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.