“The Pride of Massachusetts” Anson Burlingame Speaks Out, Part 2

Anson Burlingame

Anson Burlingame took to the House floor to castigate Preston Brooks and everyone who would defend him. For good measure, he threw in Franklin Pierce and the state of South Carolina. He granted that Sumner took a hard line, but everyone had it coming. Even if they hadn’t, Sumner demonstrated remarkable strength in rising above the endless stream of insults he received from his opponents. Principle and nobility defined Charles Sumner, as Burlingame well knew:

He is my friend; for many and many a year I have looked to him for guidance and light, and I never looked in vain.He never had a personal enemy in his life; his character is as pure as the snow that falls on his native hills; his heart overflows with kindness for every being having the upright form of man; he is a ripe scholar, a chivalric gentleman, and a warm-hearted, true friend.

Burlingame may have meant every word of that; Sumner had the scholarly credentials, at least. Those who knew the Senator from his Massachusetts days had once found him quiet amiable. On his entry into politics, that changed. Sumner could likely have come up as an establishment Whig with little trouble, but the more he involved himself in reform causes the more difficulty he and his old friends had getting along. David Donald, Sumner’s biographer, believes he suffered some kind of mental break resulting from the strain on his business and career after he returned from Europe. Donald doesn’t think highly of Sumner in general, always hunting for the most venal explanations for his behavior, but he clearly has a point here. The future Senator probably clawed his way out of his travail by recommitting himself to causes that had already interested him. Doing so left him less inclined to shrug off differences and Sumner spent the later 1840s steadily losing friends.

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

The congressman proclaimed Sumner “the pride of Massachusetts” and put him in “the highest walks of literature and law.” Everyone in the Bay State now paid him homage…at least in public. In private they might still remember catching the rough side of his principles, but in caning Sumner Brooks made him into a martyr. Donald relates less glowing reviews:

Fletcher Webster, the embittered son of Daniel Webster, said cynically that if Sumner “would indulge in such attacks…he ought at least to take the precaution of wearing an iron pot on his head.” Some of the conservative Curtis family muttered, when they heard the news: “Served him right,” and “I wish they had killed him.” Sumner himself received a very few letters from Northerners who announced: “I am happy that one man was found who chastised you, but…you did not get one half what you merit.”



“With modesty, but with firmness” Anson Burlingame Speaks Out

Anson Burlingame

We left Preston Brooks leaving the House of Representatives. The chamber’s majority voted to expel him for breaking his cane over Charles Sumner’s head and continuing on with the broken stump until wrestled away. The Constitution required two-thirds to actually kick him to the curb, which the House could not muster on the grounds that most of the Southern caucus thought Brooks had done no wrong. In getting to that point, I overlooked an important episode. For the moment, let’s turn the clock back to June 21, 1856. Brooks and Lawrence Keitt still have their seats in the House of Representatives. The House committee have released their report and debate on it comes into full swing.

Anson Burlingame, a friend of Sumner’s with a hard re-election fight ahead of him, stood out among those lining up to castigate Brooks. He rose to remind the House that he had never “assailed” another or impugned a state. He dilated upon Massachusetts’ virtues for a few moments, then got down to it:

with modesty, but with firmness, I cast down her glove to the whole band of her assailants.

In the language of romantic chivalry, one strikes a foe with a glove and drop it to challenge them. Burlingame probably didn’t mean to issue an actual challenge; politicians of the era often use this kind of language for rhetorical effect. It shows them as men of learning and refinement, just as gratuitous Latin quotes and endless references to Antiquity did. He pressed on to vent himself against the Bay State’s censurers, from Franklin Pierce on down.

Lawrence Keitt (D-SC)

Burlingame’s complains about Pierce focused on his transparently proslavery policies, right at the points where they put the lie to his claims of impartiality and that the North had abandoned its sectional duties. He got into a brief exchange with Lawrence Keitt over how the Charleston Mercury condemned the Fugitive Slave Act on behalf of South Carolina, then returned to venting on Pierce over Greytown and Lawrence. After four pages in the Congressional Globe, Burlingame finally wandered to the topic of the attack on Charles Sumner. He went with the others to hear the Crime Against Kansas, live and in person:

To say that we were delighted with the speech we heard, would but faintly express the deep emotions of our hearts awakened by it. I need not speak of the classic purity of its language, nor of the nobility of its sentiments. It was heard by many; it has been read by millions. There has been no such speech made in the Senate since the days when those Titans of American eloquence -the Websters and the Haynes- contended with each other for mastery.

He liked it. Sumner’s oratory reads as ponderous and repetitious to us, but the man could put on a show in person and some of what we would consider faults came off much better in the nineteenth century. Sumner acted out his speeches with practiced gestures and intonation, from memory, in an era when most men just read theirs. That can’t help but liven things up.

That said, Burlingame understood that Sumner gave South Carolina in particular and slavery in general the rough side of his tongue:

It was severe, because it was launched against tyranny. It was severe as Chatham was severe when he defended the feeble colonies against the giant oppression of the mother country.

Yet despite “a hostile Senate” Sumner went for two days with no one calling him to order. If the Senators thought him out of bounds, as they did Andrew Butler, they could have insisted on order at any time and demanded retractions or that Sumner cease entirely. The Senators declined the opportunity. Furthermore, Sumner often faced such vicious insults himself and rose above them. Burlingame would have the House know that Brooks broke his cane over the head of a righteous man ever-mindful of “the flaming sword of the Constitution, turning every way, guarding all the avenues of the Senate.”

“I am no longer a member of the Thirty-Fourth Congress.”

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

Henry Wilson had a rough few days of it. He reject Brooks’ challenge to a duel, going out of his way to denigrate the whole practice. Friends advised against that, but Wilson bulled on ahead. Though Brooks never came after him, for some time thereafter. Wilson learned years later of possibly serious talk about roughing him up put down by James Orr. That all fell out over the last days of May. At the start of June, 1856, the House received the reports from the committee they had looking into the matter. Those recommended expulsion for Brooks and censure of Henry Edmundson and Lawrence Keitt, effectively demanding their resignations but stopping short of forcing the two out.

The House didn’t take a vote on the recommendations until the middle of July, at which point a predictably hostile debate broke out. The South Carolinians made it a point of principle to defend their own. The Republicans naturally fought back. In the end, the House voted on sectional lines to expel Brooks. That didn’t give them the two-thirds majority they needed to do the job. Brooks opted to do it for them. According to Sumner’s Works, he gained the floor “with some difficulty” and gave an account of himself I’ve quoted liberally from.

Brooks proceeded to congratulate himself. He failed to start something that ended in

subverting the foundations of this Government and in drenching this Hall in blood. No act of mine, and on my personal account, shall inaugurate revolution

Fresh off thanking himself for failing to incite a revolution, Brooks took a second victory lap on how he used a cane instead of a whip or cowhide, that Sumner might have taken from him and so forced Brooks “to do that which I would have regretted for the balance of my natural life.” In other words, Brooks thought he might have to kill Sumner if the Senator got hold of his cowhide or whip. The House didn’t miss the implication; someone cried out, “He would have killed him!”

Undeterred, Brooks finished what he had to say:

And now, Mr. Speaker, I announce to you, and to this House, that I am no longer a member of the Thirty-Fourth Congress.

Lawrence Keitt (D-SC)

He walked out.

The next day, July 15, the House moved on to the punishments recommended for Edmundson and Keitt. Edmundson got off, 60-136. Keitt got censured 106-96. He likewise resigned. Both Keitt and Brooks submitted themselves to their constituents to fill the vacancies their resignations created. Both found themselves back in the House in early August, an absence of a little over two weeks.

Henry Wilson Arms Himself

Henry Wilson (R-MA)

Preston Brooks could have challenged Charles Sumner to a duel. The Yankee would have refused and his fellow Northerners would have dismissed Brooks as a barbarian, but Brooks had the option. Doing so would have meant according Sumner a kind of peer status as a fellow gentleman, which didn’t have the visceral punch that Brooks wanted. He had to degrade Sumner by treating him like less than a white man to achieve satisfaction.

Wilson damned Brooks on the floor of the Senate on May 27 and the speech roused Andrew Butler, just returned to Washington. He shouted that Wilson was a liar and other senators convinced him to withdraw the remark. Brooks didn’t take the news of it well and chose to get satisfaction again. This time, he challenged Wilson to a duel. He picked a proper second, Oregon’s delegate Joseph Lane. Lane later ran second fiddle to John C. Breckenridge on the Southern Democracy’s ticket in 1860.

Wilson received advice from Joshua Giddings, Schuyler Colfax, and some others on what to do. He ignored it and delivered an answer he related years later:

I characterized, on the floor of the Senate, the assault upon my colleague as ‘brutal, murderous, and cowardly.’ I thought so then. I think so now. I have no qualification whatever to make in regard to those words. I have never entertained, in the Senate or elsewhere, the idea of personal responsibility in the sense of a duellist. I have always regarded duelling as the lingering relic of a barbarous civilization, which the law of the country has branded a crime. While, therefore, I religiously believe in the right of self-defence in its broadest sense, the law of my country and the matured convictions of my whole life alike forbid me to meet you for the purpose indicated by your letter.

In other words, Wilson knew what Brooks resented. He would not withdraw a word of it and he would not take part in Brooks’ affair of honor. People in Massachusetts didn’t go for that kind of savagery. Still, Wilson knew his protocols or at least had the good sense not to deliver his answer to Brooks in person; he had a congressman deliver it.

Wilson took Brooks seriously, dismissal or not. He telegraphed his wife to inform her of the challenge, his refusal, and that if Brooks came upon him Wilson would “defend my life, if possible, at any cost.”  He also made arrangements with friends of his, William Claffin and John B. Alley, to look after his ten year old son and “armed himself for defence, resolved to go where duty called.”

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

Wilson’s history also tells that “a few Southern members” got together at a Washington hotel and debated doing something to him. James Orr, one of the men who knew in advance of Brooks’ plan against Sumner, told Wilson in 1878 that he talked them down. I haven’t read this from anyone else and we must suspect that Wilson may have dramatized things. Orr could also have inflated idle talk into a serious conspiracy. Still, the toxic environment in Washington at the time, where Southerners endorsed Brooks wholeheartedly renders something on those lines happening plausible.




Please help save the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid. Your calls, faxes, and emails can save lives.

This is not a history post, Gentle Readers; please will bear with me anyway. I am grateful for every one of you, whether you stop by once or check every day. Knowing that you are there; that there are people who value what I write here enough to give the time to read it has helped me in ways too numerous to count. I would not have done the research without the readers, so you have benefited me tremendously. I understand the past and present so much more deeply now than I did a few years ago. The skills I’ve learned here have served me in other communities, most notably Reddit’s AskHistorians, where I have met new friends dear to me. The ability to come here five days a week and do something that I know others value, and contribute in a small way to the internet’s largest history enthusiast community, are deeply precious to me. All this together has done much to improve my mental health. It all started here, because some friends encouraged me to do this thing. I’m not in touch with all of you anymore but if you’re reading this; you know who you are. Please understand how much of a difference you’ve made in my life.

As I said, this isn’t a history post. Nor is it history adjacent or historically-informed commentary on recent events, as I’ve done in the past. I feel I’m presuming on you, as I’ve done once before, to even make it. I don’t do so light; I’ve put it off most of the day and I feel guilty writing it now, but I’d feel worse if I didn’t. The long and short of things is that I’ve been losing sleep over the latest plan to destroy the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, and eradicate Medicaid in the bargain. It’s called Graham-Cassidy and it’s the worst bill yet. It has a better than even chance of becoming law, perhaps even this week but most likely next. I’m not a health care expert, so I can’t walk you through the ins and outs of it. But those people exist and they’ve been sounding the alarm on and off for a month, then much more seriously starting late last week. It’s gone from a longshot in the Senate to one vote shy of passage. Here’s the briefest summary I could find:

Slavitt, who ran Medicare and Medicaid for President Obama, knows more about these issues than just about anybody. He also produced a bullet points list of what Graham-Cassidy would do:

A summary of Graham-Cassidy

This is a bill to end Obamacare, but it’s also one to destroy Medicaid. It takes us back not just to before 2010, but all the way back to before 1965. The sponsors will argue that it doesn’t, but by replacing a federal entitlement for anyone in need with block grants they have ensured it. Block grants are just piles of cash which states can use for anything. They shrink as the years go on and were built originally to strangle programs that politicians didn’t like but couldn’t get enough support to destroy outright. The American people often forgive tremendous malfeasance, but we do have our limits. The block grants end entirely in 2026, at which point Medicaid either ceases completely or the cost is borne entirely by the states. As states usually have balanced budget constitutional amendments and it’s very difficult to raise revenue, that means at minimum and long before the ten years run out they will have to drastically cut eligibility, benefits, or both to the people who need them most desperately. That includes people on life-sustaining care and people who only have a livable quality of life because they can get help. If this law passes, people will die because of it. Before Obamacare, tens of thousands died every year because they couldn’t afford health care. After it, they will again. It’s not a perfect law, just the best we could do in 2010. People are alive today who would have died but for it. The same goes for Medicaid.

Two weeks ago we thought they did not have the votes for this. We believed that after the one vote defeat in the Summer that the GOP had given up and moved on. Most of us, myself included, forgot the lesson of the House vote: Back in March, we thought for sure that after giving it one go the Republicans had given up. They regrouped, produced a far more radical bill, and hammered it through without hearings and with a margin of two votes. The life-destroying ACA repeal / Medicaid eradication is never more at risk of passage then when we think it dead. Now momentum is building, in part because Graham-Cassidy shamelessly plunders the states that expanded Medicaid to pay temporarily for the budget hole they’ll dump on the states that didn’t. Guess which states have more Republican legislators in them. A few GOP states will take a massive haircut too, but those are deemed acceptable losses. I don’t want to wallpaper this post with images, but here are two more to give you the current details:

If you’d rather read it in text form, then here’s an explainer. The bill will probably 32 million people without insurance, which combined with the present uninsured would leave us worse off than we were before Obamacare. The ban on refusing coverage or charging more for pre-existing conditions would be among the legislative casualties. Lifetime limits would be back. Insurers could sell you a junk plan and hike your rates the instant you got sick. Cassidy-Graham took everything Americans hated about health insurance in 2009 and opted to go for worse still.

My state, Michigan, will lose $3,041 billion in federal health care money in 2026, and far more after. We are not the poorest state, but we can’t afford that. Few states could. When it comes time to choose who will suffer, the most vulnerable are always first on the list. The most vulnerable in the United States include plenty of white people -my mother and I both presently get our insurance through the ACA- but white Americans have done our best to ensure that the most vulnerable are disproportionately not people who look like us. I know that’s a terrible thing to say, but it’s true. Right now Arizona stands to lose a lot too, but since John McCain (R-AZ) cast the deciding vote last time you can bet they’re working on a way to make sure Arizona gets into the plus column. The last time, his governor told him that the state couldn’t afford it. This time we probably don’t have that luxury. Furthermore, McCain and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) are close friends. He’s the Graham in the bill’s name.

I don’t want to embed an entire thread of tweets -I have imposed on you enough- but if you want the full state of play then please look at this thread:

I know this is the fifth time we’ve had to beg our members of Congress to let us keep having health care so we can keep living, keep having lives worth living instead mired in pain and worry. But it might be the last time. The special rules that the Senate presently uses to pass things by simple majority (50 Republicans plus the Vice President, in this case) expire September 30 and the GOP have made it clear they want the next turn with those for tax cuts. Wikler currently expects a vote late next week. It looks bad for all of us who care about our fellow citizens. According to polls, that’s an overwhelming majority of Americans. Even among Republican voters, none of the bills to date have been popular. The GOP knows that and has tried to sneak every one of them through without a thorough review and due consideration.

We let that happen once before, but we stopped it twice over the Summer. This is still a democracy and the people still have power, as dark as things look. The greatest power we have now is our voices. The votes were lined up before and one fell out. One can again, but we need massive and unrelenting public pressure. We need to show up and be loud, reminding politicians that they work for us. Not everyone can make it to DC for a protest or visit a field office, but we all have phones and we all have the internet. It’s time to light the wires on fire for ourselves and, most importantly, for each other. Write letters to the editor calling our your congressmen and Senators by name and calling on them to fight. If they’re already a confirmed no, then thank them and make sure they stay that way. If they’re a yes, tell them to reconsider. Do it even if your Senator’s name is on the bill. You are literally their boss.

You should get in touch with your governors too, especially if they’re Republicans and you have a GOP senator. You can do it on your own, or through the Capitol switchboard (202) 224-3121), or with the help of Resistbot. (The switchboard will not have your governor’s number, but Resistbot does.) Resistbot will give the right phone numbers via text or Facebook messenger. It will also allow you to send faxes, all completely free and easy to use. There’s no limit here; you can fax, or call every day. If something changes during the day, you can do it again. They’re not going to throw your message away because you rang twice. I have horrific phone anxiety so I use the faxes. The worst that’s ever happened to me was receiving a letter from my congressman. If you’re not sure what to say, then there are scripts you can use and there’s no shame in doing it.

All that said, please only contact your congressmen, senators, and governors. They’re the people who work for you. It’s dishonest to pretend you’re local when you’re not and if staffers get the impression that most of the people who contact them are from out of district then they’ll ignore genuine messages along with the bad. Our democracy can’t afford that on any issue, now or in the future.

I know it’s hard to do this; it’s harder still to have to keep doing it. It’s hard enough for me to keep at it. I can’t imagine what it’s like for someone with sick loved ones. We can still turn this around. It might come down to obstructionist dirty tricks, but everything about the progress of this legislation on the GOP side has been one dirty trick after another. Call on your senators to withhold consent and filibuster by amendment to run down the clock. Call on your governors to lean on your Republican senators, especially if you live in Arizona. If you don’t feel confident writing your own faxes, please steal mine. This is what I’ll send to my Senators (both Democrats, you’ll have to adjust for a Republican) every day for the next two weeks:

Medicaid and the ACA are in the GOP’s firing line again with Graham-Cassidy. It’s the worst version yet. The law would destroy tens of thousands of lives. I’m sorry, but it’s so. You have got to take this deadly seriously. Assume they have the votes and be ready to obstruct to save those lives. I can’t tell you how difficult this is for me personally, and I don’t presently rely on either program for essential services. Imagine how people who will soon die without them feel. For them and all of us, you have got to pull out all the stops.

Be loud on your social media. Toss out senatorial courtesy and withhold consent on everything until after September 30, when the reconciliation runs out. Be ready with amendments to filibuster during vote-a-rama. They have eight working days left. You can gum this up and force the GOP to move on. You are not powerless. You have got to stand up for the people of Michigan and every other state. We need you desperately. Please do everything it takes.

This is something we can do for ourselves and, more importantly, for each other. Or it’s something we can not do and just let the bodies fall where they may; we have a history of that. But it’s not the only history we have and history is not destiny. We each make it in our ways small and large, through all the things we choose to accept or choose to fight. This is a time to fight. We can’t all be abolitionists or civil rights workers, but we can stand against the wrongs in our own time. There are people suffering now that we can help with the bipartisan bill being worked on Senate committee. There will be far more suffering and far fewer helped if Graham-Cassidy passes.

I don’t want to ask you for anything but your time, but if you can do this then please do what you can. Calls, faxes, telling friends, everything can help. Spread these resources around; I don’t need credit and you don’t need to share my prose with them unless you want to. Let the people who represent you know that you can’t stand idly by and watch them consign your fellow human beings to untold misery, insecurity, and death. If this is presumptuous, if I have broken the social contract between us then I’m sorry. These are things I had to say.

Thank you for listening. There’ll be history tomorrow.

Back to Washington with Senators Wilson and Butler

Henry Wilson (R-MA)

The Public Indignation Meeting at Faneuil Hall on May 30 featured diverse Massachusetts luminaries venting their displeasure at Sumner’s treatment. Some of the same politicians made their displeasure known in a more formal setting. The Massachusetts legislature, utterly dominated by Know-Nothings, produced its own set of resolutions about Brooks’

assault which no provocation could justify, brutal and cowardly in itself, a gross breach of parliamentary privilege, a ruthless attack upon the liberty of speech, an outrage on the decencies of civilized life, and an indignity to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The resolutions further approved of Sumner’s “manliness and courage” and demanded an investigation. State legislatures passed resolves on this order fairly often, dispatching them as petitions for their congressional delegation to enter into the record. Each might get a brief speech and the Congress would then do as it liked. Massachusetts bypassed the ordinary process, instead directing the Governor send copies directly to the President of the Senate, Indiana slaveholder Jesse Bright, and Speaker of the House.

I haven’t found a date for the resolutions or their reception by the Senate. Given that the chamber voted for Seward’s proposal for a committee on the attack the day after, it seems unlikely that they played a direct part in consideration. Matters in Washington did not inspire much confidence. The Senate passed the buck to the House. The House committee delivered its recommendations: expulsion for Brooks and censure for Edmundson and Keitt. Those proceedings take us up to June 2, 1856.

Henry Wilson didn’t wait for all that. He had a smaller, but much more exalted audience than a New York or Boston crowd in the United States Senate. By May 27, word of Sumner’s testimony had gotten around to the Senators. Some of them didn’t like how they came off in it and took to the floor to offer their explanations for the record; Slidell explained himself then. Wilson accepted that explanation and granted that he didn’t think Sumner meant to cast Slidell in a bad light. He also granted Douglas’ version of events.

Wilson continued:

Mr. Sumner was stricken down on this floor by a brutal, murderous, and cowardly assault-

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Andrew Butler, returned from South Carolina to defend his kinsman, broke in here. The Congressional Globe reports that he

impulsively uttered words which Senators advised him were not parliamentary, and he subsequently, at the insistence of Senators, requested that the words might be withdrawn.

Butler admitted he spoke rashly, saying that

I used a word which I hope will not be put down. I have never used an epiphet on this floor, and therefore ask that I may be excused.

Reading that, you might think he speculated about Wilson’s parentage or his sexual inclinations. Wilson recalled what the South Carolinian said in his history of the era, History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in Americapublished in 1874. His words

provoked the exclamation “You are a liar!” from Mr. Butler; although at the request of Senators he immediately withdrew the words.

Directly calling a man a liar, in the Southern code of honor, essentially dared him to admit lying or prove his convictions in a duel. The accusation itself came near to a challenge and so, understandably, Butler’s colleagues talked him down and he at once regretted it. Two days later, an interested party took up Butler’s claim as his own and challenged Henry Wilson to a duel properly: Preston Brooks.

To “record our protest against such a doing”

George Hillard

George Hillard, who has known Charles Sumner for years and once considered him a friend as well as a law partner, condemned Preston Brooks’ caning of his old friend as inhuman and brutal. More than that, and more importantly, he called it cowardly. If Brooks faced Sumner in even terms he would still have transgressed against the respectable mores of Massachusetts gentlemen, but to attack a man unawares made his caning the work of an assassin.

Hillard continued by noting that every man had a duty to come forward, as he and they had, and

record our protest against such a doing, to express our sympathy with our Senator from Massachusetts who has been thus assaulted, and to proclaim to the United States and the world that this is an occasion in which we are able to soar above party distinctions. It is not a gentleman belonging to this or that political party, but it is a man representing Massachusetts, who has been cruelly and brutally assaulted for the honest discharge of what he deems to be his duty, and we have only to say against such doings, we do protest now and all times. (Applause.)

In his own life, Hillard probably felt that pull. He and Sumner hadn’t gotten on in years and retained only a formal remnant of their old friendship. Brooks’ attack took precedence over their personal disagreements, just as it did over Governor Gardner’s differences with Sumner. He represented Massachusetts and that mattered.

Having gone so far, Hillard dialed back:

I hope, in conclusion, that we will not suddenly jump at the inference, that this brutal and cowardly act, is in any degree the expression of public sentiment or sanctioned by the public feeling in any particular section of the country. As yet we have no evidence of it, and let us wait until we have that evidence. I trust we shall not have it

Boston gathered for public indignation on Saturday, May 24. Only two days had passed since the caning. News clearly hadn’t reached Boston of the general delight with which the South greeted received word of Sumner’s plight. Hillard, as a more moderate and less political man than Sumner, might of his own accord approach the question with more circumspection. Doing so before evidence had come in speaks to general prudence and good sense in an era when it could take days for news to travel the country.

“Not first that it was inhuman and brutal, but it was cowardly”

George Hillard

Massachusetts’ Know-Nothing governor, Henry Gardner, had mixed feelings about Sumner’s caning. He condemned it at the public indignation meeting, but left room in his condemnation for anyone who harbored doubts about whether Sumner had gone too far. As a member of a party which positioned itself often as an alternative to antislavery extremism, while retaining some antislavery preferences, he had to thread that needle whatever his private thoughts. Resolutions followed Gardner’s speech, in the same vein as the New York set, but with an additional dig at the congressmen who voted against the House investigatory committee.

George Hillard, a former law partner and friend of Sumner’s who grew apart from him as the latter became more invested in politics, took the stage next. Hillard noted that Sumner’s speech had “strong expressions” but no one called him to order. Therefore, his speech had to be proper. After disclaiming any commitment to pacifism, Hillard got to the meat of it:

the principle that in a civilized community a man may resort to physical violence for the sake of redressing a private wrong, is a doctrine which you and I, and all of us, do most distinctly repudiate, because by adopting or admitting it you render null and void all that has been done by our fathers and mothers to build up this goodly fabric of the State, the highest work of man’s hands.

Hillard had the right of it, by his mores and I hope our own. White Southerners disagreed, but they didn’t attend public indignation meetings in Boston. Sumner’s old partner went on to expound about degrees of culpability in assaults. One could justify, or at least forgive attacks, “made in hot blood” or “under sudden provocation”. Even attacking a person of “notorious violent, manners and deportment” could get a pass.

Brooks did none of that. He couldn’t have acted in the heat of the moment as he “had had at least one sun go down upon his wrath” and against a man who

I can testify, after a friendship of twenty years, is a most amiable, gentle, and kindly man. (Applause.)

Hillard and Sumner hadn’t actually carried on a friendship since the late 1840s, but close enough. He drilled further down, distinguishing Brooks’ assault from “a boxing match”. Men in Massachusetts must still have settled things that way on occasion. He declared such bouts “not a pretty thing to look at” but resolving things that way made one

far nobler or at least less ignoble than the assassin who dogs the steps of his victim in the dark and stabs him in the back. So too the man who comes to me, face to face, at noonday in the street, and tells me he is going to inflict a personal chastisement upon me, there is even in that some little show of fair dealing, of honesty so to speak, even in the very attitude and circumstance of the assault.

If you had to do violence, and Hillard accepted that you sometime might have to, then do it the right way. Stand up and face your foe, don’t skulk around, plot, and strike from surprise. What Brooks did struck Hillard as

a very bad specimen of a very bad school, and the comment I made upon it, was not first that it was inhuman and brutal, but it was cowardly.

The cowardice, mention of which drew applause, stood out to Hillard more than the brutality or inhumanity even in retrospect. He depicted Sumner as, “a man imprisoned, tied hand and foot, so to speak, in an arm-chair and desk” when Brooks struck, “without warning.” That made the South Carolinian an assassin striking a nearly helpless victim. Compared to that Hillard, could commend the “manliness and courage” of someone who met him on the road and whipped him.


Governor Gardner on Sumner’s Caning

Henry Gardner (Know-Nothing-MA)

New Yorkers across the political spectrum, from the conservative establishment of the North’s most proslavery city to reformers and radicals, united in condemning Charles Sumner’s caning by Preston Brooks on the floor of the United States Senate. At the city least likely to generate such a response, New York stands out from the crowd. That said, it had a big crowd to stand out from. Sumner’s biographer, David Donald, recounts that

There were not merely rallies in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, not merely in Albany, Cleveland, Detroit, New Haven, Providence, and Rochester, but in Newmarket, New Hampshire, Lockport, New York, Rahway, New Jersey, Berea, Ohio, Burlington, Iowa, and in dozens of other towns.

Preston Brooks had at least briefly united most of the white North, a feat not quite accomplished by the Fugitive Slave Act, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, or all of Bleeding Kansas to date. The outrage naturally united Massachusetts, where a public indignation meeting occupied Faneuil Hal on May 24. Governor Gardner gave the opening speech, wherein he rehearsed familiar themes and then drove into a condemnation of political vitriol:

Gentlemen, I cannot resist this opportunity to say to you that this event, unparalleled heretofore in the history of our country, can perhaps be traced by easy and slow gradations to that habit which is too frequently adopted even in Massachusetts, of unbridled abuse and calumnious insinuations and assaults against the character, purposes, designs and motives of our public men – While I stand here to defend the liberty of speech, I would not have that liberty degenerate into licentiousness. He who strikes into the bosom of an opponent with a dagger, or he who uses a bludgeon upon his head attacks his physical life; but he who uses the dagger of the assassin on the character of a political opponent, or the bludgeon of an untruth upon his reputation, is as bad as the other.

One could hear all that and get the wrong idea. Governor Gardner sounds like a man with more than half a mind to pin this all on Sumner, the martyred victim. The five thousand or so gathered in and around the hall can’t have minded Gardner’s previous pleas to rise above party too much, but just where did he mean to go with the next part? Gardner himself must have realized that, because he immediately dispels the obvious inference:

I can hardly trust myself to speak of this despicable conduct as it deserves. I have read the speech which gave rise to it, and I am constrained to say that in my judgment there is not a pretext for the assault. But whether the words were weighed carefully and were in good taste or not, is not the question. the question is, whether a man from Massachusetts can be indulged with the same latitude that the other sixty senators of Congress are allowed. That is the point for us to consider, and I hesitate not to say that this speech does not surpass many speeches which have been uttered there and gone abroad to the winds, without the first word of complaint against them.

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

The Governor has obvious mixed feelings. The content of Sumner’s speech doesn’t matter, as a matter of principle. On the other hand, nothing in it would justify an attack upon his person. But do remember, character assassination has no place in decent politics. I don’t know what Gardner’s delivery was like, and my report of the speech lacks crowd reaction notes, but he sounds like a man trying to please diverse factions without committing to much to any of them. If you believe Sumner’s speech completely within bounds, you can draw lines out of Gardner to support that. If you believe it outside the limit of good taste, or just minimally acceptable discourse, then Gardner also supports you. Only the position that Sumner really had it coming doesn’t get clear support.


“We respectfully await the action of the House of Representatives”

The New York Herald reports on the indignation meeting

New York City’s public indignation meeting got off to a bit of a slow start, despite the packed Tabernacle. The crowd arrived on time, but not the committee and speakers. I don’t know what caused the hold up, but they arrived with a set of resolutions for the multitude to endorse. Those resolutions condemned Preston Brooks’ caning Charles Sumner as an attack upon democratic government, and consequently an attack upon the North in general. Furthermore, as the Southern press and politicians united in endorsing Brooks’ assault they had to understand the caning as retroactively the work of the entire white South. That united the leading men even of a proslavery city like New York. They continued

from no other motive and from no other impute we are called upon to a distinct and unequivocal expression of our feelings and opinions on this important event, in our deep, unchanged and unalterable attachment to the federal constitution and federal Union, we should find abundant reasons for the most earnest solicitude and the most decided action to arouse reflecting, disinterested, and patriotic citizens, in all parts of the country, to a manful and united determination to frown upon and extinguish the first indications of violence and terror as agencies in our political system.

In other words, the people on the speaker’s platform and in the audience understood themselves as often political adversaries. By diverging from their usual alignments they could look like men trying to ride a wave for selfish purposes. The resolutions denied that, casting the caning emphatically as an American matter, not merely one of party sentiment. They had their disagreements, but they staked out a norm that no one should conduct politics as Brooks and his many southern admirers had.

At this point, one might expect a course of action to appear in the resolutions. The meeting articulated the problem and their understanding of it; a remedy forms a next logical step. Here they pulled back just a little,

we respectfully await the action of the House of Representatives in the premises, but we announce, we believe, the universal sentiment of our citizens, as demanding the immediate and unconditional expulsion of Mr. Brooks from their body, as a necessary vindication of their own character.

The meeting did not presume to dictate the House’s course; it merely expressed the universal belief that the House take a certain course of action and kick Preston Brooks out. This double talk can’t have fooled anyone, but given that the resolutions focused so closely on the sanctity of government and the prerogatives of men holding public office, specifically Sumner, an outright order would have been a jarring departure from theme. Customarily, public meetings didn’t dictate to Congress in so many terms. They requested or recommended actions as expressions of their members in the form of petitions, not ultimatums.

The resolutions closed with an order they could make, because it applied only to them. The newspapers should publish the resolutions and send them to New York’s delegation in Congress, where those men should lay them before the House and Senate for proper consideration.