Brooks vs. Burlingame: Burlingame in Hiding

Anson Burlingame

Preston Brooks meant to duel Anson Burlingame. Burlingame first backed down, then changed his mind after the newspapers pushed him to stand and fight. As the venue for that, Burlingame chose the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. That meant Brooks would have to travel through the North, subject to arrest and attack by mobs. Brooks declined to hazard them. As a man who knew something about indignation-born violence, he could see it coming. Burlingame then teased Brooks about not naming an alternative, then ducked out of Washington before Brooks could actually do that. Brooks’ second spent the next days searching for Burlingame, then delivered a note to his second, Lewis Campbell.

You say that Mr. Burlingame was willing to meet Col. Brooks at any other place than Canada to adjust this difference. You did not tell me so although I told you that Canada was inconvenient. On the contrary, you left me under the impression that Mr. Burlingame would not meet Col. Brooks at any other place than Canada. I so informed Col. Brooks and advised him to give the matter no further notice. Inasmuch, however, as you now say that Mr. Burlingame was willing ot meet Col. Brooks at any other place, I am authorized and requested by Col. Brooks to say that he expects Mr. Burlingame to designate some other place that is convenient and acceptable to both parties, and awaits his answer to this suggestion.

Brooks also told him to name any location within ten miles of Washington, or take the suggestion of anywhere within a hundred. A hundred miles, Campbell’s historian nephew noted, would have let Burlingame name a location within Pennsylvania. Brooks and Burlingame could have dueled at Gettysburg. Getting no answer to his letter of July 30th, Brooks’ second then wrote again on August 1 to escalate matters. He threatened that if he heard nothing before the coming Tuesday, the fifth, he would “make an expose of the matter.” In other words, he would publicize the fact that Burlingame had engaged in hiding from a duel he said he would fight.

Receiving the letter, Campbell insisted that he had nothing to do with duel planning since his letter of the 26th. Since then, he knew nothing about the matter and saw no reason for Joseph Lane to keep bothering him. If Lane persisted, then Campbell told him

I know no act of Mr. B. from an exposure of which he or his friends would shrink, and am therefore at a loss to understand your threat to make “an expose” if he does not return.

If, however, you have reference to your letter and my reply of yesterday, or to any act of mine, I beg to assure you that you need not delay your “expose” until Tuesday morning.

Campbell did have a continuing connection to the affair. He alone in Washington knew that Anson Burlingame had camped out at his own home up in Ohio. The same day as Lane threatened Campbell, the hiding congressman wrote his friend:

I hope and pray that you are not in trouble. You must not let the rascals get out of their trouble by involving either you or myself.

It will disgrace us forever if we have anything more to do with the vile set.

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

Burlingame also noted with satisfaction that the challenge couldn’t go any further without his and Campbell’s participation. Historian Campbell attributes all this to Burlingame’s cowardice. If Burlingame acted in self-interest, including possibly leaving Congressman Campbell in a lurch, then he also acted with political cunning. By answering Brooks’ challenge, he vindicated himself to the newspapers. By naming Canada as the location, he put Brooks on the defensive. Then ducking out let him have the best of both worlds in the eyes of the public: no duel to shame him or cost his life and the widespread perception that Brooks refused to fight him, rather than the other way around.

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