“With modesty, but with firmness” Anson Burlingame Speaks Out

Anson Burlingame

We left Preston Brooks leaving the House of Representatives. The chamber’s majority voted to expel him for breaking his cane over Charles Sumner’s head and continuing on with the broken stump until wrestled away. The Constitution required two-thirds to actually kick him to the curb, which the House could not muster on the grounds that most of the Southern caucus thought Brooks had done no wrong. In getting to that point, I overlooked an important episode. For the moment, let’s turn the clock back to June 21, 1856. Brooks and Lawrence Keitt still have their seats in the House of Representatives. The House committee have released their report and debate on it comes into full swing.

Anson Burlingame, a friend of Sumner’s with a hard re-election fight ahead of him, stood out among those lining up to castigate Brooks. He rose to remind the House that he had never “assailed” another or impugned a state. He dilated upon Massachusetts’ virtues for a few moments, then got down to it:

with modesty, but with firmness, I cast down her glove to the whole band of her assailants.

In the language of romantic chivalry, one strikes a foe with a glove and drop it to challenge them. Burlingame probably didn’t mean to issue an actual challenge; politicians of the era often use this kind of language for rhetorical effect. It shows them as men of learning and refinement, just as gratuitous Latin quotes and endless references to Antiquity did. He pressed on to vent himself against the Bay State’s censurers, from Franklin Pierce on down.

Lawrence Keitt (D-SC)

Burlingame’s complains about Pierce focused on his transparently proslavery policies, right at the points where they put the lie to his claims of impartiality and that the North had abandoned its sectional duties. He got into a brief exchange with Lawrence Keitt over how the Charleston Mercury condemned the Fugitive Slave Act on behalf of South Carolina, then returned to venting on Pierce over Greytown and Lawrence. After four pages in the Congressional Globe, Burlingame finally wandered to the topic of the attack on Charles Sumner. He went with the others to hear the Crime Against Kansas, live and in person:

To say that we were delighted with the speech we heard, would but faintly express the deep emotions of our hearts awakened by it. I need not speak of the classic purity of its language, nor of the nobility of its sentiments. It was heard by many; it has been read by millions. There has been no such speech made in the Senate since the days when those Titans of American eloquence -the Websters and the Haynes- contended with each other for mastery.

He liked it. Sumner’s oratory reads as ponderous and repetitious to us, but the man could put on a show in person and some of what we would consider faults came off much better in the nineteenth century. Sumner acted out his speeches with practiced gestures and intonation, from memory, in an era when most men just read theirs. That can’t help but liven things up.

That said, Burlingame understood that Sumner gave South Carolina in particular and slavery in general the rough side of his tongue:

It was severe, because it was launched against tyranny. It was severe as Chatham was severe when he defended the feeble colonies against the giant oppression of the mother country.

Yet despite “a hostile Senate” Sumner went for two days with no one calling him to order. If the Senators thought him out of bounds, as they did Andrew Butler, they could have insisted on order at any time and demanded retractions or that Sumner cease entirely. The Senators declined the opportunity. Furthermore, Sumner often faced such vicious insults himself and rose above them. Burlingame would have the House know that Brooks broke his cane over the head of a righteous man ever-mindful of “the flaming sword of the Constitution, turning every way, guarding all the avenues of the Senate.”

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