The Remedy of Injustice and Civil War: The Crime Against Kansas, Part 13

Charles Sumner (Republican-MA)

Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12Full text

We left Charles Sumner telling the Senate that the Remedy of Folly, to disarm the antislavery Kansans and tell them to make do, would not fly. To this point, Sumner has answered the non-solutions of his foes to Kansas’ troubles with a mix of ridicule and reasoned debate. His contempt shines through. For the next non-solution, he had a threat. The new remedy committed an injustice and risked civil war.

The remedy of Injustice and Civil War came in a handy carrying case, a bill before the Senate which would authorize the governor and legislature of Kansas to conduct a census. When that census turned up 98,420 people, they could go ahead and hold a constitutional convention. From there they would write a state constitution and apply for admission to the Union like any other territory did.

In ordinary times, no one would raise an eyebrow at that. Sumner objected on the grounds that, while the proposed law followed normal procedures, it left every judgment in the hands of the proslavery governor and his proslavery legislature. By doing so, the bill’s supporters “recognize the very Usurpation in which the crime ended, and proceed to endow it with new prerogatives.” How much could you trust a census run by the bogus legislature?

Furthermore, the proslavery government of Kansas need not take those steps at all. Nothing in the law obligated them to run the census and move ahead, fairly or otherwise. Since the legislature would not meet again until January of 1857, this solution to Kansas’ troubles promised they would continue at least until January, plus whatever time the census and constitutional convention required, if the legislature chose to go ahead. All that kept Kansas in the spotlight, “this great question open, to distract and irritate the country.”

Even by the standards of Sumner’s foes, this just did not do the job. If they wanted Kansas over and done with, they should not embark on a plan that would leave the question untouched and invite further mayhem for more than half a year. Sumner, understandably, cared less about that detail than they might. He moved on to note the real problem: the Senate bill consolidated proslavery control of the territory.

Pass this Bill, and you enlist Congress in the conspiracy, not only to keep the people of Kansas in their present subjugation, throughout their territorial existence, but also to protract this subjugation into their existence as a State, while you legalize and perpetuate the very force by which slavery has already been planted there.

To underline the point, Sumner noted that the bill endowed a legislature which as a practical measure outlawed political antislavery with the power of decision. It might have set aside the legislature’s test acts to vote in delegate elections to the constitutional convention, but in admitting their injustice for that the Senate only raised the question of why to keep them for anything? Many genuine Kansans lost the franchise under those laws. Many Missourians could come over and vote untroubled by them. In effect, the Senate didn’t mind that but set up a fig leaf to obscure the fact.

In characterizing this Bill as the Remedy of Injustice and Civil War, I give it a plain, self-evident title. It is a continuation of the Crime against Kansas, and as such deserves the same condemnation. It can only be defended by those who defend the Crime. Sir, you cannot expect that the people of Kansas will submit to the Usurpation which this bill sets up, and bids them bow before-as the Austrian tyrant set up his cap in the Swiss market-place. If you madly persevere, Kansas will not be without her William tell, who will refuse at all hazards to recognize the tyrannical edict; and this will be the beginning of civil war.

 

The Remedy of Folly: The Crime Against Kansas, Part 12

Charles Sumner (Republican-MA)

Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11Full text

 

Charles Sumner would have none of this notion of fixing Kansas by calling it all a fait accompli and castigating antislavery Kansans for protesting the illegitimacy of the government erected over them by proslavery men out of Missouri. They had sacred rights of self-government, the patrimony of all white American men freshly promised to them by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. To cede that meant knuckling under to tyranny, just as bad King George demanded of Americans.

The second solution Sumner’s foes offered, “which, indeed, is also a Remedy of Tyranny; but its Folly is so surpassing as to eclipse even its Tyranny.” This time around, perfidy came not from Franklin Pierce -he must have needed a break; few presidents have done better at doing worse- but Andrew Butler of South Carolina. Butler’s “single contribution” deserved to have his name on it, but Sumner gave it “a more suggestive synonym.” In other words: Butler, thy name is folly.

Sumner quoted the other Senator directly:

The President of the United States is under the highest and most solemn obligations to interpose; and if I were to indicate the manner in which he should interpose in Kansas, I would point out the old common law process. I would serve a warrant on Sharpe’s rifles, and if Sharpe’s rifles did not answer the summons, and come into court on a day certain, or if they resisted the sheriff, I would summon the posse comitatus, and would have Colonel Sumner’s regiment to be a part of that posse comitatus.

Butler wanted Pierce to order the seizure of antislavery arms and send the Army and militia down upon them if they refused, largely as happened in Kansas even as Sumner spoke. He proposed Wilson Shannon’s solution: disarm the antislavery side and leave them at the mercy of the proslavery party.

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Per Sumner, that would deprive antislavery Kansans of their “tutelary protector against the red man and the beast of the forest.” They had a Second Amendment right on top of that, which a former judge of many years ought to know. Had Butler forgotten his law? His past honors could not make it look any better: Andrew Butler wanted freedom’s friends in Kansas stripped of the means to defend themselves before savage foes. Sumner reiterated nineteenth century racism in putting the Native Americans among them and in the company of wild animals. He went a step further, by implication, and lumped the proslavery whites in together with the lot. Maybe Sumner didn’t view them as exactly equivalent -they had white skin, after all- but he took enough care in his writing to mean the audience to draw the inference.

The Remedy of Tyranny: The Crime Against Kansas, Part 11

Charles Sumner (Republican-MA)

Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10Full text

Charles Sumner ran down and dismissed every excuse given for lawless proslavery extremism in Kansas. He would have nothing of their apologies, tyrannical, imbecile, infamous, or absurd. But as the musical tells us, lacking a plan of one’s own and just hating the alternatives doesn’t make for the best politics…at least if one actually wants to address the question. Obstruction alone serves admirably if one prefers the status quo on a subject. Thus Sumner moved on, in the second day of his speech, to “the TRUE REMEDY”. A true remedy had to do a lot of work, because Stephen Douglas and company had screwed up Kansas so badly. To fix Kansas, Sumner argued they needed a solution that also worked for “Nebraska, Minnesota, Washington, and even Oregon.” He believed, at least for the purposes of the speech, that the entire free territory of the United States now stood open to slavery. I don’t know about Minnesota on that count, but for the rest he has a reasonable claim. Reinstating the Missouri Compromise would at once settle things. Naturally, no one in Congress proposed to do such a thing.

To salve the nation’s wounds, Sumner reviewed four options: First we have the Remedy of Tyranny; next, the Remedy of Folly; next, the remedy of Injustice and Civil War; and fourthly, the Remedy of Justice and Peace. These are the four caskets; and you are to determine which shall be opened by Senatorial votes.

The Remedy of Tyranny meant doing as Stephen Douglas and Franklin Pierce wished. Concede Kansas, and the rest of the nation’s posterity, to slavery and call it good. The territorial government and its oppressive laws must stand. The first chance to do that would come in the contested House election for Kansas’ delegate. If Andrew Reeder prevailed, then so might freedom. If James Whitfield did, slavery followed. Sumner left that to the House, because Senators should mind their own business and respect the other chamber’s prerogatives

But now, while dismissing it, I should not pardon myself, if I failed to add, that any person who founds his claim to a seat in Congress on the pretended votes of hirelings from another State, with no home on the soil of Kansas, plays the part of the Anarcharsis Clootz, who, at the bar of the French convention, understood to represent nations that knew him not, or, if they knew him, scorned him

Sumner then spent the better part of a page likening the advocates of the Remedy of Tyranny to King George, venting against the American colonists.

The Apology Infamous: The Crime Against Kansas, Part 10

Charles Sumner (Republican-MA)

Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9Full text

Dispensing with the Apologies Tyrannical and Imbecile, Charles Sumner moved on to the Apology Absurd. Absurdity meant claiming that proslavery filibusters who seized control of the Kansas territorial government by force acted in self-defense. More than usual, Sumner’s contempt for the argument shows through the refined nineteenth century prose. I can only imagine how it came across when performed before the Senate. That left only one apology to go: Infamous.

That apology arose from

false testimony against the Emigrant Aid Company, and assumptions of duty more false than the testimony. Defying Truth and mocking Decency, this Apology excels all others in futility and audacity, while, from its utter hollowness, it proves the utter impotence of the conspirators to defend their Crime.

Sorry, Proslavery Senators. Chuck has had it up to here with you. Painting the Aid Company’s mission as one “of sincere benevolence” which aspired to no fortifications beyond “hotels, shcool-houses, and churches” attended by implements of war such as “saw-mills, tools, and books”, would not fly. Eli Thayer’s effort meant for peaceable settlement of the frontier and not a thing beyond it. To damn them as pauper mercenaries, the dregs of the North, “sacrificed” the “innocent”. Those who walked in Christ’s footsteps in Kansas found themselves “scourged and crucified, while the murderer, Barabbas, with the sympathy of the chief priests, goes at large.”

Left to his own devices, Sumner claimed that he would just dismiss the Apology Infamous with sneering contempt. He aimed to do that, but since he had the Senate there and others took it seriously, he felt obliged to do more. He defended the Emigrant Aid Society as an ordinary benevolent association, just like countless others. Americans joined together to build churches and schools, sell thread, sail ships, and make toys. Voluntarily associations sought

to guard infancy in its weakness old age in its decrepitude, and womanhood in its wretchedness; and now, in all large towns, when death has come, they are buried by organized societies

If “emigrants to another world” could have their places readied by a corporation, then why not emigrants to Kansas? People had come together in common purpose since Antiquity, when Greeks colonized the Mediterranean and then the Romans followed. Every nation of the white world did such things not merely through private office, but under the aegis of the state. Furthermore, Emigrant Aid Companies settled Plymouth, Virginia, and Georgia. Did the proslavery Senators have something against America?

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

Sumner conceded that people moving west within the United States usually didn’t have any organization backing them. You got together your money and moved, on your own or with the help of friends and family. “Tens of thousands” went west that way, but they ventured forth “with little knowledge, and without guide or counsel.” To remedy that, and because the fate of freedom hung in the balance, Massachusetts opted for an improvement and chartered the company.

The conspirators against Freedom in Kansas now shook with tremor, real or affected. Their wicked plot was about to fail. To help themselves, they denounced the Emigrant Aid Company; and their denunciations, after finding an echo in the President, have been repeated, with much particularity on this floor

Sumner told a slanted version of events. He denied military organization in Kansas by antislavery forces in the Apology Absurd. Now he doubled down and made the Emigrant Aid Company into a pacific institution of philanthropy. He may have had that technically right, in that the Company itself doesn’t seem to have shipped guns to the territory in its own right, but its agents on their own did that work in parallel and with knowledge of the bosses back home. That notion, Sumner called “absolutely false” and said he had permission from the Company to say so on their behalf. At its most extreme, the Aid Company simply planted capital in Kansas, largely in the form of sawmills, and encouraged men to go chase after it. Eli Thayer’s outfit had more in common with a Bible Society than a paramilitary, to hear Sumner tell it.

The Apology Absurd: The Crime Against Kansas, Part 9

Charles Sumner (Republican-MA)

Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8Full text

Charles Sumner did not have a high opinion of the defenses that Stephen Douglas and others had for all the injustice and mayhem that had taken place in Kansas. The seizure of the territorial government by force, threats, and massive voter fraud by Missourians entirely disqualified it as a legitimate organization to his mind. But Douglas, Andrew Butler, and other senators defended them all the same. It thus fell to Sumner to pick their defenses apart. First he dismissed the Apology Tyrannical, which held that once governor Andrew Reeder recognized the election results they had to stand. Then he cast aside the Apology Imbecile, where the proslavery senators averred that -whatever happened in Kansas- the Congress and Presidency had no power to intervene.

That brought Sumner to what he called the Apology Absurd

which is indeed, in the nature of a pretext. It is alleged that a small printed pamphlet, containing the “Constitution and Ritual of the Grand Encampment and Regiments of the Kansas Legion,” was taken from the person of one George F. Warren, who attempted to avoid detection by chewing it.

Samuel Newitt Wood

Gentle Readers, I wish I could tell you more of this story. A spot check revealed other references, but only to the bare fact of Warren chowing down. You may remember the Constitution and Ritual from past posts. The Kansas Legion, aka the Kansas Regulators, organized as a paramilitary force to defend antislavery Kansans and occasionally burn down proslavery homesteads. Jacob Branson and Samuel Wood served in it. The Free State leadership denied knowledge or approval, officially. Maybe that passed scrutiny in Washington and among people sympathetic to the cause, but their connection appears more like an open secret in Kansas.

Sumner’s foes argued that the Legion justified harsh measures on the part of proslavery men. They had something like a terrorist organization about and it required dealing with. That position makes perfect sense for a proslavery Missourian or Kansas who equates opposing slavery with incitement to race war. They had to do what they did to save the community from ruin, essentially in self-defense.

To answer that, Sumner first dismissed the Legion as a “poor mummery of a secret society, which existed only on paper.” If it did exist, though, it proposed only to enlist antislavery men to defend the Constitution of the United States. How could any patriotic American object to such a goal?

Secret societies, with their extravagant oaths, are justly offensive; but who can find, in this mistaken machinery, any excuse for the denial of all rights to the people of Kansas? This whole “cock and bull story” never really happened to begin with, but if it did then so what? Sumner dismissed the Apology Absurd with “the derision which triviality and absurdity justly receive.”

 

The Apology Imbecile: The Crime Against Kansas, Part 8

Charles Sumner (Republican-MA)

Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7Full text

Charles Sumner explained to the Senate what he meant by the Apology Tyrannical: the insistence that whatever happened in Kansas elections, they stood because Andrew Reeder signed off on them. Reeder made a mistake, but since those elections lacked all reasonable legitimacy due to the massive fraud and intimidation campaign that attended them, ratifying his error would only compound it. Even Reeder accepted that now.

This brought Sumner to the Apology Imbecile,

which is founded on the alleged want of power in the President to arrest the Crime. It is openly asserted, that, under the existing laws of the United States, the Chief Magistrate has no authority to interfere in Kansas for this purpose.

Pierce made that claim himself when push came to shove. Sumner began by noting that this defended the state of affairs in Kansas with no more than a shrug. Stuff happens; what can you do? This “ostentatious imbecility” appeared in no other situation. Impotent Pierce had little trouble dispatching a naval vessel to punish “the cannibals of the Fejee islands” for offenses against Americans. Whatever the Fijians did paled before the enormities worked by Americans upon Americans and Franklin Pierce would not have to reach around the world to set things right. He needed only to stand against Slavery.

For that matter, Sumner noted that the Senate received regular news of filibustering efforts set to sail from New York. Given the time and location, Sumner probably means John Quitman’s Cuban junta. The United States had no difficulty stepping in to preserve American neutrality and its honor among nations, so why would it have such trouble policing affairs within its own limit? Even the Slave Power didn’t mind too much when filibustering got shut down.

The pattern could escape no one:

where the Slave Power is indifferent, the President will see that the laws are faithfully executed; but, in other cases, where the interests of Slavery are at stake, he is controlled absolutely by this tyranny, ready at all times to do, or not to do, precisely as it dictates. Therefore it is, that Kansas is left a prey to the Propagandists of Slavery, while the whole Treasury, the Army and Navy of the United States, are lavished to hunt a single slave through the streets of Boston.

Sumner went on to remind the Senate of the enslaved man he had in mind, Anthony Burns. He quoted to the chamber correspondence between the Marshal in charge of Burns’ rendition, including Pierce’s two-sentence order to use the Army and Navy to carry him back to slavery and a note from his personal secretary checking up on the situation the next day. And now people from the President on down, said he could do nothing for the mere territory Kansas over which Washington held unlimited power, despite his easy ability to reach into the heart of Boston with the armed might of the nation to seize a single man. If Pierce honestly believed a word of that, Sumner found him guilty of “not merely imbecility, but idiocy.”

The Apology Tyrannical: The Crime Against Kansas, Part 7

Charles Sumner (Republican-MA)

Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6Full text

Charles Sumner laid it all out for the Senate: The crime against Kansas admitted no denial, so instead his fellow senators had offered defenses. The Massachusetts Senator broke them down into four categories, the Apologies tyrannical, imbecile, absurd, and infamous. He went from the top:

The Apology tyrannical is founded on the mistaken act of Governor Reeder, in authenticalting the Usurping Legislature, by which it is asserted that, whatever may have been the actual force or fraud in its election, the people of Kansas are effectually concluded, and the whole proceeding is pleaded under the formal sanction of law.

In other words, Kansas’ first governor had the legal power to set aside bad elections and call for new ones, at least until the moment that the territorial legislature assembled at Pawnee. He failed to throw out the whole slate, or enough of it, so the apologists argued that the legislature’s formal legitimacy trumped all. Reeder accepted it and that made the bogus legislature the true government of Kansas, end of story. Congress had no business changing things, just

as the ancient tyrant listened and granted no redress to the human moans that issued from the heated brazen bull, which subtle cruelty had devised, This I call the Apology of technicality and inspired tyranny.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Of course that didn’t mean that Sumner let Reeder off. He criticized the governor for only permitting five days for election complaints to reach him. Reeder erred then and erred in accepting the great majority of the elections as-is. But his endorsement could not make a wrong into a right, “violence and fraud, wherever disclosed, vitiates completely every proceeding.” Furthermore, Sumner admitted that Reeder went to Kansas as Franklin Pierce’s proslavery “tool”. There, the governor’s “simple nature” and Pennsylvania upbringing worked to rouse his conscience to his proper duty. By turning on the legislature and serving the free state movement, Reeder atoned for his past errors.

Something certainly happened with Reeder, and he does come across as a man in over his head. He had no political experience to take with him to Kansas and he did repudiate the territorial government, though most probably he cared far less for slavery than he did for vindicating himself. The free staters came to Reeder, almost literally with his bag in hand and set to depart the territory for good. In exchange for joining them and serving as their spokesman, he demanded that their movement endorse his personal grievances against the legislature.

Four Weird Sisters Dancing Apologies: The Crime Against Kansas, Part 6

Charles Sumner (Republican-MA)

Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5Full text

Sumner went on at great length about the troubles Kansas suffered: invasions from Missouri, the theft of elections, violence and intimidation of all kinds. Proslavery men had turned the land into a war zone, or near enough, and reduced antislavery people in Kansas to subjects of a foreign power. They called that popular sovereignty. But the Bleeding Kansas category on this blog goes into great detail about how all that played out and we don’t need to review it all.

With the crime against Kansas firmly in mind, fifteen pages in, Sumner turned to the defenses of it. Here he makes a valuable point:

The great Crimes of history have never been without Apologies. The massacre of St. Bartholomew, which you now instinctively condemn, was, at the time, applauded in high quarters, and even commemorated by a Papal medal, which may still be procured at Rome

Sumner means apology in the classical sense as an excuse or defense, rather than begging pardon. He referenced the French Wars of Religion here. On St. Bartholomew’s day, France’s Catholics indulged in a wave of targeted violence and murder against their Protestant neighbors. We don’t remember these struggles as much today, but they informed nineteenth century America’s association of Catholicism with tyranny. In an overwhelmingly and self-consciously Protestant nation, this history had special resonance.

He also had a broader point. We like to think that any historical horror drew widespread condemnation. What we imagine as indefensible, we project back into the past. More often than not, we have it backwards. People do not wake up and decide to play the villain, but rather do things they believe right, good, and just. If you asked the Missourians, they would tell you that they protected their families from a slave revolt, defended their own property, safeguarded the virtue of “their” women, and preserved honor and decency in the face of a rich corporation full of religious fanatics bent on enforcing their will on the world. In short, they sought to protect their community of little guys from the great and powerful. To put it like that makes them sound more than halfway right, like people we ought to view with sympathy in a country with a longstanding fondness for underdogs. We might even see some of ourselves in them, which doesn’t make for the most comfortable time given they fought for slavery. 

Sumner classed apologies for “the Assassins and Thugs of Missouri” as

four in number, and four-fold in character. The first is the Apology tyrannical; the second, the Apology imbecile; the third, the Apology absurd; and the fourth the Apology infamous. This is all. Tyranny, imbecility, absurdity, and infamy, all unite to dance like the weird sisters about this Crime. [Emphasis original.]

“Piling one mass of elaborate error upon another mass” The Crime Against Kansas, Part 5

Charles Sumner (Republican-MA)

Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4Full text

Charles Sumner went for the low blow. Andrew Pickens Butler, an elderly man, had then-recently suffered a stroke that left him with some facial paralysis. As a result, he tended to drool and spray when he spoke. Sumner went beyond criticizing the politics and morals of his proslavery oratory and damned him for “loose expectoration.” This went somewhat beyond the ordinary bounds of political invective, even in an era when making fun of disabilities didn’t arouse the kind of opprobrium it might now. Hearing all of this while angrily pacing the Senate chamber, Stephen Douglas told a reporter “That damn fool will get himself killed by some other damn fool.”

Of course Sumner had choice words for Douglas too. The Little Giant made the Kansas-Nebraska Act with his enthusiasm for the Pacific railroad, his political ambitions, and his eagerness to sweep aside Native Americans. “[T]he squire of Slavery” defended his course on Kansas in a “labored address,”

piling one mass of elaborate error upon another mass-constrained himself, as you will remember, to unfamiliar decencies of speech. Of that address I have nothing to say at this moment

Anthony Burns

And if you believe that, Sumner has some beachfront property in Kansas that you may like. Most of The Crime Against Kansas responds to Douglas and others. To open that, five pages in, Sumner engaged in a lengthy recapitulation of Kansas history from “the Missouri discussion” on down. He indicted Franklin Pierce and slavery’s friends in Congress for trampling over the rules of the House and Senate to organize the territory with slavery permitted and took swipes at the blue lodges. He made all the familiar accusations of conspiracy and rehearsed the attacks upon democracy in the territory. He called out Pierce further for claiming impotence to enforce law and order within Kansas against proslavery lawlessness when the president exerted himself eagerly to enforce it in Massachusetts to deliver up Anthony Burns.

At length -nine pages in, now- Sumner came to the Wakarusa War:

in the latter days of November, 1855, a storm, long brewing, burst open the heads of the devoted people. […] like the Heathen of old, they [proslavery Missourians] raged, particularly against Lawrence, already known, by the firmness of its principles and the character of its citizens, as the citadel of the good cause. On this account they threatened, in their peculiar language, to “wipe it out.” Soon the hostile power was gathered for this purpose.

Wilson Shannon

That this all arose out of a proslavery man murdering an antislavery man and led to a proslavery force marching against an antislavery town made the whole thing downright perverse, and multiplied its evil in Sumner’s mind. Wilson Shannon “[t]he weak Governor, with no faculty higher than servility to slavery” only compounded the error further by giving official license to the mob. The Senator passed over the role Shannon played in defusing the situation, though considering how heavily he contributed to bringing things to that dire point one can hardly grant him much credit. He tried to clean up the mess only after making it.

Loose Expectorations: The Crime Against Kansas, Part 4

Charles Sumner (Republican-MA)

Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3Full text

Andrew Butler, that “Heroic knight! Exalted Senator! A second Moses come for a second exodus!” always had a good word for his mistress, the harlot Slavery. Charles Sumner would not let the Senate soon forget that. There among them sat a man happy to defend the practice of selling children at auction. Many others did the same, but not all of them both played an important supporting role in repealing the Missouri Compromise and remained in the Senate for Sumner to castigate. Like some of those others, Butler had laid into Sumner. Sumner hit back:

the Senator, in the unrestrained chivalry of his nature, has undertaken to apply opprobrious words to those who differ from him on this floor.

That opprobrium included calling Sumner and company sectional fanatics. Standing against the theft of Kansas by proslavery fraud made for “an uncalculating fanaticism.” Sumner damned the attacks as untrue and unoriginal and turned them back on Butler, painting him as the ardent sectionalist and returning to his theme of freedom national. Butler’s “too great a perversion of terms” could not stand.

Many pages and a day later, Sumner returned to Butler again. The Senator, while absent then from the Senate, remained,

omnipresent in this debate, overflowed with rage at the simple suggestion that Kansas had applied for admission as a State; and, with incoherent phrases, discharged the loose expectoration of his speech […] The Senator touches nothing which he does not disfigure-with error, sometimes of principle, sometimes of fact. He shows an incapacity of accuracy, whether in stating the Constitution or in stating the law […] He cannot open his mouth, but out there flies a blunder

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

On the face of it, Sumner insulted Butler in no more unusual a manner than he would anyone else. One can easily imagine him indicting Franklin Pierce or Daniel Webster with similar words. Sumner’s “loose expectoration” remark would, strictly speaking, fit anybody speaking incautiously. Andrew Butler suffered from partial facial paralysis, which gave him a speech impediment. Disability, not rage or fanaticism, afflicted the Senator’s oratory.

Many historians believe that Sumner drew the assault on his person that would come shortly with those words. Calling attention to a man’s disability attacked him in a way that indicting his politics did not. Sketching him as a bumbling fool and making the disability a centerpiece of that portrayal made it all the worse. Nineteenth century Americans didn’t have our scruples about mocking the unfortunate, but Sumner probably still exceeded the bounds of good taste by a wide margin. Often politicians could flay one another viciously and then kick back for a few drinks after Congress let out. Sometimes they even delighted in the insults they threw back and forth as a kind of game. Butler and Sumner’s friendship likely had some of that element to it, at least at the start. Maybe it could have again, but Butler died in 1857 and Sumner remained largely absent from Washington for the next few years.