Groans for Brooks and Cheers for Sumner

The New York Herald reports on the indignation meeting

The House committee delivered its report on Charles Sumner’s caning on June 2, 1856. They advised that the House expel Preston Brooks for wielding the cane and censure Henry Edmundson and Lawrence Keitt as accessories. The committee took a week to the day from their first business meeting to deliver that report. While they investigated, the American public made up their minds. A public indignation meeting at New York’s Tabernacle drew “tremendous” numbers of who gave “groans for Brooks and cheers for Sumner.” The crowd filled the venue long before its scheduled start, all men “with the exception of one or two” women. The throng “jammed up” the aisles so you couldn’t get in or out. People stood on the backs of seats so they could see the speaker’s platform.

The multitude came in response to this public notice:

The undersigned, in view of the vital necessity of preserving unimpaired freedom of discussion in our national Legislature, the equal rights of the several States therein, and the inviolability of their representatives “for any speech or debate in either house” as guaranteed by the constitution of the United States, all of which have been stricken down by the late assault on the Hon. Charles Sumner

New York understood the caning as Henry Wilson had. A Senator, in the Senate, suffered a physical attack for words spoken there in debate. Brooks broke his cane over Sumner’s head, but in so doing he also broke it over the Constitution, over self-government itself.

Like any good public meeting, this one had resolutions to express the will of the community. They began by

sincerely and respectfully tender[ing] our sympathies to Senator Sumner in the personal outrage inflicted upon him, and the anguish and peril which he has suffered and still suffers from that outrage, and that we feel and proclaim that his grievance and wounds are not of private concern, but were received in the public service; and every blow which fell upon his head we recognize and resent as an insult and injury to our honor and dignity as a people, and a vital attack upon the constitution of the Union.

Here the authors found a vision of popular sovereignty not moored to proslavery politics, unlike that territorial settlement that heralded these woes. The people, or rather the white men, of America ruled. An attack on their representatives constituted an attack on them themselves. What Brooks did to Sumner, he did to all of them by proxy and they would not suffer it in silence.

Furthermore, they made it clear that the concern cut across partisan lines:

we express and imply no opinion on the political merits of the public debate which preceded this occurrence, and make no account whatever of the respective States whose public servants have thus been brought into contact; that Mr. Sumner is a member of the Senate of the United States, and Mr. Brooks a member of the House of Representatives of the United States and we speak our minds as citizens of the United States, comprehending the great and essential elements of public freedom on which our national character and safety depend.

If one could poll the meeting about Sumner’s speech, or about antislavery in general, one might not like the results. New York had close economic and political ties to the South for almost its entire history. New York ships carried most of the cotton to Europe. New York banks financed plantations and wrote loans on slave collateral.

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Brooks assault overcame those concerns. In raising the issues of national character and safety, New York asked if republican government could endure. If it could not, what came next? For years antislavery Americans warned of a proslavery despotism that would rule white men as it did black, bloody lash in hand. The prophecy came true with the Fugitive Slave Act, but most of the suffering extracted through that law still adhered to black Americans. White Americans could generally shift uncomfortably, occasionally exert themselves in rescues, and muddle through. Brooks did something more, something personal. If a proslavery man could attack a Senator in the Senate itself, not only where he should expect safety but where the Constitution guaranteed it, then none of them could hope for it.

 

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