“I think there will be an assault upon him”

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

The Crime Against Kansas: Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10,11, 12, 13, 14, 15Full text

Douglas Answers, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

With Douglas’ response answered, Sumner moved to dismiss James Mason. The Virginian “said nothing of argument, and, therefore, there is nothing for response.” He chided Mason for confusing “hard words,” “frowns,” and “scowls” for reasoned debate. He insisted that he had done nothing to earn such behavior, calling it “plantation manners,” and let the matter drop. They exchanged final barbs over plantation manners and, according to The New York Daily Tribune

Mr. MASON was understood to say-the Senator is certainly non compos mentis.

The Tribune, and antislavery papers in general, praised Sumner to the heavens for his Kansas speech. Some of his friendly colleagues in the Senate had advised against insulting senators and states in private, or objected to the tone, but the main opposition came from the usual quarters. Few Democrats liked an attack on the Democracy and its proslavery policy. Nor did Southerners happily suffer attacks upon slavery of any sort. Angry talk filled the streets of Washington.

Sumner may have underestimated the wrath he provoked. He later testified that he had no inkling of his danger

Never, directly or indirectly; nor had I the most remote suspicion of any attack, nor was I in any way prepared for an attack. I had no arms of means of defence of any kind. I was, in fact, entirely defenceless at the time, except so far as my natural strength went. In other words, I had no arms either about my person or in my desk. Nor did I ever wear arms in my life. I have always lived in a civilized community where wearing arms has not been considered necessary.

Henry Wilson

Sumner’s colleagues didn’t feel so confident of his safety. Henry Wilson, Massachusetts’ other senator, testified later that John Bingham, of the House, came up to him as the Senate adjourned and said:

“You had better go down with Mr. Sumner; I think there will be an assault upon him.”

Wilson didn’t buy it at first, but Bingham insisted that he “heard remarks made, from which I think an assault will be made.” That changed Wilson’s mind and he asked walked over and asked Sumner to hold on

I am going home with you to-day-several of us are going home with you.

With a quick “None of that, Wilson,” Sumner declined. Wilson tried to get Anson Burlingame and Schuyler Colfax to join him in escort duty all the same, but Sumner left by a side door rather than wait. The would-be bodyguards thought he might come back and hung around  for a little while before realizing the senator had well and truly left. Sumner may have taken things more seriously, but Wilson admitted that he gave his colleague no reason to believe they worried about Sumner’s safety. He probably thought they just wanted to talk.

Sumner “shot off just as I should any other day.” On his way out, he ran into William Seward. They had dinner plans so Seward suggested that they share the omnibus, essentially a horse-drawn taxi. Sumner begged off on the grounds that he needed to get to the printing office and look over proofs for The Crime Against Kansas in pamphlet form.


“The noisome, squat, and nameless animal” Sumner Answers Douglas

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

The Crime Against Kansas: Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10,11, 12, 13, 14, 15Full text

Douglas Answers, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

Having dispensed with Lewis Cass’ response to him, Charles Sumner moved on to his main target. Stephen Douglas said many things about the Massachusetts Senator that Sumner cared to answer. In the course of doing so, he even went into the Congressional Globe to quote old debates. Where Sumner had a historical argument with Cass, at least in the main, he had a principled and personal one with Douglas, who he called “a common scold.”  He told the Senate that he would shrug off the personal baggage and let the Little Giant have the last word, except that Douglas

has crowned the audacity of this debate by venturing in rise here and calumniate me. He has said that I came here, took an oath to support the Constitution, and yet determined not to support a particular clause in that Constitution.

Sumner gave that “the flattest denial.” Andrew Butler tried that argument too, claiming that Sumner declared against the Constitution by saying he would not render over a fugitive slave. Sumner had made that avowal and wouldn’t deny it, but argued as he had before

that as I understand the Constitution, this clause does not impose upon me, as a senator or citizen, any obligation to take part, directly or indirectly, in the surrender of a fugitive slave.

That sounds like a point that a bad stereotype of a lawyer would make, a distinction without difference used to hide a multitude of sins. In reading Sumner’s defense again, I realized that he has the right of it. The Fugitive Slave Act that James Mason wrote and the Congress passed in late 1850 did that work and Southerners wanted a similar provision in the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act. They didn’t get it then, but the decades made their dreams come true. Sumner protested the very obligation that made the law so odious in the North. Many who thought little either way about slavery or who loathed antislavery politics still had qualms about seeing an innocent person hunted down and hauled back from their communities. Antislavery whites may have enjoyed their greatest popularity, at least before the middle 1850s, when they aided fugitives in escaping.

Stephen Douglas

The individual obligation vs. Constitutional duty point remains a technical one, but it has substance to it. Mason, who drafted the law, could not have missed that no obligation to ordinary people in the North existed before he wrote one into the statute books. If he believed otherwise, he could have saved some ink and much effort. A state might have some obligation to render fugitives up, but not a random person on the street. As Sumner held a United States Senate seat, he did not count as part of his state’s government. Thus, the Fugitive Slave Clause did not apply to him, even if the Fugitive Slave Act did.

Sumner then complained of Douglas’ personal insults, which must have struck the Senate as a bit rich. He further lectured Douglas on how he should remain

above the intemperance of youth, and from character to be above the gusts of vulgarity. […] let him remember hereafter that the bowie-knife and the bludgeon are not the proper emblems of senatorial debate.

He went on in that vein for a long paragraph, finally working himself up to “no person with the upright form of a man can be allowed-” And there Sumner stopped. Douglas told him “Say it.”

no person with the upright form of a man can be allowed, without violation of all decency, to switch out from his tongue the perpetual stench of offensive personality. Sir, that is not a proper weapon of debate, at least, on this floor. The noisome, squat, and nameless animal, to which I now refer, is not a proper model for an American Senator.

“His shaft did not touch me, but fell upon them” Sumner Answers Cass

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

The Crime Against Kansas: Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15Full text

Douglas Answers, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

Hearing the replies of Lewis Cass, Stephen Douglas, and James Mason to his Crime Against Kansas speech, Sumner understood that they demanded a reply. If he said nothing, unlike him in any event, it would amount to conceding their points. Sumner wouldn’t let that happen and so rose to speak again. He started with Cass,

venerable with years, and with whom I have had associations of personal regard longer than with any person now within the sound of my voice. […] The Senator from Michigan knows full well that nothing can fall from me which can have anything but kindness for him.

During his tour of the nation, Sumner had called on Cass and his marriageable daughter in Michigan. I don’t know how much further back they go, but that had to count for something. Lewis Cass, Sumner’s dear friend, had turned on him:

He has said on this floor to-day that he listened with regret to my speech. I have never avowed on this floor how often, with my heart brimming full of friendship for him, I have listened with regret to what has fallen from his lips. I have never said that he stood here to utter sentiments which seemed beyond all question disloyal to the character of the fathers and to the true spirit of the Constitution

Lewis Cass

Sumner and Cass differed in the past, but Sumner had never gone public with it. He maintained their friendship and Cass repaid him with accusations approaching treason. Sumner sounds genuinely blindsided. He may have thought higher of Cass than Cass did of him. He at least implied that he did. Wounded feelings only got one so far, though. Politics in every era has no dearth of bruising scrapes. Sumner moved on to the substance, that Cass accused him of having Michigan’s history wrong.

my statement of that case was founded upon the actual documents. No word was mine: It was all from Jackson, from Grundy, from Buchanan, from Benton, from the Democratic leaders of that day. When the Senator criticised me, his shaft did not touch me, but fell upon them.

Don’t argue with Sumner; argue with the people he quoted. Yet Cass didn’t dispute the words themselves. He argued instead about the particulars of the situation in Michigan which gave rise to the lines in question. One could argue that Cass’ shaft -let us imagine an arrow, Gentle Readers- did touch, because Sumner sidestepped the argument. But Sumner’s reference to “actual documents” reminds us that he did the research. The Crime Against Kansas speaks of Michigan’s situation in some detail, more than one would expect from an idle reference. Cass has a fair point in that Michigan’s statehood did not progress exactly like Kansas’ bid had, but he himself equivocates between a statehood rejected by the legislature and one accepted by a dubious popular assembly. Both men could make a case from those facts, but it does seem to hinge more on technical details than points of principle.


James Mason and the Slave Power

Stephen Douglas

The Crime Against Kansas: Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15Full text

Douglas Answers, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

After Stephen Douglas finished castigating Charles Sumner for The Crime Against Kansas, James Mason took his turn. Sumner didn’t get personal with Mason quite like he did with the absent Andrew Butler, but the Massachusetts senator singled out the Fugitive Slave Act for particular scorn on every occasion. Mason wrote the law.

The Virginian began with now familiar complaints about Sumner’s incivility, then centered his objections on Sumner’s believe in the Slave Power. That conspiracy of Southerners and turncoat Yankees dominated the Union, as Sumner had it. Others argued much the same. Mason’s objection began with a lack of clear definitions. What did Sumner mean by slave power, if he never explained it? Where did its great might come from?

It is not the wealth of the slaveholding States, for the Senator from Massachusetts himself, by an extravagance of speech, declared here yesterday, that, the productive industry of his own small State was greater than the whole cotton-growing labor of the South.

If the South couldn’t buy and sell the North, then whence came its power? Mason dismissed numbers, because the slave states lacked a majority in the House and Senate alike. If not money or numbers, then what?

If there be any slave power exerting an influence upon the counsels of this country, it is that moral power diffused through the world, acknowledged everywhere, and to which kings and potentates bow-it is the moral power of truth; adherence to the obligations of honor, and the dispensation of those charities of life that ennoble the nature of man. That is the moral power which the Senator ascribes to the institution of slavery.

Mason had the truth of it closer than he or Sumner might care to admit, if for the opposite reasons. The disproportionate power of the slave states come in part from the anti-democratic nature of the American Constitution, which we struggle with still. It granted them strength beyond their number, then added more on top to help protect slavery specifically. But the moral power in those obligations of honor came down to the steadfast unity of most of the South, most of the time, in slavery’s defense. Even shy of a numerical majority, the slave states formed a plurality interest of vast influence. Many northerners objected to slavery in the abstract or in principle, but even into the Civil War they didn’t view its eradication as a civilization-defining trait. The South, by contrast, understood slavery as the ultimate, indispensible foundation of civilization.

“Exhausting all the epithets in the English language” Douglas Answers Sumner, Part 4

Stephen Douglas

The Crime Against Kansas: Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15Full text

Douglas Answers, Parts 1, 2, 3

Stephen Douglas felt insulted, on account of all the insults Charles Sumner threw his way. He inveighed against Sumner as a hypocrite, a man who claimed to follow and defend the Constitution but refused to cooperate in surrendering fugitive slaves. He damned Sumner as a vulgarian. He laid into the senator all the more so for doing this all in a calculating, practiced way. Sumner wrote his insults down, memorized them, and practiced their delivery. Most senators wrote their speeches in advance and might have had a dry run or two, but more commonly they read their speeches to the chamber. Sumner went the extra mile and performed his.

Douglas took all that personally, but he also spoke up for the aggrieved Andrew Butler. Butler came under Sumner’s withering attack for his proslavery politics, fair enough, but also for his stroke-induced speech impediment. Sumner lacked the courtesy to deliver that insult to Butler’s face, instead speaking while he was away from the Senate. When Douglas came to that point, James Mason interjected. The author of the Fugitive Slave Act insisted that Sumner took advantage of the absence. The craven would never have mocked Butler’s disability to his face.

Douglas thought otherwise:

I think the speech was written and practiced, and the gestures fixed; and, if that part had been stricken out, the Senator would not have known how to repeat the speech.

The Senate laughed, but considering how much Sumner memorized, he may have had the right of it. Long orations develop a momentum all their own. Skipping around or over some content might have thrown Sumner badly off. Also Sumner seems like the kind of person who would have insulted Butler to his face if the occasion required it. He could charm people, but Sumner had convictions not easily shaken by social convention.

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Douglas went on, telling the Senate that everyone there loved Andrew Butler. No one would stand up for Sumner’s insulting of their old friend. Douglas averred that they all felt the same outrage on his behalf. But Butler would come back and give his own answer, so Douglas left it to him. When that happened, the Little Giant knew

The Senator from Massachusetts will go to him, whisper a secret apology in his ear, and ask him to accept that as satisfaction for a public outrage on his character. I know how the Senator from Massachusetts is in the habit of doing those things. I have had some experience of his skill in this respect.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Maybe Douglas did and Sumner had made up with him in private before, but it sounds unlike him. Douglas decided to construe Sumner’s Latin as vulgar without any textual basis, so he didn’t consider himself above inventing things on the point. Then he pronounced himself offended on behalf of David Rice Atchison, “a gentleman and an honest man.” In that tirade,

exhausting all the epithets in the English language, the Senator went off to the Latin, to see if he could not find more of them there

Sumner neglected many words as familiar to him as to us, but within the bounds of nineteenth century etiquette and Senatorial standards, he did go far. Between mocking Butler’s disability and implying sexual impropriety with slaves, Sumner went straight to the gutter.


Please call, fax or email your senators to save the Affordable Care Act

Gentle Readers, I don’t do this often. What I write below has nothing to do with history. I have some things I need to say. If you want to skip my reasoning and get right to it, contact information is at the bottom of this post.

Neither I nor any of my loved ones receive life-sustaining care through the Affordable Care Act; our lives are not on the line. But countless Americans do. If its protections go away, they face the choice of bankruptcy or death. Tens of thousands of lives are at stake every year. Millions more will be at risk, one accident or bad gene away from disaster. These people don’t have to die before their time. We have the money and we have the power to save them all: the aged grandparents, the newborns, the premature babies, the sick toddlers, the teenager hit by a car, all the people battling cancer, and all the people who battle mental illness and addition every agonizing day just to get to the next. They are all people just like you, with loved ones and people who love them, hopes, dreams, faults, and all the stuff that makes us human; maybe they are you.

Today, July 25, 2017, the United States Senate will vote on a Motion to Proceed on some kind of attack upon health care for all those people. I will be blunt: Whatever they vote on is a plan to murder all those people I just mentioned just as surely as if they were all lined up against a wall and shot. Those who survive anyway will suffer more, needlessly.

We don’t know what they plan to vote to proceed with because the Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, hasn’t told us. He has cooked up a health care bill in secret, multiple times, bypassing every institutional norm of the Senate. There have been no hearings. More than once, it seems like he has hurried to get something forward before the Congressional Budget Office could examine it and inform the Congress of its likely consequences. If the Motion to Proceed passes, then the Senate will have no more than twenty hours’ debate over two, maybe three, days. Amendments will fly. None of the Senators have looked at the bill; none of them know what it does. Probably some of them don’t care to know. Once the paper begins flying, no one will know what the final bill is until the ultimate vote. McConnell himself might put in a final amendment that wipes out all the previous ones.

Here’s what we do know: Every previous version of this the GOP has come up with has been a devastating attack on vulnerable Americans. They’re not going to change tracks now. We also know that if they thought this bill was popular, they would be happy to run it through the normal committee hearings to understand how it would touch the lives of millions. They would invite Democrats in to ask questions and suggest modifications. Instead they skulk about like assassins. They know this bill is poison from the start. Every health care advocacy group that’s looked at it, even the health insurance industry themselves, think it’s a terrible idea and will cause tremendous harm. Even the charity that funded Mitch McConnell’s treatment for polio, the March of Dimes, thinks so. He refused to meet with them.

That’s bad enough; I have worse. The reason we don’t legislate like this normally is that we take governance seriously and expect accountability of our politicians. They should know what they’re doing, what the costs are, and who will bear them. The people should have a chance to be heard at every step of the way, even people we personally disagree with or loathe. Democracy cannot survive otherwise, whether we have elections or not. If Mitch McConnell and the Republican party get away with this one, then they will do this for everything they want to do that can’t stand the light of day. We may never get back the deliberative process that, for all its faults, remains a great safeguard of our liberties.

Already we teeter at the edge of a deeper crisis than the one we have faced at least since October, when the Republican leadership learned that Russia was working to win Donald Trump the presidency and insisted that President Obama say nothing or they would attack him for it. That was probably our first coup. The second has been ongoing, in slow motion, since January as the man who lost the election of 2016 by millions of votes works to transform our nation into a dictatorship. He has already fired one man investigating his Russian connections, a Republican stalwart no less. That was the third coup, arising from the second but a signal point in its own right. Now he lays the groundwork for firing the Republican stalwart appointed to continue the investigation. That could be our fourth coup. If he can get away with that, and past precedent suggests the Republicans in Congress are happy to ensure he does, what else can he do? Give him that power and give the Senate the power to draft laws in secret and pass them by virtual fiat, and American democracy may never recover.

Even if you don’t care about heath care and don’t mind Vladimir Putin -a man who regularly assassinates people who he dislikes- fixing our elections, you should care about that. Authoritarianism is present in every society, waiting to be unleashed. Once it is, no one is safe. Southern whites lynched their fellows for not being sound on slavery, a system they insisted upon for the safety of the white race. No one is truly safe in such a world except for a small number of people at the very top, who make us vulnerable so we must look to them for protection and so buy our silence. They will come for all of us, given the chance.

I don’t know if we can save this. I’m sorry; I really don’t. I don’t know if we ever get back to where we were as a nation just one year ago. Despair is a natural reaction in these times. But I know this: enough Republican senators are wavering or can’t agree on a repeal of the ACA, a replacement for it, or something else that all hope is not lost. If McConnell loses this one, then he might be forced to drop the effort and return to normal order for the Senate. He will still pass laws I abhor, but we may inch back from the precipice and in doing so save so many lives.

The only thing left to us is the First Amendment. We can petition our Senators with the convenience of modern technology. Reach out and touch them, especially if your senator is a Republican. If they are, tell them to oppose all the attempts to destroy or undermine the ACA. If they’re a Democrat, thank them for fighting to save it. Every Senator gets regular reports of what comes in over the phones, faxes, and emails. They use that data to get a sense for their constituents. Being a Senator is a job that most of them want to keep for a long time. If they think that voting one way will outrage the great majority of their voters, then they will not do it. We have the ability to save all those lives and maybe our democracy in the bargain. Do we have the decency? 

The United States has failed to meet the promises it makes to its citizens and the world on a daily basis for as long as it has existed, but Americans are not a singularly evil people. We can -we have- done better in the past. We can do it again. We are both the nation that instituted and sustained slavery and the nation that abolished it. We can choose the brighter path.

How to Contact Your Senator

The single easiest way to get in touch with your Senator is courtesy of ResistBot, basically an automated operator which will give you phone numbers or fax missives to them. You can access it through Facebook Messenger or your smartphone and it is totally free. If you have trouble talking to people on the phone, as I do, faxes are just like typing an email. The prompts will tell you everything you need to do. It takes minutes. If you call, leave a voice mail if you don’t get a person. If you have to, try more than once over. The Capitol switchboard can put you in touch with your senators: (202) 224-3121. The vote isn’t set until this afternoon, so we have some time. If the motion to proceed does pass, don’t let up. It’s not over until the Republicans give up their crusade or the bill is signed into law. Get in touch every day. If something changes, get in touch again. It’s all we can do. We owe it to all those people depending on us, including ourselves. Please.

Who Does Charles Sumner Think He Is? Douglas Answers Sumner, Part 3

Stephen Douglas

The Crime Against Kansas: Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15Full text

Douglas Answers, Parts 1, 2

Furious at Charles Sumner’s Kansas speech, Stephen Douglas accused him of gutter Latin and rehearsing the speech in the dark with a black boy holding a candle so Sumner could practice his gestures. Sumner planned his every insult and drilled himself for their best delivery. The theatrics outraged, but Douglas had more than wounded pride to indict Sumner on. The Senator claimed that many of his proslavery fellows engaged in a “swindle” and crime in opening Kansas to slavery and sought to compound it by blessing the proslavery territorial government with statehood. Three-quarters of the Senate, by Douglas’ count, stood accused of “direliction of duty”.

Sumner should talk about dereliction of duty. Douglas reminded the Senate that the Massachusetts Senator came into the Senate chamber and

put his hand upon the Holy Bible, in the presence of this body, and appealed to Almighty God to witness that he would be faithful to the Constitution

After that, Sumner pledged he would not enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. Douglas deemed that a declaration that Sumner would not abide by his oath of office at all. If he could not swear to his oath of office, how could he consider himself fit for the job? And how dare he arraign Senators who had? Yet

still he comes here and arraigns us for crime, and talks about “audacity!” Did mortal man ever witness such audacity in an avowed criminal? He comes here with a pledge to defy the Constitution of his country, and the wrath of god, by not obeying his oath, and then talks about audacity

Douglas demurred from a detailed discussion of Kansas matters, on which he had already opined. He dismissed them with the insistence that the American government had not fallen “so weak, so corrupt, so unjust” as to deserve a revolution against it. All that talk pointed to disunion, which Douglas would not brook. The insults clearly stung and outraged him, but the time had come to reach the matters of substantive contention between them:

You challenge me to this great issue, which you say you have made up between the Negro worshipers and the “slave power,” as you call it. What you call the slave power is simply observance of the Constitution of the country, as our fathers made it. Let us have that fair issue between the parties, and let us discuss that, instead of dealing in denunciation against one another here.

That genuinely put people like Sumner in a difficult position. The Constitution really did give slavery unusual protection and endorsement. It created a duty to yield up fugitive slaves, right there in black and white. It gave slaveholding states extra representatives. It promised to them twenty years of unlimited slave imports. A patriotic politician in the nineteenth century could not inveigh against the Constitution and expect to win or keep office. The standard answer involved inventing an antislavery founding generation who wrote their principles into the Constitution, though they apparently chose to do so in a deeply perverse manner. That doesn’t mean that none of them really believed they had the founders on their side, as everyone does, but it left them with a set of awkward and not entirely convincing arguments that a quick and informed mind -and Douglas had both- could easily pick apart.

“Is his object to provoke some of us?” Douglas Answers Sumner, Part 2

Stephen Douglas

The Crime Against Kansas: Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15Full text

Stephen Douglas began his answer to Charles Sumner with a condemnation of the other senator’s vulgar insults. He claimed that Sumner’s Latin hailed from the gutter, culled from the classics that decent people left well alone. I don’t know if Douglas had any Latin to complain or not, but his argument sounds like the work of a man more annoyed by classical allusions than interested in their content. He loathed Sumner’s invective for its own sake and, not in the least, because it targeted Douglas and his coalition. Accused of fraud, swindling, crime, and infamy “at least a hundred times over,” Douglas resented it and wondered just what Sumner expected to get from such a speech.

Is his object to provoke some of us to kick him as we would a dog in the street, that he may get sympathy upon the just chastisement? What is the object of these denunciations against the body which we are members?

That sound soon look prescient. Douglas, in effect, accused Sumner of trolling the Senate. He spoke to get a big reaction, which he could take home in a play for sympathy. Sumner obviously intended for his speech to help his political prospects in Massachusetts, but little in his life to date suggests he opposed slavery for cynical political gains. If Sumner vented his genuine feelings, and those of many other antislavery Americans, then they would naturally incline to support him regardless. Likewise Sumner’s foes would accuse him of insincerity or fanaticism in service of his career, at the expense of the Union.

Douglas, speaking spontaneously, also damned Sumner on related grounds. Everyone knew senators could get angry and say things they might regret in the heat of debate. You gave them a pass on such things because everyone has those moments. Sometimes senators goaded one another into outrages. Sometimes they got together and laughed about it later.

But, sir, it happens to be well known, it has been the subject of conversation for weeks, that the Senator from Massachusetts had his speech written, printed, committed to memory, practiced every night before the glass with a Negro boy to hold the candle and watch the gestures, and annoying the borders in the adjoining room until they were forced to quit the house!

The boy probably existed in Douglas’ mind alone, but every senator wrote major addresses in advance. Sumner had a stronger than usual reputation for preparing and memorizing his work, which held true for this speech as for his previous. All of that made Sumner’s accusations premeditated, practiced and honed to a razor’s edge in calm deliberation. Charles Sumner didn’t pop off to the Senate in a moment of pique; he planned it down to the gesture. He even had the temerity to rehearse the speech with other senators, another common practice that carried with it the implication someone might have told him to tone things down and Sumner refused.


“Those obscene, vulgar terms” Douglas Answers Sumner, Part 1

Stephen Douglas

The Crime Against Kansas: Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15Full text

After Lewis Cass finished taking Charles Sumner to task for misrepresenting the history of Michigan, Stephen Douglas had his turn. Sumner and Douglas never got on well and the senator from Illinois indulged in a slow burn for the two days Sumner spoke. He opened with a promise to the Senate that he wouldn’t render a detailed reply to The Crime Against Kansas. He wouldn’t say anything at all

but for the personalities in which he [Sumner] has indulged, evincing a depth of malignity that issued from every sentence, making it a matter of self respect with me to repel the assaults which have been made.

Douglas dismissed Sumner’s arguments as old news, a common and usually true complaint of him. Sumner excelled in rhetorical craftsmanship, not ideological innovation. Douglas had dealt with all that, twice over, just in the past year. Instead he compared Sumner’s speech to a quilt, made of “all the old calico dresses of various colors that have been in the house from the days of their grandmothers.” At the end of the day, everyone looked duly impressed with the new work, which had not a stitch of new work in it. Gentle Readers, if any of you know a quilter then you know they would have some words with Douglas about that.

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Which brought Douglas to one of Sumner’s favorite rhetorical flourishes, which he often included against the advice of friends who warned him that readers would check out:

We have had another dish of the classics served up-classic allusions, each one only distinguished for its lasciviousness and obscenity, each one drawn from those portions of the classics which all decent professors in respectable colleges cause to be suppressed, as unfit for decent young men to read. I cannot repeat the words. I should be condemned as unworthy of entering decent society, if I repeated those obscene, vulgar terms which have been used at least a hundred times in that speech. It seems that his studies of the classics have all been in those haunts where ladies cannot go, and where gentlemen never read Latin.

You might read that and think Sumner went to the things that makes classics infamous and delightful to modern readers: the open talk of sex, particularly the sort not much approved of by nineteenth century moralists. To the best of my knowledge, and I don’t think I would miss a hundred uses, Sumner didn’t go there. He might have gotten an adult content warning for reference to the harlot of slavery, that unchaste mistress of Andrew Butler, but so far as I can tell Sumner didn’t get that idea from his Latin. It might have come by way of Don Quixote, but then Douglas’ reference to Latin doesn’t make sense. I suspect Douglas, burning with anger, didn’t care about the details. Sumner used a lot of Latin to dress up what he deemed a vile speech, so Sumner’s Latin could go straight to hell.


Cass Answers Sumner

Lewis Cass (D-MI)

The Crime Against Kansas: Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15Full text

On May 20, 1856, Charles Sumner finished his Crime Against Kansas speech and sat down. For all the hours he spoke, no one interjected to call him to order. He inveighed against slavery, against South Carolina, against his fellow senators, and ultimately against the Northern Democracy for serving as slavery’s eager lapdogs. He preceded his last volley of insults by citing the precedent of Michigan to argue that Kansas’ free state government deserved admission to the Union. Through all of it, Sumner’s invective struck at the notion of popular sovereignty first advanced by Lewis Cass and later adopted by Stephen Douglas to legislate slavery into Kansas. Cass, as a member of the Jackson Cabinet when Michigan’s statehood came before the nation, as a northern Democrat, and as Michigan’s former territorial governor and present senator, not to mention President Pro Tempore of the chamber, had a few things to say about all that. He rose to give the first answer to Sumner:

I have listened with equal regret and surprise to the speech of the honorable Senator from Massachusetts. Such a speech-the most un-American and unpatriotic that ever grate don the ears of the members of this high body-as I hope never to hear again here or elsewhere.

Yet Cass rose not to take this out on Sumner, however much he deserved “the highest censure and disapprobation.” Instead, he wanted to check Sumner’s history, which the Massachusetts senator “has so misunderstood and misapplied.” Sumner claimed for the people a right “to form conventions with a view to obstruct the authorized laws of the country.” Cass would have none of that, denying such a right to “any portion of the American people.” Conventions Americans might form, but not to array themselves against the established laws. To do that, “unless they succeed” put one right over into “rebellion.”

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Here Cass makes what must read as a strange proposition today, but in nineteenth century America the right of revolution had a high cachet. You could rebel and make heroes of yourselves in the doing, as the founders did, fair enough. Had the founders failed, they might have ended on the end of a rope. The right of revolution appears always in retrospect, granted to history’s winners. So far, Kansas had not overthrown the territorial government or the United States. Thus Cass felt no obligation to yield to the demands of an illegal assembly of rebels.

But back to history. Michigan, sixty thousand whites strong, asked admission to the Union. Its constitutional convention, however, originated in an act of the legislature. The people in some vague, abstract sense, had nothing to do with it. The Wolverine State did things properly, thank you. The only difficulty came when Michigan claimed its boundary as set by Congress, rather than the one set by Ohio. Ohioans surveyed their northern boundary and helped themselves to Toledo. The tensions came close to a proper battle, with militias called out on both sides. Cass recalled how the Jackson administration feared a war. To defuse things, Congress agreed to admission contingent on a convention of Michiganders signing off on Ohio’s version of the boundary. They refused.

Senator William H. Seward (R-NY)

William Seward pressed: Just how did that first convention come together? Cass thought the governor and legislature did the work. Then coloring outside the lines ensued:

By a spontaneous act of the people, a second convention was called-not to oppose the laws, like the Kansas convention-not to establish another government-not to get up and oppose acts of Congress, or of the Territorial Legislature-not to make a revolution, but to escape from a civil war, to get out of a difficulty merely by saying that the people of the State were willing to accept the proposition of Congress.

They did so unanimously and everyone went home happy, hint hint. If Michigan could suffer a wrong -and Cass admitted the state did, as it had every right to insist on the original border- then Kansas could take a lump or two as well.