Complicity, Honor, and the Choice of Weapons

The New York Herald reports on the indignation meeting

New York’s public indignation meeting, packed wall to wall with angry men, opened up with denunciation of Preston Brooks’ attack on Charles Sumner. In attacking a sitting Senator, in the Senate, and for words said there, the South Carolinian attacked more than one man. He assaulted the entire fabric of constitutional governance. He attacked the republic itself and every self-governing white man who considered himself a right and proper citizen of it. If such a thing went unanswered, the United States could not long endure. Their resolutions continued:

to urge the casual violence of an individual to the disgrace and injury of the community in which he lives, and of the social institutions of that community, is ungenerous and unjust, until it appears that such community approves the act and applauds the actor; but when such concurrence of public sentiment and public action with the particular and personal transaction are manifested on authentic evidence, the private outrage is swallowed up in the public infamy, and the question involved is enlarged to an immense magnitude and importance.

In other words, the people of New York didn’t immediately take this as an assault upon the North at large by the South; they had some sense of proportion. In order to implicate the sections in general, the South would need to show some kind of general approval of Brooks’ course. This could remain a deeply troubling, but isolated incident.

Lawrence Keitt (D-SC)

Then again:

we have witnessed with unmixed astonishment and the deepest regret, the clear, bold exulting espousal of the outrage and justification and honor of its perpetrator, exhibited by Senators and representatives of the Slave States without distinction of party, in their public places, and by the public press without distinction of party in the same portion of our country, and that upon the present state of the evidence, we are forced most unwillingly to the sad conclusion that the general community of the slave States is in complicity, in feeling and principle, with the system of intimidation and violence for the suppression of freedom of speech and of the press, of which the assault on Senator Sumner is the most signal, but not the singular, instance.

I’ve not yet looked at the Southern papers, but the meeting clearly knew of Keitt’s and Edmundson’s involvement; they had an eyewitness on the speaker’s stage that night in the person of Edwin Morgan. He could probably point to Robert Toombs as the guilty senator. Neither of those quite reaches beyond partisan lines, but the South’s two party system had fallen into steep decline by this point. Either way, the endorsement of Southern political leaders all by itself counted for something. One couldn’t dismiss their chosen representatives to the national Congress as irrelevant nobodies. The logic of representative democracy required taking them as proxies for their constituents.

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

They also spoke to a deeper truth about how the sections diverged over the nineteenth century by raising the notion of honor. Cultural developments had loosened the bounds of traditional codes of honor in the North. Once, those codes happily endorsed resenting slights and washing them away with violence. Those times had largely ended north of Maryland, with codes of conduct based on public shame supplanted by those stressing private guilt and self-control.

Traces of the old ways remained, of course, but nothing like they thrived in the South. To white Southern eyes, Brooks repaid Sumner for a grievous slight and acted strictly correctly in doing so. Not to endorse him would have been the greater shame for many. Thought had gone into the assault, after all. Brooks spent a few days carefully looking over the speech and considering options. He did not challenge Sumner because Sumner would never accept a duel. That made him no gentleman to Brooks, if he could ever have qualified anyway, so attacking him fairly and on even terms might even disgrace Brooks. As something less than manly, less than white, Sumner warranted striking like an inferior. The South Carolinian’s first choice of weapon, cowhide, speaks to that. Southerners literally whipped slaves with cowhide, so striking a white man in that way would disgrace him more than anything else. Brooks feared Sumner might get hold of the cowhide, so he opted for the cane also occasionally used to discipline slaves. Pragmatism dictated a slight deviation from perfect symbolism.

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