. The Supreme Court is, doubtless, composed of men of humanity—who in particular cases, involving no general principle touching what I may call the corporate interests of slaveholding, would willingly decide in favor of the liberty of individuals: — but they cannot be trusted at all when that great corporate interest is in question: and all attempts to compromise the matter by getting the court committed on such matters as the locality of slavery, in decisions of leading questions in favor of the slaveholders, will be found as unavailing as the efforts of the Philistines with their green withs upon Samson. It has been too much the fashion, both among politicians and among judges of the Free States to endeavor to get the best of the bargain in compromises. They have never succeeded and they never will. Despotism admits of no such compromises. The Devil cannot be cheated. “Resist the Devil and he will flee.” We have the highest authority for this: but there is no warrant for expecting success in an effort to circumvent him.
I saw poor Vanzandt a day or two ago. He came into town in his wagon, and sent up his son to ask me to come down to him, as he was unable to get up stairs to my office. He was very weak. Pulmonary disease had made sad work with his hardy frame. The probability is strong that before the mandate of the Supreme Court can be carried into a judgment of the Circuit Court the old man will have gone to another bar, where aid to the weak and suffering will not be imputed as a crime. I said to him that I could hardly suppose that, in view of his approaching end, he could feel any regret for having aided the fugitives, whose appeals to his compassion had brought him into his present troubles. The old man's eye lighted up, as he answered “No; if a single word could restore the man who escaped and save me from all sacrifice I would not utter it.” And such I believe is the universal spirit of those who have aided the oppressed in regaining their freedom.
You have noticed no doubt the case of Habeas Corpus before Judge Downie, of the District Court at Pittsburgh. The applicants for the Writ had arrested a fugitive slave, alleged to be such, and were about to carry him off by force. His cries attracted attention, and he was rescued from them. They were then arrested under the late law of Pennsylvania, which makes it a penal offence to retake slaves with violence, and were brought before Judge Downie by the Habeas Corpus. He, like Mr. Justice Woodbury held that slaves were property under the Constitution, and that the recaptors, having used no more force or violence than was necessary, were entitled to their discharge. Thus the detestable doctrine of property in man is spreading, having received the Countenance of the Supreme Court. Is it not the duty of every lover of Liberty in the profession, to do all that he can to counteract its vices?
I wish with you that Judge M’Lean had a “stronger backbone of Constitutional Antislavery.” He is a good man and an honest man, and his sympathies are with the enslaved. He emancipated one or more when he left Washington, leaving himself in debt beyond his then ability to pay. His opinions, however, are in favor of the construction of the Constitution, which he has put forth in the Vanzandt case; a very different construction indeed from that which the Supreme Court has given in the same case, but which allows, in that case at all events, the same practical results. I suppose, however, that the military fever will carry all before it in the Whig party, and that Mr. Taylor will be the Whig candidate. He is a large slaveholder, — has a sugar and cotton plantation — entertains the Calhoun opinion of slavery— would be an inflexible enemy of the Wilmot Proviso — would favor a high tariff, for the benefit of sugar, and probably, would regard with approbation the establishment of a Bank of the U. States. There is nothing in this character, which would make him unacceptable I presume to the “Whig party of the United States,” though the large and highly respectable antislavery portion of that Party would doubtless be not well pleased. Even of that portion, however, some, would, I fear, be willing to take the Slaveholder for the sake of the Whig, and vote for Slavery to keep out Locofocoism.
In my humble judgment, however, in the contingency indicated if the Democrats should be willing to take the Constitutional ground of opposition to Slavery, and nominate a Wilmot Proviso man who may be confidently relied on, it would be the duty of every friend of freedom to support the nomination. If the Democracy can now be brought onto antislavery ground, they will be sure to keep there until they clear the field.
With the greatest regard,
Yours most truly,
[Salmon P. Chase]
P. S. — I have sent some copies of my argument to some friends in England. It has struck me that as you are personally acquainted with many professional gentlemen there, you might think it useful to send some copies to them. If so, 1 shall take pleasure in sending to you as many as you may name.
1 On the Van Zandt case, see Schuckers' Chase, 53 ff.
2 Prigg vs. Pennsylvania, 16 Peters, 539.
3 The Case of Groves vs. Slaughter, 1841, 15 Peters, 449. Cf. Hurd Law of Freedom and Bondage, I, 147, n. 2.
SOURCE: Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1902, Vol. 2, p. 113