“I did not think it necessary to express my sympathy” John Slidell Explains Himself, Part 2

John Slidell

The Caning: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13

The House report on the caning

After his caning, Charles Sumner saw Senator John Slidell of Louisiana just once. Slidell saw Sumner twice. At the time of the attack, he sat in a room adjacent to the Senate speaking to Stephen Douglas and a few other men. A messenger rushed in with news that someone had laid into Sumner, which Slidell shrugged off as none of his business. A few minutes later, another person came through and told them that it had ended, Preston Brooks did the attacking, and Sumner suffered serious injury. That stirred Slidell to move. He came into the Senate to see Sumner bloodied on the floor, surrounded by others and in no state to mark a man who kept clear of his immediate surrounds. Slidell left the Senate after getting an account of what happened. He and Sumner met again in the doorway to a reception area, where Slidell declined to offer help and just got out of his way.

As he explained to the Senate a week later:

I am not particularly fond of scenes of any sort. I have no associations or relations of any kind with Mr. Sumner; I have not spoken to him for two years. I did not think it necessary to express my sympathy, or make any advances towards him. If I had continued, I should have crossed his path, and interrupted his progress to a sofa; he was evidently faint and weak. I very naturally turned in another direction; and instead of passing through the ante-room, entered the Senate chamber

Slidell gave a remarkable and complex account of himself in those few words. He admitted that he didn’t care for Sumner, had nothing to do with him, and didn’t view the news of his attack as something worth so much as interrupting a conversation over. Even once he has the full story and could see Sumner’s injuries, he exudes indifference. At the same time, his second encounter with Sumner brings a strictly practical explanation. They met in a doorway and he didn’t want to slow Sumner’s path to the couch. Sumner’s two word account of Slidell, that he retreated, implies that Slidell exhibited pure indifference to his plight. The Louisianan objected on the grounds that he had nothing but indifference toward Sumner, but for a slightly different reason. He and Sumner blocked the door for each other. Slidell made sure that the Senate understood that he didn’t care before explaining his retreat as a simple impasse of the kind everyone has. It wouldn’t do for people, Senators or otherwise, to think he exhibited any deference to a gravely wounded colleague.

The Senator concluded with a few additional notes:

whatever may have been his [Sumner’s] intentions, or the intentions of those who have prompted this course of examination, it is calculated to deceive the public and make a false impression on popular opinion. I believe that to be the object.

Just what false impression Slidell had in mind for the House Committee, he made clear a few sentences later. He understood their work, and Sumner’s testimony, as part of a plot to implicate himself and other proslavery men in Brooks’ attack. He had not conspired with the South Carolinian, thank you. Nor would he suffer the House to think he had and air their wild claims to the nation unanswered. The House report made no such claims.

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