“Not first that it was inhuman and brutal, but it was cowardly”

George Hillard

Massachusetts’ Know-Nothing governor, Henry Gardner, had mixed feelings about Sumner’s caning. He condemned it at the public indignation meeting, but left room in his condemnation for anyone who harbored doubts about whether Sumner had gone too far. As a member of a party which positioned itself often as an alternative to antislavery extremism, while retaining some antislavery preferences, he had to thread that needle whatever his private thoughts. Resolutions followed Gardner’s speech, in the same vein as the New York set, but with an additional dig at the congressmen who voted against the House investigatory committee.

George Hillard, a former law partner and friend of Sumner’s who grew apart from him as the latter became more invested in politics, took the stage next. Hillard noted that Sumner’s speech had “strong expressions” but no one called him to order. Therefore, his speech had to be proper. After disclaiming any commitment to pacifism, Hillard got to the meat of it:

the principle that in a civilized community a man may resort to physical violence for the sake of redressing a private wrong, is a doctrine which you and I, and all of us, do most distinctly repudiate, because by adopting or admitting it you render null and void all that has been done by our fathers and mothers to build up this goodly fabric of the State, the highest work of man’s hands.

Hillard had the right of it, by his mores and I hope our own. White Southerners disagreed, but they didn’t attend public indignation meetings in Boston. Sumner’s old partner went on to expound about degrees of culpability in assaults. One could justify, or at least forgive attacks, “made in hot blood” or “under sudden provocation”. Even attacking a person of “notorious violent, manners and deportment” could get a pass.

Brooks did none of that. He couldn’t have acted in the heat of the moment as he “had had at least one sun go down upon his wrath” and against a man who

I can testify, after a friendship of twenty years, is a most amiable, gentle, and kindly man. (Applause.)

Hillard and Sumner hadn’t actually carried on a friendship since the late 1840s, but close enough. He drilled further down, distinguishing Brooks’ assault from “a boxing match”. Men in Massachusetts must still have settled things that way on occasion. He declared such bouts “not a pretty thing to look at” but resolving things that way made one

far nobler or at least less ignoble than the assassin who dogs the steps of his victim in the dark and stabs him in the back. So too the man who comes to me, face to face, at noonday in the street, and tells me he is going to inflict a personal chastisement upon me, there is even in that some little show of fair dealing, of honesty so to speak, even in the very attitude and circumstance of the assault.

If you had to do violence, and Hillard accepted that you sometime might have to, then do it the right way. Stand up and face your foe, don’t skulk around, plot, and strike from surprise. What Brooks did struck Hillard as

a very bad specimen of a very bad school, and the comment I made upon it, was not first that it was inhuman and brutal, but it was cowardly.

The cowardice, mention of which drew applause, stood out to Hillard more than the brutality or inhumanity even in retrospect. He depicted Sumner as, “a man imprisoned, tied hand and foot, so to speak, in an arm-chair and desk” when Brooks struck, “without warning.” That made the South Carolinian an assassin striking a nearly helpless victim. Compared to that Hillard, could commend the “manliness and courage” of someone who met him on the road and whipped him.

 

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