Brooks vs. Burlingame

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

Anson Burlingame castigated Preston Brooks for caning Charles Sumner. Brooks resented that as he resented Henry Wilson’s remarks on the caning and challenged Burlingame to a duel. Burlingame made a distinction between Brooks’ action, which he deplored, and Brooks himself. That satisfied Brooks’ seconds and Burlingame shortly left Washington to stump for the upcoming presidential race. I intended today to progress from that point, but a kind friend has put in my hands perhaps the only article ever written about the Brooks-Burlingame affair. It hails from The Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly XXXIV, hot of the presses in 1925. Therein, James E. Campbell relates that Preston Brooks practically went shopping for dueling partners.

He began with Henry Wilson, as we know. Campbell adds that Brooks issued a challenge to a Congressman Woodruff, who answered much in the same vein that Wilson did. Brooks resented Lewis Campbell for introducing the motion to investigate the caning and then chairing the committee which recommended Brooks’ expulsion. (Historian Campbell, incidentally, is Congressman Campbell’s nephew.) The day after the caning, friends advised the elder Campbell that he would soon face a challenge.

Mr. Campbell made no reply until they passed a shooting gallery; when, turning back, he invited his friend to enter. Asking the proprietor to remove the customary target and replace it with a lighted candle, he proceeded to snuff that candle with a rifle ball, “off-hand” three times in succession. It is hardly necessary to add that the subject of his challenge was never afterward alluded to, for the certainty of death has a tendency to cool the ardor of the most persistent duelist.

This sounds like one of those stories an older relative tells you in your childhood, but I know of other duels called off in part on the grounds that the challenged party had excellent aim. Burlingame had a similar reputation as a crack shot. It seems Brooks came to him last of all. Campbell quotes from Burlingame’s apology, written in Nathaniel Banks’ hand. Burlingame

disclaimed any intention to reflect upon the personal character of Mr. Brooks, or to impute to him in any respect a want of courage; but discriminating between the man and the act which he was called upon to allude to

Anson Burlingame

That did settle things, temporarily. Then the apology made its way to the newspapers. They cared not at all for Burlingame backing down, with the Boston Courier leading the charge. Timothy Davis, a “colleague” of Burlingame’s, brought matters to his attention. Between July 18, when the Courier attacked him, and July 21, Burlingame consulted with Campbell. Campbell told him that if he meant what he said on the House floor, he ought to stand up for it. On the latter date, he published a note in the National Intelligencer about his prior apology:

Inasmuch as attempts, not altogether unsuccessful, have been made to pervert its true meaning, I now withdraw it; and, that there may not be any misapprehension in the future I say, explicitly, that I leave my speech to interpret itself, and hold myself responsible for it without qualifications or amendment.

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