The Senate’s Committee

Henry Wilson (R-MA)

The Caning, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10, 11, 1213, 14, 15

The House report on the caning

The day after Preston Brooks broke his cane over Charles Sumner’s head and left the Senator covered in his own blood, Henry Wilson got up and demanded that the Senate take “prompt and decisive action.” They had to do something, lest another Brooks come along. If Senators, in the chamber itself and for things they said in debate, faced mortal danger then democracy could not long endure. The afternoon previous, while Sumner lay blooded in his bed, the GOP caucus met and discussed strategy. They thought it best not to make a party issue of the attack and that the Massachusetts delegation ought not lead an investigation. Thus Wilson looked to the Senate in general for a solution, rising for the first substantive business on May 23, 1856. He concluded:

Senators, I have called your attention to this transaction. I submit no motion. I leave it to older Senators, whose character-whose position in this body, and before the country, eminently fit them for the task of devising measures to redress the wrongs of a member of this body, and to vindicate the honor and dignity of the Senate.

In other words, Wilson understood -or his Republican colleagues understood and convinced him- that if the GOP took a prominent role in this then it would look like a partisan affair. Proslavery men could charge that Republicans wanted revenge on Sumner’s behalf, not justice or fair inquiry. By deferring to elder Senators, Wilson sought to depoliticize the chamber’s response. Senators should view themselves as Senators and Americans first, acting with a view to the sacred prerogatives and safeguarding democracy.

Such a considered plea, complete with deference to the elder men of the Senate, drew out from every Senator in the chamber an eloquent silence. No one would stand up for Sumner. The presiding officer waited a decent amount of time and then began to move on.

Senator William H. Seward (R-NY)

William Seward cut him off mid-sentence and offered a resolution. Neither the Congressional Globe nor Sumner’s biographer give any insight on whether Seward delayed for effect, out of his own doubts, or in hopes that someone, anyone, else would step forward. No one did, so he submitted a resolution:

That a committee of five members be appointed by the President [of the Senate] to inquire into the circumstances attending the assault committed on the person of the Hon. Charles Sumner, a member of the Senate, and in the Senate chamber yesterday; and that the said committee be instructed to report a statement of the facts, together with their opinion thereon, to the Senate.

That required unanimous consent. James Mason of Virginia rose to object, though he said he didn’t do so on the general principle of things. He merely preferred that Seward revise his resolution so that the Senate would elect the committee. Seward accepted and the Senate assented and the election took place at once. Lewis Cass, Phillip Allen, Augustus Caesar Dodge, Henry Geyer, and James Pearce won the spots, with Seward coming in sixth. Henry Wilson received one vote, probably his own. The committee included no Republicans, but did include Cass despite Sumner going after him in The Crime Against KansasGeyer and Pearce both hailed from slave states, Missouri and Maryland respectively, and Dodge had a career as a friend to popular sovereignty.

Lewis Cass (D-MI)

Cass objected. He asked Senators before the vote not to support him and very much did not want to chair the committee, as “the task would impose too much labor, and I am old.” The presiding officer informed Cass that committees chose their own chairmen, which he must have known, and then further that since he had the fewest votes in the Senate they would probably not choose him anyway. Cass griped once more about being elected and let the matter drop.

Wilson would have some kind of action, but nothing about the composition of the committee could have encouraged him to expect satisfaction.

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