“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.

 

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