“I have sat in my seat only on one day.” Back to Washington

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Preston Brooks accomplished many things by breaking his cane over Charles Sumner’s head. He vindicated South Carolina and his elderly relative. He vented his personal rage. He had the great satisfaction of seeing a hated enemy prostrate. He won the acclaim of his constituents and his section. Gifts of canes flooded the mail. Brooks also saved Sumner’s career in the Senate. The coalition that elected him back in 1851 fell apart soon after. Both ambitious Republicans and Massachusetts’ governor angled to replace Sumner. His protracted disability could have sealed the deal, a fact which Sumner keenly appreciated, but instead the public outpouring of sympathy and the able politicking of the Bird Club of antislavery men kept him a Senator. He would ultimately die in office.

Sumner’s physical recovery progressed over the months. He looked healthier now, putting on some weight courtesy of all the bed rest, and seemed of sound mind again. As at Cresson, Sumner rode often for exercise, though he still struggled to walk even with a cane and mental exertion tired him greatly. His doctors advised him to go to Europe for a prolonged vacation. Instead, Sumner went to Washington, arriving late on February 25. The session would only last until March 4, but he made it.

Gentle Readers, if you recall John McCain’s return to the Senate this past fall after his cancer diagnosis you might know that he received warm applause from both parties. Antebellum Washington had its own gentleman’s club atmosphere, with politicians often socializing warmly in private whilst castigating one another in public. You might expect Sumner to get the same kind of welcome. The Republicans obliged, but the Democracy ignored him.

Sumner came back for a reason, beyond just showing himself. The Senate then considered a tariff that would cut the rates on raw materials. New England manufacturers wanted it badly. Sumner did not. The bill came to a vote and Sumner returned despite the strain, casting several votes between nine at night and two in the morning.

His return excited Sumner’s supporters, some of whom thought him likely to stay on. Theodore Parker wrote his hope for another grand antislavery speech, lamenting their lack since the Senator’s ordeal. Sumner had other ideas:

I have sat in my seat only on one day. After a short time the torment to my system became great, and a cloud began to gather over my brain. I tottered out and took to my bed. I long to speak, but I cannot. Sorrowfully I resign myself to my condition. […] my own daily experience, while satisfying me of my improvement, shows the subtle and complete overthrow of my powers organically, from which I can hope to recover only most slowly. What I can say must stand adjourned to another day. Nobody can regret this so much as myself.

Sumner took his oath of office for the new term on March 4, at the start of the special session to confirm James Buchanan’s nominees. He quit Washington again rather than stay on for that.

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