Governor Gardner on Sumner’s Caning

Henry Gardner (Know-Nothing-MA)

New Yorkers across the political spectrum, from the conservative establishment of the North’s most proslavery city to reformers and radicals, united in condemning Charles Sumner’s caning by Preston Brooks on the floor of the United States Senate. At the city least likely to generate such a response, New York stands out from the crowd. That said, it had a big crowd to stand out from. Sumner’s biographer, David Donald, recounts that

There were not merely rallies in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, not merely in Albany, Cleveland, Detroit, New Haven, Providence, and Rochester, but in Newmarket, New Hampshire, Lockport, New York, Rahway, New Jersey, Berea, Ohio, Burlington, Iowa, and in dozens of other towns.

Preston Brooks had at least briefly united most of the white North, a feat not quite accomplished by the Fugitive Slave Act, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, or all of Bleeding Kansas to date. The outrage naturally united Massachusetts, where a public indignation meeting occupied Faneuil Hal on May 24. Governor Gardner gave the opening speech, wherein he rehearsed familiar themes and then drove into a condemnation of political vitriol:

Gentlemen, I cannot resist this opportunity to say to you that this event, unparalleled heretofore in the history of our country, can perhaps be traced by easy and slow gradations to that habit which is too frequently adopted even in Massachusetts, of unbridled abuse and calumnious insinuations and assaults against the character, purposes, designs and motives of our public men – While I stand here to defend the liberty of speech, I would not have that liberty degenerate into licentiousness. He who strikes into the bosom of an opponent with a dagger, or he who uses a bludgeon upon his head attacks his physical life; but he who uses the dagger of the assassin on the character of a political opponent, or the bludgeon of an untruth upon his reputation, is as bad as the other.

One could hear all that and get the wrong idea. Governor Gardner sounds like a man with more than half a mind to pin this all on Sumner, the martyred victim. The five thousand or so gathered in and around the hall can’t have minded Gardner’s previous pleas to rise above party too much, but just where did he mean to go with the next part? Gardner himself must have realized that, because he immediately dispels the obvious inference:

I can hardly trust myself to speak of this despicable conduct as it deserves. I have read the speech which gave rise to it, and I am constrained to say that in my judgment there is not a pretext for the assault. But whether the words were weighed carefully and were in good taste or not, is not the question. the question is, whether a man from Massachusetts can be indulged with the same latitude that the other sixty senators of Congress are allowed. That is the point for us to consider, and I hesitate not to say that this speech does not surpass many speeches which have been uttered there and gone abroad to the winds, without the first word of complaint against them.

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

The Governor has obvious mixed feelings. The content of Sumner’s speech doesn’t matter, as a matter of principle. On the other hand, nothing in it would justify an attack upon his person. But do remember, character assassination has no place in decent politics. I don’t know what Gardner’s delivery was like, and my report of the speech lacks crowd reaction notes, but he sounds like a man trying to please diverse factions without committing to much to any of them. If you believe Sumner’s speech completely within bounds, you can draw lines out of Gardner to support that. If you believe it outside the limit of good taste, or just minimally acceptable discourse, then Gardner also supports you. Only the position that Sumner really had it coming doesn’t get clear support.



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