“We respectfully await the action of the House of Representatives”

The New York Herald reports on the indignation meeting

New York City’s public indignation meeting got off to a bit of a slow start, despite the packed Tabernacle. The crowd arrived on time, but not the committee and speakers. I don’t know what caused the hold up, but they arrived with a set of resolutions for the multitude to endorse. Those resolutions condemned Preston Brooks’ caning Charles Sumner as an attack upon democratic government, and consequently an attack upon the North in general. Furthermore, as the Southern press and politicians united in endorsing Brooks’ assault they had to understand the caning as retroactively the work of the entire white South. That united the leading men even of a proslavery city like New York. They continued

from no other motive and from no other impute we are called upon to a distinct and unequivocal expression of our feelings and opinions on this important event, in our deep, unchanged and unalterable attachment to the federal constitution and federal Union, we should find abundant reasons for the most earnest solicitude and the most decided action to arouse reflecting, disinterested, and patriotic citizens, in all parts of the country, to a manful and united determination to frown upon and extinguish the first indications of violence and terror as agencies in our political system.

In other words, the people on the speaker’s platform and in the audience understood themselves as often political adversaries. By diverging from their usual alignments they could look like men trying to ride a wave for selfish purposes. The resolutions denied that, casting the caning emphatically as an American matter, not merely one of party sentiment. They had their disagreements, but they staked out a norm that no one should conduct politics as Brooks and his many southern admirers had.

At this point, one might expect a course of action to appear in the resolutions. The meeting articulated the problem and their understanding of it; a remedy forms a next logical step. Here they pulled back just a little,

we respectfully await the action of the House of Representatives in the premises, but we announce, we believe, the universal sentiment of our citizens, as demanding the immediate and unconditional expulsion of Mr. Brooks from their body, as a necessary vindication of their own character.

The meeting did not presume to dictate the House’s course; it merely expressed the universal belief that the House take a certain course of action and kick Preston Brooks out. This double talk can’t have fooled anyone, but given that the resolutions focused so closely on the sanctity of government and the prerogatives of men holding public office, specifically Sumner, an outright order would have been a jarring departure from theme. Customarily, public meetings didn’t dictate to Congress in so many terms. They requested or recommended actions as expressions of their members in the form of petitions, not ultimatums.

The resolutions closed with an order they could make, because it applied only to them. The newspapers should publish the resolutions and send them to New York’s delegation in Congress, where those men should lay them before the House and Senate for proper consideration.


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