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.
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.
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.