Where did white supremacy come from?

Gentle Readers, for some time I’ve neglected my Deep Dives category. Herein, I mean to look further back than the late antebellum and examine broader questions. Today I mean to change that with an absurdly large question. White supremacy permeates everything I study and write about, as well as our daily lives. We have the misfortune of living in a world, and for most of us likely a nation too, where few concepts matter more. With such vast power and ubiquity, it often becomes invisible. Unchallenged, white supremacy seems like the natural order of things. Our silence, our acceptance, and all the ways we consciously or passively imbibe our culture turn it into a kind of physics: white rises to the top, black -and everyone else- sinks to the bottom. Physical laws don’t answer to legislative enactments, but rather predate them and reach back to the beginning of time. Because white supremacy does not, it behooves us to understand how people came to believe in it and make it integral to their worldview and civilizations.

A blog post cannot do this subject justice. You should take what I write here as more an overview and more tentative than usual. Densely-written books go on for hundreds of pages about the question, to the point where a historian of slavery I too briefly knew always recommended the popular abridgment of Winthrop Jordan’s seminal White Over Black rather than the real thing when speaking with laypeople. Jordan’s book, the seminal work, specifically addresses the development of white supremacy among Englishmen, first on the coast of Africa, then in the Caribbean, and for most of its length within British North America. American historians usually start there, with slaves arriving in Virginia in 1619 and having an ambiguous and unclear status until later in the century and a fully-grown racial hierarchy coming about in the seventeenth century’s closing decades. That may tell us about the origins of white supremacy in the future United States, but Jordan himself acknowledges inchoate, conflicting ideas about fundamental differences between Africans and Englishmen essentially from their first encounters in West Africa and some scholars do believe that the transplanted Englishmen at Jamestown already understood those unfortunate twenty taken from the hold of that Dutch slaver as racially different, inferior, and enslaved from the moment they arrived. Others do not and on the balance I inclined somewhat more with the latter group. Whether we come down on Jordan’s side or not, we still have that white supremacy as understood by Englishmen doesn’t constitute its whole.

I aim to explore the question more broadly. To begin with, we know that slavery predates white supremacy and the very concept of whiteness. The Ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Sumerians all practiced slavery. They did so both upon people who they might reasonably consider other to themselves, but also upon people who they must reasonably have considered culturally similar or the same. We see in what survives of their work occasional depictions of sub-Saharan Africans with features we consider racially stereotypical, but the classicists of my acquaintance caution against reading modern racial categories back in time so far. As most, we should consider these distant precursors. Slavery meant degradation and suffering, but it mostly appears to have been understood more as a personal misfortune rather than a defining, hereditary trait of a group of visibly different outsiders.

Into the Early Modern Period, Europeans had experience with slavery as both victims and perpetrators. Merchants bought people from the northern shores of the Black Sea and carried them by ship to grow crops in the Levant and Iberia, and to perform domestic service in Italy. In Renaissance Florence, one could buy a “black” Slav; the name literally means slave. Slavic slaves grew cotton and sugar on fields around the edge of the Mediterranean and a sensibility of some kind grew up that one could enslave, or at least more easily enslave, them than one’s own neighbors. The reference to blackness here refers not to actual skin color but rather acquiring a fair layer of grime from hard agricultural labor. Western European peasants could get called the same by their white -that is, clean- social betters. Of course, medieval art also depicted demons and devils with black skin. An association with dark color and moral inferiority existed, but premodern people could understand artistic metaphors.

Western and Southern Europeans also experienced slavery as the victims, captured by Muslim raiders and carried off to North Africa by the thousands. We now call one ethnicity from North Africa Berbers. You might remember them from your history books as the Barbary pirates whom Thomas Jefferson sent Stephen Decatur after. They took European Christians into slavery, which European Christians decided they did not like. They could enslave people who differed from them in certain ways, but increasingly came to see it as wrong for any Christian to suffer slavery at the hands of a non-Christian. Christendom, at least to some degree, defined itself as opposed to the practitioners of Islam. This distinction had salience especially at either end of the Mediterranean, where the Byzantine Empire slowly gave way to Muslim polities and Christian kingdoms in Iberia slowly gained ground against their Muslim neighbors.

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 greatly reduced the flow of Slavic slaves into the Christian parts of the Mediterranean basin. Some had made it all the way to the east coast of modern Spain, but the supply diminished. As that happened, the advance of Christian powers in seizing the peninsula increasingly put them in direct contact with the West African coast. The mariners who preceded Columbus sought their fortunes to the South, where they found powerful but visually and culturally distinct people. The Portuguese and Spanish lacked the strength to dominate the Atlantic littoral of Africa, but they could and did come with an interest in the local merchandise. That included people and by the 1450s, enslaved people of African descent appear on the streets of Lisbon.

They had better luck on the Canary Islands, where they eradicated the local, African-descended population and then needed someone else to man the plantations. They didn’t have to go searching long for replacements. Centuries of on-again, off-again wars against religious enemies created something often recognized as either European nationalism or an important precursor in Iberia. It included Catholic Christianity, but also notions about the natural aristocracy of people of pure blood who had not mixed their lineage with Muslims. It did not include Iberia’s Jewish population. Even those who converted could not qualify as entirely trustworthy, unless they had converted rather far in the past. Here we see something approaching the notion of race as a fixed, unchanging identity in that one of the great markers of belonging, Christian faith, no longer suffices to make one a part of the perceived community. Africans, even those who might adhere to some form of Christianity, didn’t qualify either.

The era we call the Age of Discovery, but might better consider an era of slavery and genocide, began in and helped create this broader ferment. Europeans found it acceptable to dispossess and destroy Native Americans. They had a supply of enslaved labor on the African coast, if not as much free access to it or ability to dictate terms as they would like. One might assume that they just used what seemed most convenient. At first, maybe they did. The plantation agricultural complex that defines so much of the Early Atlantic World didn’t get its start in the West Indies. Before Columbus sailed, and for some time afterwards, Europeans grew sugar and other cash crops on islands off Africa’s coast from the Canaries down to the Bight of Benin. As long as the plantations operated there, African slaves make simple logistical sense and need not indicate racial hierarchies in general rather than the horrific, ordinary slavery that might correspond to ancient precedents.

Plantations in the Caribbean don’t have that excuse. If Europeans could not or would not use enslaved Native American labor -they tried, but the genocide got in the way- then they must get their labor from elsewhere. Given the highly hierarchical nature of European civilization, it wouldn’t take a great reach to enslave people right at home and carry them off from Lisbon, Paris, or London. It might transgress existing norms about how one treated fellow countrymen and fellow Christians, but that would save the expense and difficulty of an additional voyage down to Africa to pick up slaves. If only pecuniary motives existed, then the European poor would have served just fine.

They obviously did not, because no European power sought to build a colony in the New World out of the bodies of enslaved whites. Instead they chose Africans. It took some form of previous thought about difference and inferiority to render Africans available to enslave in European minds, which we might fairly argue constitutes white supremacy. We might also argue that it constitutes a precursor and that white supremacy as a conscious thought system developed as a justification for what Europeans had already decided based on less comprehensive, more tentative notions. Probably the best explanation splits the difference and casts Early Atlantic plantation slavery and white supremacy as phenomena that co-created one another in a fiendishly complex interplay of premises, justifications, profit, and horror.

I can’t give you a firm date for when this all took place. Like most social and intellectual changes, white supremacy came about as a process. It had many parents who worked together, across generations, national lines, a great ocean, and four continents. I have elided many nuances and complexities here. To acknowledge again the most important, the Iberian seafaring powers led the way here. Everything I have written may hold firm for them and still leave the origin of white supremacy among Englishmen as a later development more continent on the West Indian and North American experiences. That said, Europeans read and spoke one another’s languages. More still might read others in translation. The pioneers of English colonialism knew their Iberian authorities and eagerly sought information about Africa and the Americans from them. The general story of Western European white supremacy’s origins includes the English, French, and Dutch just as much as the Spanish and Portuguese, even if it doesn’t perfectly reduce to them.

Either way, we live with the story unknowing and make others live with it still today. Just as they chose white supremacy, so we often do the same. It may not cure us to know that, but it should shake our confidence in all those horrors that seem to just happen or be the way things are. These things are the way we all, as societies, as citizens, as voters make them. We could do otherwise.

Further Reading

The literature on the origins of white supremacy is vast and I have only begun to take it in. If all of this interests you, Gentle Readers, you can get a chapter-length overview on which I have heavily relied from David Brion Davis’ Inhuman Bondage. The encounters of Europeans and Africans in West Africa constitute a large focus of David Eltis’ The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas. For a more theory-driven work on the intellectual origins of white supremacy among Englishmen, the starting point must be Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black.

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No History Today

Sorry, Gentle Readers. Kansas will be back next week. I intended to get a post out to you, but ended up going on a road trip with my mother instead. The most historical thing I can tell you about it follows:

As of Wednesday, I had twice been inside a Lego Store. To the best of my recollection, I have never bought anything at one. I adored Lego as a child, but I was very grown up then. As of Thursday -I write a day, occasionally more, in advance of posting- my record has changed. This has almost nothing to do with my research or what this blog is about, save that anyone who spends a great deal of time reading about human beings being terrible to one another needs some positive outlets.  

 

Back to Lawrence

The rules for guests at the Free State Hotel, May 10, 1856

We left Lawrence behind on the back in May of 1856. A proslavery posse rampaged through the town, burning homes, destroying printing presses, and razing the Free State Hotel. They did all of this on a quest, officially, to apprehend free state leadership for whom Samuel Lecompte’s grand jury issued warrants and then to arrest people who participated in the shooting of Samuel Jones, or who rescued Jacob Branson from his custody, or just to destroy the hated antislavery party in their headquarters. Every reason pointed worked equally well as pretense, though the indiscriminate and opportunistic nature of the attack suggests that most of the mob preferred the last. Their officers struggled to restrain them from general pillage.

After all that fell out, Governor Wilson Shannon finally stirred himself. He behaved suspiciously all through the lead up to the attack on Lawrence, indicating that he might have expected and hoped things went badly for the antislavery town. Shannon could have furnished Israel Donaldson with a posse drawn from Colonel Sumner’s command. (I know of no relation between the E.V. Sumner who led the First Cavalry from Fort Leavenworth and Charles Sumner.) Everyone on the ground seems to agree that the military would provide more disciplined, reliable service. Either Shannon didn’t offer the cavalry to Donaldson -he shies away from saying that he did- or Donaldson refused him. When explaining himself later on, Shannon would surely have mentioned such an exculpatory refusal. As it happened, he dispatched them only once he knew that Lawrence had felt proslavery wrath.

Wilson Shannon

Shannon explained his action now as aimed at preventing all-out war in Kansas, which he believed would soon lead to a general civil war. By placing companies at Lecompton, Topeka, and Lawrence he would get them between the combatants. Shannon would also greatly appreciate it if the military would disperse and disarm the free state militias, which he continued to believe constituted the real problem for his territory. The Governor need not explain that all to Franklin Pierce, who agreed with him, but the president had complained of not receiving adequate updates on the situation and Shannon needed to look good for the boss.

Across the political divide, Kansas antislavery party had appearances in mind too. Donaldson had come to Lawrence with a federal posse, under his authority as a US Marshal and serving warrants from a federal court. Attacking him would have meant rebellion against the United States, something which they had to avoid the appearance of to both keep the heavy hand of Washington from descending on them and maintain public sympathy in the North. Furthermore, with debts still owed for all their military action in the Wakarusa War and the inconvenient season -the busy spring rather than the more idle winter- they lacked the means and men on hand to make a real fight of it.

They adopted a strategy of nonresistance out of those circumstances. Many antislavery men griped at that course, deeming their leaders cowards. With lives, family, property, and futures in Kansas all at stake sitting out the fight was a tall order. Even in the best of times, nonviolence while under violent threat requires a great deal of personal conviction and discipline. We can too easily forget now that the nonviolent Civil Rights movement engaged in direct action with the expectation that activists would be attacked, beaten, and even killed. Simple dignity and decency didn’t move white Americans in their favor; horror at their suffering on the television every night did.

 

“Do any sigh for a Thermopylae?”

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

We left Charles Sumner again putting Washington City behind him; he took his oath for a second term in the Senate and then his leave. He came to defeat a tariff, did that, and went away again. Though he had physically healed, Sumner remained still weak and found even his brief time in the Senate trying. Given he returned to the scene of his torment, it can’t have helped his mental health either. The Senator confided to E.L. Pierce, compiler of his Memoir and Letters, from which I have gotten many recent quotations, that he meant to depart for Europe at the end of the then-present session of Congress anyway.

Sumner came up to New York City, arriving on March 6, 1857. He stayed with John Jay, the son of the founder. The Fremonts, late presidential losers, called upon him there. The next day, Sumner quit the continent. Well-wishers saw him off from the dock and a Republican club fired off a thirty-one gun salute. Sumner left behind two letters. A brief note thanked the governor and legislature of Vermont for passing resolutions in his honor. The other letter went off to James Redpath, a reporter in Kansas.

Almost a year had gone by since the capture of the free state leadership at the sack of Lawrence. The struggle had gone on. Sumner had kept up with the news out of the nation’s troubled territory, but he wrote long on generalities. He reaffirmed his opposition to slavery, as if anyone would doubt it, and hoped Massachusetts would see fit to help Kansas in his absence.

I trust, also, that the people of Kansas will stand firm, and that, if need be, they will know how to die for Freedom. Do any sigh for a Thermopylae? They have it in Kansas, for there is to be fought the great battle between Freedom and Slavery, -by the ballot-box, I trust; but I do not forget that all who destroy the ballot-box madly invoke the cartridge-box.

I have a friend who studies ancient Greek warfare and sighs every time Thermopylae comes up. Popular culture, in Sumner’s time and now, remembers it as a desperate, heroic stand for Greek freedom against Persian tyranny. The heroes of the day come in the form of three hundred Spartans, slaughtered to a man. Their more numerous allies don’t get mentioned much. You may recall a film adaptation of a not particularly good comic on the subject from about ten years ago, starring Spartans in their traditional garb of an opera cape and a furry speedo. The symbolism of a patriotic army defending its home from foreign invaders remains apt for Kansas. The details, particularly how the Spartans and their allies lost the battle, Sumner had to know from his education in Classics. Redpath may not have, or he and Sumner might both have felt the popular symbolism took precedence over historical accuracy. The Senator meant to cast antislavery Kansans as embattled defenders of freedom, not give them a close lesson on ancient history.

“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.

Re-Electing Charles Sumner

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Senator Sumner returned to Boston in something resembling triumph. Though badly traumatized and still suffering from his assault by Preston Brooks, he came home a hero and a martyr. Sumner said a few words, in a much-diminished voice, in answer to his first reception. At the State House, he intended to try a longer oration. He made it through a halting sentence or so before calling it quits. Sumner lacked the volume and ability to go further, but naturally passed his copy over to the newspapers.

Though visibly still an disability and debilitated, Sumner opted for more than the usual pleasantries. He regretted his five months convalescing, which kept him from arguing freedom’s case before the Senate and the people. No one could have missed the subtext: Sumner did want to go back to the Senate and his term did end fairly soon. They should vote for the Republicans so he could, or otherwise consider themselves friends to slavery’s swift advance.

Spent, Sumner let the throng see him to the family home. There his mother waited. They took to a window and bowed to a cheering crowd before retiring. The public ordeal cost Sumner dearly. He complained of his usual pains, but not in vain; Massachusetts stuck with its fallen Senator when the polls opened. John C. Fremont, the Republican’s first presidential candidate, lost to James Buchanan but he carried Massachusetts with seventy thousand votes, fifty thousand more than went to Buchanan and Millard Fillmore (now running as a Know-Nothing) combined. Anson Burlingame squeaked by into a second term as well. Republicans swept the state elections. His visible infirmity even convinced the previously opposing Boston Herald to endorse him.

As customary at the time, Sumner pretended he had no interest in his own re-election. In private, he kept a close eye on Governor Gardner, Burlingame, and others who though Sumner’s chair entirely too empty. He would speak about resigning only to then mention those connivers who wanted to succeed him. If a good, reliable man stepped forward then Sumner might change his mind. He named Charles Francis Adams, confident that no one would get behind that ticket. When January came around and the new legislature met, Sumner promised he would resume his duties within the month. He had a duty and would persevere, despite his continued infirmity.

Henry Gardner (Know-Nothing-MA)

As in his previous election, Sumner could feign aloofness in part because friends worked avidly on his behalf. The Bird Club, a group of antislavery politicians and intellectuals founded by Sumner’s friend Frank Bird, worked behind the scenes to get the senate election safely concluded and their man another six years as soon as possible. That proved soon indeed; the Massachusetts House voted before Governor Gardner’s inaugural address arrived. Only twelve men voted against Sumner. The Senate took up his candidacy four days later and approved it on a unanimous voice vote.

 

A Boston Welcome for Charles Sumner

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Charles Sumner gave up convalescence at Cresson, Pennsylvania, and returned to Philadelphia. There he received bad news yet again: his doctor believed that Sumner must refrain from any physical or mental excitement if he wanted to live. Sumner kept up an active correspondence, but refused invitations to attend public meetings. Delivering a speech, especially to a crowd and in his customary style, might well be beyond his ability. A public failure like that would not have done much for his fragile mental and physical state.

Sumner may have stayed in Philadelphia for longer, but Anson Burlingame looked poised to lose re-election. Sumner did not approve at all of his accepting Brooks’ challenge, but already at Cresson he received the Congressman with obvious affection for the benefit of the reporters on hand. When that, plus a public letter of support, did not seem adequate, Sumner returned to Boston. Ostensibly he came for a grand reception, but really to campaign. Though he did decline the banquet offered, Sumner had to muddle through the rest.

On November 3, the festivities began with Sumner driven from Longfellow’s home to that of Amos Lawrence, benefactor of the Emigrant Aid Society and longtime foe of the Senator’s. There Sumner received a plethora of guests in the afternoon, who came up from the State House in eighteen carriages. They in due course put him into an open carriage and escorted him to the Boston city line. There, in 1824, Josiah Quincy met the aged Lafayette on his return tour of the United States. Now, the aged Josiah Quincy met Sumner.

Quincy praised Sumner at length before a crowd of seven hundred, closing with thanks to Heaven for keeping him around long enough to see the day. Sumner, still in his carriage, leaned forward and appeared greatly moved. The powerful voice necessary for an orator in the age before microphones and speakers, failed Sumner. Appearing “haggard and careworn, with languid eye and pale cheek,” he spoke briefly. The Senator called his suffering “not small” but he did it for duty’s sake and it paled before what the good people of Kansas still endured.

Then the show continued, with Sumner transferred to a new carriage drawn by six gray horses, joining the mayor of Boston and Quincy for a half-mile procession through cheering crowds and beneath banners hung to welcome him. The crowd might have grown to seven thousand, packing the streets, hanging from windows, and standing on rooftops to get a look at their hero. Men, women, and children through bouquets into the carriage.

Governor Gardner welcomed Sumner to the State House with a consciously apolitical speech. All Massachusetts stood with their maimed Senator, just not necessarily on matters of policy. Sumner had a proper speech ready to go in response, but he only managed a few lines before his endurance gave out. He had somewhat more after Quincy spoke, but between that, all the crowds, and movement, Sumner had had enough. He passed the copy to reporters on hand for printing.

“I may yet be doomed to that heaviest of all afflictions, to spend my time on earth in a living sepulcher.”

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

We left Charles Sumner at a health spa up in the Alleghenies. There he continued to struggle with his recovery, but seemed at last on a slow mend. He looked forward to some time home in Massachusetts, though not the grand reception he expected. Sumner usually enjoyed the public eye, so his dread of it now speaks volumes to his state of mind. Walking still strained him and mental exertion gave him headaches.

At the spa, Sumner showed more troubling symptoms still. When tired, which must have happened frequently given the continuous references to his exhaustion, Sumner felt

as tho’ the blows were raining upon his head again; then will feel a numbness in the scalp; then again acute pains; then a sense of exhaustion that prevents any physical or mental effort.

We would say Sumner had flashbacks. He had trouble sleeping still and began to fear the loss of his faculties. The Senator now stared down the prospect of permanent disability, something he feared more than death. He wrote Joshua Giddings that

I sometimes am led to apprehend that I may yet be doomed to that heaviest of all afflictions, to spend my time on earth in a living sepulcher.

George Sumner didn’t help matters by talking about cases of mental illness he observed in Parisian hospitals. Way to go, George. Dr. Wister, of Philadelphia, told Sumner that he couldn’t comment on whether the Senator suffered a brain “deranged organically or only functionally.” A functional disorder, someone might recover from. Actual brain injury? Maybe not. Sumner probably suffered both. He also became preoccupied with his symptoms, for which one can hardly blame him. Every time he fell short of his expectations, his body reinforced his fears.

Eventually, Sumner could take no more of the spa at Cresson. He wanted more engaging surroundings that could get his mind off his debilitated state and left, against the advice of the doctor there. Leaving took him back to Philadelphia and Dr. Wister. Once again he seems to have improved briefly, but then relapsed. He later wrote to the spa’s physician that he left too soon.

Come the end of September, Dr. Perry examined Sumner again and found his frailty largely unchanged. As before, he believed the Senator could not take much stress at all if he hoped to keep his life.

“His steps were feeble and tottering”

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Charles Sumner declined to take any further part in Preston Brooks’ prosecution than grand jury testimony; he did not consider himself at all well. The psychological strain of revisiting the attack constantly, perhaps even in Brooks’ presence, can’t have appealed even when he felt physically better and Sumner rarely felt that. Visitors described him as a man much enfeebled, who may not make it. Francis Blair’s home in Silver Springs gave him some relief from Washington’s summer heat, but it remained close enough for a steady steam of visitors that further exhausted the Senator.

On July 5, Sumner returned to Washington City to put his affairs in order before departing for less demanding climes. That prompted a fresh bout of visitors, including both antislavery luminaries and members of the diplomatic corps. Edward L. Pierce’s Memoir and Letters of Charles Sumner relates that the only administration men, excepting Lewis Cass who Sumner once befriended in Europe, stayed away. The parade of well-wishers can’t have helped, but Sumner left the city on July 7, staying the night in Baltimore before proceeding on to Philadelphia and Dr. Caspar Wister. At the time, Sumner expected to return to the Senate in August.

Dr. Wister examined Sumner on July 9 and found him in

A condition of extreme nervous exhaustion, his circulation feeble, and in fact every vital power alarmingly sunken. At that time his steps were feeble and tottering, as if in extreme old age; he complained of constant pain in the back and lower extremities, -in the latter it was a tired and weary sensation and he had a sense of construction and pressure about the head. At that time his pulse was quick and small, appetite language, and his sleep broken, disturbed, and unrefreshing. All the above conditions were heightened by exertion either mental or physical.

Wister recommended Sumner go to Cape May for relaxation. He spent a week there, improving, but then suffered another relapse. On July 22, he wrote to Giddings that he might resign his seat. Sumner still wanted to come back and resume his duties, but clearly doubted that he could. He abandoned Cape May for a health resort at Cresson, Pennsylvania. There, but he managed a daily ride on horseback, though he still struggled with walking. By mid-August, he could write -again to Giddings- that he hoped “to do good service in the coming campaign” for the presidency. The Republicans nominated John C. Fremont in June, with a sympathy vote going to Sumner for vice-president.

On August 28, Sumner wrote a friend that he had not made a full recovery,

but I ride on horseback, converse, read, write letters, and hope soon to be in working condition, though I fear that a perfect prudence would keep me from all public effort for some months to come.

Walking still exhausted him, but Sumner felt on the mend. He expected to return to Massachusetts soon, but dreaded the inevitable public welcome. He would rather “slip into Massachusetts, run about for a few days” and then maybe get on the stump.

 

“It is impossible to regard him without apprehension.”

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Charles Sumner ended May of 1856 in a poor state. His head wound became infected, but after his doctors let the pus drain Sumner improved. Then he took a further plunge, likely courtesy of various complications from the wound and the infection. His extended convalescence threw suspicion on him from points South. Surely the Senator played for sympathy; no one suffered so badly from a few light blows which he had coming. The dismissal of Sumner’s original doctor, Cornelius Boyle, added fuel to that speculation. On the other side of the partisan divide Republicans believed that Boyle soft-pedaled Sumner’s diagnosis on purpose, citing his personal friendship with Preston Brooks.

With hindsight, we know that Sumner did continue suffering. He remained bed-ridden as the Washington summer closed in. He escaped the city for Francis P. Blair’s home at Silver Spring, Maryland. The distance and shade, he and his doctors reasoned, would help. It only did so much and Sumner suffered another relapse. On June 23 he wrote a friend

For nearly four weeks I lay twenty-two hours out of the twenty-four on my back; and I am still very feeble, but able to totter a mile round the garden, and hoping daily for strength, which comes slowly.

William H. Seward (R-NY)

On the twenty-fifth, Sumner came back into Washington City to testify before the grand jury. For three days he worked at some correspondence and entertained many visitors. That took a great deal out of Sumner, who promptly retired to Blair’s again. William Henry Seward called on him there and reported

He is much changed for the worse. His elasticity and vigor are gone. He walks, and in every way moves, like a man who has not altogether recovered from a paralysis, or like a man whose sight is dimmed, and his limbs stiffened with age. His conversation, however, was like that of his season of better health. It turned altogether on what the Senate were doing, and the course of conduct, and debate therein. When he spoke of his health, he said he thought he was getting better now; but his vivacity of spirit and his impatience for study are gone. It is impossible to regard him without apprehension.

In that conversation, Sumner said he would like to get back and give another big speech before the session of Congress ended. Seward advised Sumner that if he insisted upon that, it would be his last speech “in this world.”

While this went on, the legal case against Brooks proceeded. Sumner wrote to Phillip Barton Key, the US Attorney handling case, that he couldn’t come to court because

I have suffered a relapse, by which I am enfeebled, and also admonished against exertion. Being out of town, I have not had an opportunity of consulting my attending physician; but a skillful medical friend, who has visited me here, earnestly insists that I cannot attend Court for some time without peril to my health.

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

Key must not have got the hint, because he wrote again and Sumner had to answer a second time explaining that he wanted “nothing to do, directly or indirectly” with the prosecution. The Senator thought he had done enough by coming in and testifying for the grand jury. He needed to tend to his recovery.

Without Sumner, the Brooks trial went on. For assaulting a Senator on the floor of the United States Senate, he received a fine of $300.