Speech on the Affair Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Senator Charles Sumner was a radical antislavery leader in the United States Senate. Prior to entering politics, Sumner had traveled in Europe and developed friendships with many who became prominent European politicians. As one who quickly became trusted by President Abraham Lincoln as an expert in foreign affairs, Sumner played a key role in easing tensions with the British caused by the Trent Affair–the name for the events resulting in late 1861 when, in neutral waters, an American naval officer arrested two Confederate diplomats who were sailing from Cuba to Great Britain aboard a neutral British commercial ship, the RMS Trent. Sumner was not only able to be a conduit for easing the tension with Great Britain, but in this speech, he was also able to make a public argument that Lincoln’s freeing of the prisoners was not only the best course of action, but in fact a victory for the United States over the British.

Summary Overview

Senator Charles Sumner was a radical antislavery leader in the United States Senate. Prior to entering politics, Sumner had traveled in Europe and developed friendships with many who became prominent European politicians. As one who quickly became trusted by President Abraham Lincoln as an expert in foreign affairs, Sumner played a key role in easing tensions with the British caused by the Trent Affair–the name for the events resulting in late 1861 when, in neutral waters, an American naval officer arrested two Confederate diplomats who were sailing from Cuba to Great Britain aboard a neutral British commercial ship, the RMS Trent. Sumner was not only able to be a conduit for easing the tension with Great Britain, but in this speech, he was also able to make a public argument that Lincoln’s freeing of the prisoners was not only the best course of action, but in fact a victory for the United States over the British.

Defining Moment

The American Civil War created many challenges for the people and the government of the United States. Although at the start of the war, the Northern states had a larger population and a stronger industrial base, the bulk of American exports were agricultural, principally cotton. The leaders of the Confederacy believed European manufacturers needed the cotton badly enough that they would push their governments to recognize the Confederate States of America. The Confederate government sent two envoys, James Mason and John Slidell, on a mission to Great Britain and France to negotiate formal recognition and trade agreements. The Union government, however, had imposed a naval blockade on the South to try to block any direct contact–economic, political, or military–between the South and European powers.

In October 1861, Slidell and Mason were able to slip out of Charleston, South Carolina, running the Union blockade on a ship that could only take them as far as Cuba. They then secured passage to Britain on the RMS Trent, a commercial British vessel. Captain Charles Wilkes, commander of the USS San Jacinto, discovered what was happening and intercepted the ship on November 8. Wilkes arrested Mason and Slidell on board the Trent, over their objections. Since they were not members of the military, under international law the Trent should have been taken to a port where a court could rule on whether Mason and Slidell met the criteria to be taken off the Trent by the American captain, as enemies of the state. Wilkes chose not to take the time to do this, however, as it would delay the Trent’s other passengers and its mail cargo, as well as delay the delivery of Mason and Slidell to a Union port. Although Wilkes’s action was initially wildly popular in the North, many came to acknowledge that Wilkes had the same action against a British ship that the British had taken against American ships in the early 1800s, leading to the War of 1812. And while the British were not in fact eager to support the Confederate cause, this incident inflamed British popular opinion and led to immediate diplomatic pressure for an apology and release of the prisoners, with the possibility of a British military response if the situation were not swiftly resolved.

Lincoln stated that he only wanted to fight one war at a time, meaning he intended to submit to British demands for the release of the Confederate emissaries. However, he wanted to maintain popular support for the war effort and avoid looking weak. Sumner not only communicated with British leaders, but also helped develop a plan whereby the prisoners could be released and victory still be claimed for the president. The speech below was Sumner’s explanation of the events and the reasoning through which Lincoln’s actions could be seen as a great success for his administration, American ideals, and American diplomacy.

Author Biography

Charles Sumner was born January 6, 1811, to Charles Pinckney Sumner and Relief Jacob Sumner in Boston, Massachusetts. His father was a lawyer, although not a very successful one. Originally Episcopal, his family moved to a Unitarian congregation when Sumner was fourteen. For Sumner, whose father was an abolitionist, the radical view of human potential taught by the Unitarians included all races. Sumner graduated from Harvard in 1830 and Harvard Law School in 1834. He became a noted lawyer, writing and teaching at Harvard. His writings gained him international attention. In 1837 he decided to travel to Europe, on what became a three-year tour during which he was introduced to many prominent social and political leaders. In addition, Sumner witnessed people of African descent mingling in educated European society. This confirmed his status as an abolitionist and gave him the insight that the racial inequality in America was something learned, not something dictated by nature.

Returning to the United States in 1840, Sumner continued his Boston law practice while also becoming a noted public speaker against slavery. Initially a Whig, he left that party to join the nascent Free Soil Party, devoted largely to opposing the westward expansion of slavery. He was elected US senator from Massachusetts in 1851 after being nominated by a coalition of Free Soilers and Democrats. He joined the Republican Party in 1854 when the Free Soil Party disbanded. His major speeches in the Senate were in opposition to slavery, and one of these speeches triggered a major national incident in the run-up to the Civil War. In 1856, Sumner spoke forcefully against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, saying among other things that one of the act’s authors, Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina, had chosen “the harlot, slavery” as his “mistress.” Congressman Preston Brooks, a nephew of Butler’s, took the speech as a slur against his state and his uncle, and two days later approached Sumner on the Senate floor and beat him nearly to death with his cane. This incident, decried in the North and cheered in the South, strengthened the Republican Party and further polarized an already deeply divided country. It took more than three years, much of it spent in Europe, before Sumner could recover sufficiently to return to the Senate, once again taking a radical antislavery position.

When Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860 and the Southern states immediately began the march toward secession, Sumner and others advocated immediately freeing all slaves, while Lincoln desired to move more slowly, as four border slave states were still in the Union. Even though they disagreed on various issues, Lincoln and Sumner developed the ability to work together on foreign relations, including the Trent Affair. Later in the war, Sumner and Lincoln disagreed on plans for dealing with the South during the coming Reconstruction. Sumner’s advocacy, along with the other so-called Radical Republicans, of full rights– including public education for African Americans and harsh treatment of the former Confederates–put him in conflict with many. However, he did help shepherd through the Senate the acquisition of Alaska. He lost his leadership position in the Senate when he disagreed with President Ulysses S. Grant on several issues, but continued to serve in that body until his death on March 11, 1874.

Document Analysis

Although it had been a year since the first states had seceded to form the Confederate States of America, the actual military battles had been few in number. The Union forces were generally not doing well. It was quickly realized that the short war envisioned by leaders on both sides was turning into a protracted conflict. Diplomacy with European powers could therefore play a key role in the war’s outcome. When the Confederates tried to send emissaries to England and France, they were intercepted by American naval forces. Because a neutral British ship was involved, this provoked a sharp response from Great Britain. Charles Sumner worked hard to convince President Lincoln and his cabinet of the seriousness of the situation. The British went so far as to send extra troops to Canada, and Lincoln had to avert a possible military confrontation with Great Britain by freeing the prisoners, while not losing domestic support. Sumner had the solution to the domestic situation as well. In this speech calling for the release of Mason and Slidell (the Confederate emissaries), Sumner makes the case that, through this course of events, the United States would in fact achieve a victory of sorts over the British by forcing them to adopt what had always been the American position: that contraband and people on neutral ships could not be seized without first going to a port and having the appropriate judicial officer rule on the situation. Thus, according to Sumner, although Captain Wilkes may have overstepped his authority, his patriotic zeal allowed the United States to obtain a long-sought diplomatic goal.

The three-hour speech, as recorded in the Senate record, was about five times the length of the excerpt printed here. It included a complete retelling of the historical events, from the taking of the Confederate envoys and their secretaries, to the communications with the British government, to the steps which needed to be taken to resolve the standoff. However, as can be seen in the excerpt, the more important point for Sumner was not the outcome of this incident, but rather the precedent it set for freedom of the seas. While all that Sumner argued was true–and it was a step forward in relations with Great Britain–the spin that Sumner put on the entire affair in his speech made it seem a clear victory for the United States, rather than action forced upon America by a foreign power.

The full speech begins with a reference to the value of international law and with a short recitation of the events surrounding the removal of James Mason, John Slidell, and their secretaries from the RMS Trent by Captain Charles Wilkes of the USS San Jacinto. In describing Mason and Slidell, Sumner emphasizes that prior to secession they had been senators and that one of them (Mason) had sponsored the Fugitive Slave Act, strongly disliked in the North. He repeats the phrase “treason, conspiracy, and rebellion” to emphasize the crimes of which he thought them guilty. The printed excerpt opens with a statement of the depth of Mason’s and Slidell’s offenses and their goal. Their offenses were increased by their “embassadorial pretentions” and the mission they were undertaking. The “two great nations,” Great Britain and France, could have had a great effect on the situation in the United States if either had decided to aid, or ally themselves with, the Confederate cause.

In terms of dealing with the British, the most important statement in this opening paragraph of the excerpt was that Wilkes “acted without instructions from his Government.” When Wilkes had brought Mason and Slidell to Boston in mid-November, he was acclaimed as a hero. On December 2, Congress passed a resolution thanking him for his brave and patriotic action. While all of this was happening, the people and government of Great Britain were calling for the release of Mason and Slidell, assurance that Wilkes was not acting under specific orders in his actions, an official apology from the American government, and assurances that the United States did not mean to insult the British. Within two weeks of the capture of Mason and Slidell, Secretary of State William Seward had written to the US ambassador in London that Wilkes had acted without the consent of the government. When this information was passed on to the British government, it slowed the push for retribution. The public repetition of this statement by Sumner, although not an apology, was intended to put the government’s view into the public record.

In the heart of his speech, Sumner argues that, through this incident, Great Britain was forced to change its position regarding the status of neutral ships during a time of war. In the past, the taking of individuals off neutral ships, Sumner asserts, was “upheld by the British Government.” Referring back to incidents prior to the War of 1812, Sumner states that the British accepted the removal of individuals as exemplified by the “oft-repeated example of British cruisers.” However, now that the neutral ship was British, Sumner reflects that the British had changed their position. Using Shakespearian imagery from Hamlet, Sumner speaks of the reversal of fortune when someone else was holding the deadly sword. Noting United States’ long-held position that military officers unilaterally taking individuals off a neutral ship was wrong, Sumner proudly proclaims that “Great Britain is armed with American principles,” even though historically Britain had “constantly, deliberately, and solemnly rejected” them.

In the fourth paragraph of the printed text, Sumner makes clear the point of law that was under discussion and its implications. Wilkes had acted improperly by not taking control of the British ship and sailing it to a port in order that a “prize court”–a court or official authorized to rule on the propriety of the taking of a ship during time of war–could rule on the status of Mason and Slidell. There was no doubt that if Wilkes had taken the ship to an American port, Mason and Slidell would have been ordered off the ship and into American custody on the grounds of treason, or supporting an armed insurrection against the government of the United States. The British did not argue that the results would have been any different, or that Mason and Slidell were innocent of plotting against the American government. What was argued was the procedure used by Wilkes for taking the prisoners into custody.

Because of this, Sumner states that “the conduct of Captain Wilkes must be disavowed, while men, who are traitors, conspirators, and rebels, all in one, are allowed to go free.” Recalling John Fortescue, a fifteenth-century British jurist, Sumner is referring to a well-known saying that it was better that the guilty go free than that innocent be locked up. Applied to this case, this means that it was better to free Mason and Slidell than to allow the overturning of the legal precedent that nonmilitary individuals could not be arbitrarily taken off neutral ships. Sumner then ridicules the idea that a simple point of law might be reason enough for two countries to go to war. He depicts such a situation as analogous to using trial by combat to determine the truth of legal matters. Neither a war, nor individual combat, would serve to determine the truth of legal principles.

Sumner then lists two statements and two questions regarding the situation. The first statement repeats what he already affirmed, that Wilkes was wrong in acting to “substitute himself for a judicial tribunal.” In addition, Sumner asserts that Mason, Slidell, and their secretaries, who were taken off the ship, did not fall under the category of individuals “in the military or naval service of the enemy.” This then raises a related question as to whether people could be considered contraband. In his speech, after this list of issues and questions and the two following sentences, Sumner spends about sixty percent of the speech addressing these four items in great detail. The last paragraph above followed this extensive passage of detailed legal arguments.

The two questions regarding dispatches were important from a legal perspective, although in this case it was not something the British raised. Normally, contraband was any object that materially assisted a participant in a war. In the extensive passage not printed in this text, Sumner answers this question in great detail, even though in this case, the British government ignored any dispatches that were on the Trent. When Wilkes sent men aboard the Trent, the commander of the boarding crew did not make a thorough search of the ship. The result was that the diplomatic papers being carried by Mason and Slidell were not found and taken off the Trent. Some people at the time, as well as some later historians, believed that the papers were given to a British officer on the Trent, and that officer (Commander Williams of the Royal Navy) delivered them to Confederate officials in London. (Forty years later, Mason’s daughter claimed that this was the truth.) If this were actually the case, then the ship would not be neutral, as a British officer was actually assisting the Confederates. This may have been why the British did not push this issue, whether dispatches could justify the boarding of a neutral ship. However, since the families of Mason and Slidell were traveling with them, some have argued that a family member hid the documents. In any event, the only things removed with Mason, Slidell, and their secretaries were the men’s personal luggage. Under international law, this strengthened the argument of the British, because these individuals were taken off the ship with no contraband and no physical evidence that they were in the service of the Confederate States of America, let alone members of the military. What was common knowledge–that Mason and Slidell were Confederate agents–and what could be legally proved with no documents at hand were two different things.

Returning to the extensive legal arguments given by Sumner on the four points, his references range from Roman law to statements by contemporary jurists. He spends most of his time, however, contrasting British statements and legal rulings versus American ones. On the issue of contraband, Sumner illustrates his understanding that dispatches were clearly not contraband under American law, even though at times British judges had ruled them to be contraband. The various treaties to which the United States was a party listed specific items and classes of items that were contraband. In none of the lists were dispatches considered contraband. Thus, in and of themselves, under what the United States recognized as international law and treaty obligations, the Confederate dispatches on the Trent should not have been enough for the US Navy to stop the ship. The conclusion Sumner reaches in his arguments on this issue is that under American legal principles, only items listed in treaties as contraband were contraband, and if any existed it should be delivered to an American port by the neutral ship, and then the ship would be free to travel to any destination, whether “neutral or hostile.”

However, this still left the issue of taking individuals understood to be enemies of the state off a neutral ship in international waters. Since this was the principal point under discussion, Sumner spends a large portion of his speech dealing with this issue, giving numerous examples of British and American views on the subject. He does this because the central point in his speech was that by acquiescing to the British on the release of Mason and Slidell, America was forcing the British to acknowledge a change in their historical views on neutral ships in international waters. Sumner refers back to the British impressment of Americans (and others) from American ships prior to the War of 1812. The Americans objected to this, while the British said it was their right. This understanding was why Sumner agrees that Wilkes should have not taken the men off the Trent. He also uses other examples of the British government issuing warrants allowing the British Navy to take individuals off neutral ships, using as an example the leader of an Irish uprising, Robert Emmet. Thus, Sumner argues, under traditional British law, Wilkes did nothing wrong. Now by demanding that they be released, Sumner accurately states that the British were changing their position.

The last paragraph of the printed text, although not quite the close of the speech, contains Sumner’s triumphant summation of the events and what was being gained because of them. As for the prisoners, Sumner states, “Two wicked men, ungrateful to their country, are let loose with the brand of Cain upon their foreheads.” However, because of this, “principles are established which will help to free other men.” By this Sumner is referring to those who might be unjustly taken from ships of one nation by the forces of another. He reiterates his case that “if neutral rights are not ostentatiously proclaimed, they are at least invoked; while the whole pretension of impressments, so long the pest of neutral commerce, and operating only through the lawless adjudication of a quarter-deck, is made absolutely impossible.” Thus, for Sumner, complete victory was won over the British, because “the freedom of the sea” was increased. Whether they intended it or not, he rejoices that “Great Britain is irrevocably pledged” to the freedom of the seas for neutral shipping. The gains from this decision and precedent were worth much more than the risk of allowing the Confederate envoys to travel to Europe.

Essential Themes

From the beginning of the Trent Affair, Sumner was certain that the Confederate representatives needed to be freed. He initially limited debate on the issue in the Senate to give the president time to act. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he had communicated with British leaders. Sumner shared his information with Lincoln and the cabinet, which convinced the administration to release Mason and Slidell and seek better relations with Great Britain. Days after the release of the prisoners, Sumner gave this speech to the Senate to explain the American actions and to justify that course of action to the American public. The key issue was the sanctity of neutral ships and their passengers and cargo, which since that time has generally been respected. This situation forced Great Britain to confront its past and accept this as a precedent for the future, meaning that finally a fuller definition of neutrality was recognized by all major powers.

Of greater importance in the immediate future for the United States was the relationship with Great Britain, and to a lesser extent France. Through the actions of the Lincoln administration, strongly influenced by Sumner, the British saw America as much more flexible than they had imagined. The new level of trust between the two nations allowed additional talks during 1862, leading to further agreements. By the end of the year, any hope the Confederates had of British support had vanished. Because of Sumner’s leadership and influence during the Trent Affair, the United States was able to increase its chances of winning the Civil War, and its relationship with the British actually became stronger than ever before. Because of these agreements with Great Britain, other European powers were less receptive to Confederate envoys, and no nation in Europe recognized the South as an independent nation.

Charles Sumner was a man of strong principles who followed them first, with political considerations a distant second. This was true in his fight for the abolition of slavery and the need to provide equal opportunity to everyone. It was also true when he believed that representatives of his country had erred in their actions, such as in the Trent Affair. He undertook work toward the goal of convincing the nation’s highest leaders of the error and then worked with them to correct the situation to the benefit of all. His astute legal mind and skill in public speaking gave him the ability to give guidance to the country in one of its most difficult moments.

  • Ferris, Norman B. The Trent Affair: A Diplomatic Crisis. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1977. Print.
  • United States Department of State. The Trent Affair. US Department of State, n.d. Web. 6 May 2013.
  • United States Senate. Speech of Senator Charles Sumner on the Trent Affair. Washington: US Senate, n.d. Web. 6 May 2013.
Additional Reading
  • Donald, David Herbert. Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War. 1960. Naperville: Sourcebooks, 2009. Print.
  • Mahin, Dean B. One War at a Time: The International Dimensions of the American Civil War. Washington: Brassey’s, 1999. Print.
  • Storey, Moorfield. Charles Sumner. Boston: Houghton, 1909. Print.
  • Symonds, Craig L. Lincoln and His Admirals: Abraham Lincoln, the US Navy, and the Civil War. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
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