George Hillard, who has known Charles Sumner for years and once considered him a friend as well as a law partner, condemned Preston Brooks’ caning of his old friend as inhuman and brutal. More than that, and more importantly, he called it cowardly. If Brooks faced Sumner in even terms he would still have transgressed against the respectable mores of Massachusetts gentlemen, but to attack a man unawares made his caning the work of an assassin.
Hillard continued by noting that every man had a duty to come forward, as he and they had, and
record our protest against such a doing, to express our sympathy with our Senator from Massachusetts who has been thus assaulted, and to proclaim to the United States and the world that this is an occasion in which we are able to soar above party distinctions. It is not a gentleman belonging to this or that political party, but it is a man representing Massachusetts, who has been cruelly and brutally assaulted for the honest discharge of what he deems to be his duty, and we have only to say against such doings, we do protest now and all times. (Applause.)
In his own life, Hillard probably felt that pull. He and Sumner hadn’t gotten on in years and retained only a formal remnant of their old friendship. Brooks’ attack took precedence over their personal disagreements, just as it did over Governor Gardner’s differences with Sumner. He represented Massachusetts and that mattered.
Having gone so far, Hillard dialed back:
I hope, in conclusion, that we will not suddenly jump at the inference, that this brutal and cowardly act, is in any degree the expression of public sentiment or sanctioned by the public feeling in any particular section of the country. As yet we have no evidence of it, and let us wait until we have that evidence. I trust we shall not have it
Boston gathered for public indignation on Saturday, May 24. Only two days had passed since the caning. News clearly hadn’t reached Boston of the general delight with which the South greeted received word of Sumner’s plight. Hillard, as a more moderate and less political man than Sumner, might of his own accord approach the question with more circumspection. Doing so before evidence had come in speaks to general prudence and good sense in an era when it could take days for news to travel the country.