New Yorkers did not think highly of Preston Brooks’ violent escapade against Charles Sumner’s skull on the floor of the United States Senate. By breaking a cane over Sumner’s head, the South Carolinian attacked the fabric of republican self-government. White men of the North took that as their birthright whatever they thought of the party now claiming republicanism in their name and declaring slavery’s threat to it. In caning the Republican, Brooks also caned the Republic. Furthermore, they could not dismiss the caning as a private affair. Yankees might brawl on occasion, or more often; heated politics didn’t necessarily bother them. That the South appeared united in endorsing Brooks’ conduct elevated the dispute to a higher and ominous plane. They couldn’t dismiss him as a bad apple in light of all that. When Brooks caned the Republic, the whole white South joined in.
Ramping up on that theme, the New Yorkers spoke then for their whole section:
We rejoice to believe and to say that the general community of the free States, by their public men and their public press (with a few base exceptions to prove the honorable rule), and through all the channels of public opinion and public influence do thoroughly denounce, and by word and act will firmly and boldly oppose and overthrow any and every set scheme, system, or principle which avows or upholds violence as a means or mode of affecting political action, or restraining personal freedom, or enforcing servile inequalities among the statesmen or common citizens of this country; that in public questions, where each citizen is the keeper of the rights of his fellow citizens, and each generation holds a solemn trust for its posterity, next to the commission of injustices and violence there is no greater crime against the commonwealth than their permission, with power to prevent them, and their sufferance with a spirit that can feel them.
This said a great deal. Yankees would no longer stand by, complicit, in systems that endorsed violence to suppress political action or restrain personal freedom, whether among statesmen or ordinary white men. The white South practiced just such a system, enforcing censorship of its mails to keep out antislavery material and through the use of violence and intimidation to rout any antislavery whites who happened to live in the slave states. Neither system worked perfectly, and both saw prosecution most aggressively in moments of perceived threat to slavery, but free white men suffered under them all the same.
For many antislavery whites, those sins against freedom counted as much for despotism as any offense against blacks. For most, they counted much more. The antislavery movement had its greatest successes not in defending the lives, safety, or freedom of black Americans, but in advocating for white men. Republicans wanted to spread free labor across the West, in lieu of slavery. The free laborers they had in mind had white skin. When black laborers threatened to join them, even as free men, westerners saw fit to pass laws against their presence.
Still, one must take notice. The New Yorkers assembled at the Tabernacle that day came together in the North’s most proslavery city and represented a cross-section of the city’s politics. Antislavery radicals could produce resolutions like this at the drop of a hat. It took a truly extraordinary and unprecedented event to bring in the city’s conservatives. For once, the white community unified against a proslavery attack. If it could happen in New York, it could happen far more easily elsewhere.