Back to Washington with Senators Wilson and Butler

Henry Wilson (R-MA)

The Public Indignation Meeting at Faneuil Hall on May 30 featured diverse Massachusetts luminaries venting their displeasure at Sumner’s treatment. Some of the same politicians made their displeasure known in a more formal setting. The Massachusetts legislature, utterly dominated by Know-Nothings, produced its own set of resolutions about Brooks’

assault which no provocation could justify, brutal and cowardly in itself, a gross breach of parliamentary privilege, a ruthless attack upon the liberty of speech, an outrage on the decencies of civilized life, and an indignity to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The resolutions further approved of Sumner’s “manliness and courage” and demanded an investigation. State legislatures passed resolves on this order fairly often, dispatching them as petitions for their congressional delegation to enter into the record. Each might get a brief speech and the Congress would then do as it liked. Massachusetts bypassed the ordinary process, instead directing the Governor send copies directly to the President of the Senate, Indiana slaveholder Jesse Bright, and Speaker of the House.

I haven’t found a date for the resolutions or their reception by the Senate. Given that the chamber voted for Seward’s proposal for a committee on the attack the day after, it seems unlikely that they played a direct part in consideration. Matters in Washington did not inspire much confidence. The Senate passed the buck to the House. The House committee delivered its recommendations: expulsion for Brooks and censure for Edmundson and Keitt. Those proceedings take us up to June 2, 1856.

Henry Wilson didn’t wait for all that. He had a smaller, but much more exalted audience than a New York or Boston crowd in the United States Senate. By May 27, word of Sumner’s testimony had gotten around to the Senators. Some of them didn’t like how they came off in it and took to the floor to offer their explanations for the record; Slidell explained himself then. Wilson accepted that explanation and granted that he didn’t think Sumner meant to cast Slidell in a bad light. He also granted Douglas’ version of events.

Wilson continued:

Mr. Sumner was stricken down on this floor by a brutal, murderous, and cowardly assault-

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Andrew Butler, returned from South Carolina to defend his kinsman, broke in here. The Congressional Globe reports that he

impulsively uttered words which Senators advised him were not parliamentary, and he subsequently, at the insistence of Senators, requested that the words might be withdrawn.

Butler admitted he spoke rashly, saying that

I used a word which I hope will not be put down. I have never used an epiphet on this floor, and therefore ask that I may be excused.

Reading that, you might think he speculated about Wilson’s parentage or his sexual inclinations. Wilson recalled what the South Carolinian said in his history of the era, History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in Americapublished in 1874. His words

provoked the exclamation “You are a liar!” from Mr. Butler; although at the request of Senators he immediately withdrew the words.

Directly calling a man a liar, in the Southern code of honor, essentially dared him to admit lying or prove his convictions in a duel. The accusation itself came near to a challenge and so, understandably, Butler’s colleagues talked him down and he at once regretted it. Two days later, an interested party took up Butler’s claim as his own and challenged Henry Wilson to a duel properly: Preston Brooks.

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