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.

 

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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.

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.

Brooks vs. Burlingame: Second and Third Tries

Anson Burlingame

Anson Burlingame and Preston Brooks came to the edge of a duel, then backed down. Burlingame offered an apology, Brooks accepted, and both men went about their lives. Shortly thereafter, Burlingame’s apology hit the New England papers and they turned on him. Burlingame promptly changed course, publishing a retraction of his apology in the National Intelligencer. Since Burlingame determined to stand by his words on the House floor and withdrew his explanation that he condemned the caning, not Brooks personally, Brooks sent him a note on the day of publication, July 21, 1856.

Sir:-

Will you do me the kindness to indicate some place outside of this District where it will be convenient to you to negotiate in reference to the difference between us.

A duel in the District of Columbia would break the law. Politicians took their disputes usually to Bladensburg, five miles away. No Washington duel had taken place more than nine miles distant. Burlingame may not have known the exact numbers, but he clearly understood the pattern. He likely didn’t want to risk a duel, which could backfire on him politically and might just cost his life. So he asked Lewis Campbell how he might accept the challenge, thus avoiding any appearance of cowardice, but not have to go through with it. Campbell came up with just the solution and wrote back to Brooks:

In reply I have to say that I will be at the Clifton House on the Canada side of Niagara Falls on Saturday next at 12 o’clock M. to “negotiate” in reference to “any differences between us” which in your judgment may require settlement “outside of this district.”

Brooks knew exactly what Burlingame meant with all this. He wrote later

I could not reach Canada without running the gauntlet of mobs and assassins, prisons and penitentiaries, bailiffs and constables. … I might as well have been asked to fight on Boston Common.

He could go there, but if Preston Brooks showed his face far north of the Mason-Dixon Line he might get his own caning and then some. Brooks naturally refused, at which point the northern papers took him to task whilst simultaneously puffing up Burlingame as a man ready to go to the ends of the Earth to fight. The New York Evening Post published a doggerel mocking the South Carolinian

To Canada Brooks was asked to go

To waste of power a pound or so.

He sighed as he answered no, no, no

They might take my life on the way, you know.

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

The mockery can’t have delighted Brooks, but the paper had him dead to rights. Burlingame then appeared in the House once more, on July 28, and suggested that if Brooks didn’t have the courage to go to Canada, which Burlingame considered neutral ground, Brooks could name another place. Then he promptly left Washington. Only Lewis Campbell knew where he went. Brooks’ second spent the next days looking for Burlingame to deliver a counter-proposal as asked.

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.

“And smote him as Cain smote his brother” Anson Burlingame Speaks Out, Part 3

Anson Burlingame

Anson Burlingame took to the floor of the House of Representatives on June 21, 1856 to express his outrage at Preston Brooks’ attack upon Charles Sumner. He would have the House know that Charles Sumner gave a fine speech full of righteous indignation and such a great and good man deserved not a single lick from anyone’s gutta-percha cane. All of this, plus a lengthy vindication of the antislavery cause in Kansas and a defense of Massachusetts, brought Burlingame to the fourth page of his speech in the Congressional Globe. There he came to the point:

On the 22nd day of May, when the Senate and the House had clothed themselves in mourning for a brother fallen in the battle of life in the distant State of Missouri, the senator from Massachusetts sat in the silence of the Senate Chamber, engaged in the employments appertaining to his office, when a member from this House, who had taken an oath to sustain the Constitution, stole into the Senate, that place which had hitherto been held sacred against violence, and smote him as Cain smote his brother.

The Senate chamber didn’t have quite the perfect innocence from violence that we would hope. Henry Foote once drew a pistol on an angry and advancing Thomas Hart Benton, after all. But to the best of my knowledge no one before Brooks took the final step of actually committing violence. Everything before 1856 stopped at threats, brandishing arms, or went outside.

Lawrence Keitt (D-SC)

As Burlingame said all this, Lawrence Keitt sat there listening. As soon as the line about Cain came out, he spoke up.

Mr. KEITT, (in his seat.) That is false.

Mr. BURLINGAME. I will not bandy epithets with the gentleman. I am responsible for my own language. Doubtless he is responsible for his.

Mr. KEITT. I am.

Mr. BURLINGAME. I shall stand by mine.

After that posturing, Burlingame reached the event itself. He gave a brief summary of what everyone already knew and then really tore in. He denounced the caning in the name of the Constitution, Massachusetts, humanity, civilization, and fair play. Brooks himself, “if he has a spark of that chivalry and gallantry attributed to him” should lament his attack. Burlingame went on to castigate Slidell, Douglas, and Toombs.

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

Some days after Burlingame closed his speech, Preston Brooks chose to take action. He recruited a couple of men as go-betweens to approach Nathaniel Banks, Speaker of the House, and George Ashmun, both friends of Burlingame’s. They wanted satisfaction, as Henry Wilson puts it, “amicably or otherwise.”

It seems that they came on Banks and Ashmun in Burlingame’s company. He “expressed his personal regard for Brooks” but persisted in attacking the caning. Distinguishing between the act and the actor opened up hope for a non-violent resolution. Everyone left the meeting convinced they had a modus vivendi. Burlingame left Washington to stump for the Republicans in the presidential race.

“The Pride of Massachusetts” Anson Burlingame Speaks Out, Part 2

Anson Burlingame

Anson Burlingame took to the House floor to castigate Preston Brooks and everyone who would defend him. For good measure, he threw in Franklin Pierce and the state of South Carolina. He granted that Sumner took a hard line, but everyone had it coming. Even if they hadn’t, Sumner demonstrated remarkable strength in rising above the endless stream of insults he received from his opponents. Principle and nobility defined Charles Sumner, as Burlingame well knew:

He is my friend; for many and many a year I have looked to him for guidance and light, and I never looked in vain.He never had a personal enemy in his life; his character is as pure as the snow that falls on his native hills; his heart overflows with kindness for every being having the upright form of man; he is a ripe scholar, a chivalric gentleman, and a warm-hearted, true friend.

Burlingame may have meant every word of that; Sumner had the scholarly credentials, at least. Those who knew the Senator from his Massachusetts days had once found him quiet amiable. On his entry into politics, that changed. Sumner could likely have come up as an establishment Whig with little trouble, but the more he involved himself in reform causes the more difficulty he and his old friends had getting along. David Donald, Sumner’s biographer, believes he suffered some kind of mental break resulting from the strain on his business and career after he returned from Europe. Donald doesn’t think highly of Sumner in general, always hunting for the most venal explanations for his behavior, but he clearly has a point here. The future Senator probably clawed his way out of his travail by recommitting himself to causes that had already interested him. Doing so left him less inclined to shrug off differences and Sumner spent the later 1840s steadily losing friends.

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

The congressman proclaimed Sumner “the pride of Massachusetts” and put him in “the highest walks of literature and law.” Everyone in the Bay State now paid him homage…at least in public. In private they might still remember catching the rough side of his principles, but in caning Sumner Brooks made him into a martyr. Donald relates less glowing reviews:

Fletcher Webster, the embittered son of Daniel Webster, said cynically that if Sumner “would indulge in such attacks…he ought at least to take the precaution of wearing an iron pot on his head.” Some of the conservative Curtis family muttered, when they heard the news: “Served him right,” and “I wish they had killed him.” Sumner himself received a very few letters from Northerners who announced: “I am happy that one man was found who chastised you, but…you did not get one half what you merit.”

 

“With modesty, but with firmness” Anson Burlingame Speaks Out

Anson Burlingame

We left Preston Brooks leaving the House of Representatives. The chamber’s majority voted to expel him for breaking his cane over Charles Sumner’s head and continuing on with the broken stump until wrestled away. The Constitution required two-thirds to actually kick him to the curb, which the House could not muster on the grounds that most of the Southern caucus thought Brooks had done no wrong. In getting to that point, I overlooked an important episode. For the moment, let’s turn the clock back to June 21, 1856. Brooks and Lawrence Keitt still have their seats in the House of Representatives. The House committee have released their report and debate on it comes into full swing.

Anson Burlingame, a friend of Sumner’s with a hard re-election fight ahead of him, stood out among those lining up to castigate Brooks. He rose to remind the House that he had never “assailed” another or impugned a state. He dilated upon Massachusetts’ virtues for a few moments, then got down to it:

with modesty, but with firmness, I cast down her glove to the whole band of her assailants.

In the language of romantic chivalry, one strikes a foe with a glove and drop it to challenge them. Burlingame probably didn’t mean to issue an actual challenge; politicians of the era often use this kind of language for rhetorical effect. It shows them as men of learning and refinement, just as gratuitous Latin quotes and endless references to Antiquity did. He pressed on to vent himself against the Bay State’s censurers, from Franklin Pierce on down.

Lawrence Keitt (D-SC)

Burlingame’s complains about Pierce focused on his transparently proslavery policies, right at the points where they put the lie to his claims of impartiality and that the North had abandoned its sectional duties. He got into a brief exchange with Lawrence Keitt over how the Charleston Mercury condemned the Fugitive Slave Act on behalf of South Carolina, then returned to venting on Pierce over Greytown and Lawrence. After four pages in the Congressional Globe, Burlingame finally wandered to the topic of the attack on Charles Sumner. He went with the others to hear the Crime Against Kansas, live and in person:

To say that we were delighted with the speech we heard, would but faintly express the deep emotions of our hearts awakened by it. I need not speak of the classic purity of its language, nor of the nobility of its sentiments. It was heard by many; it has been read by millions. There has been no such speech made in the Senate since the days when those Titans of American eloquence -the Websters and the Haynes- contended with each other for mastery.

He liked it. Sumner’s oratory reads as ponderous and repetitious to us, but the man could put on a show in person and some of what we would consider faults came off much better in the nineteenth century. Sumner acted out his speeches with practiced gestures and intonation, from memory, in an era when most men just read theirs. That can’t help but liven things up.

That said, Burlingame understood that Sumner gave South Carolina in particular and slavery in general the rough side of his tongue:

It was severe, because it was launched against tyranny. It was severe as Chatham was severe when he defended the feeble colonies against the giant oppression of the mother country.

Yet despite “a hostile Senate” Sumner went for two days with no one calling him to order. If the Senators thought him out of bounds, as they did Andrew Butler, they could have insisted on order at any time and demanded retractions or that Sumner cease entirely. The Senators declined the opportunity. Furthermore, Sumner often faced such vicious insults himself and rose above them. Burlingame would have the House know that Brooks broke his cane over the head of a righteous man ever-mindful of “the flaming sword of the Constitution, turning every way, guarding all the avenues of the Senate.”

“I think there will be an assault upon him”

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

The Crime Against Kansas: Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10,11, 12, 13, 14, 15Full text

Douglas Answers, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

With Douglas’ response answered, Sumner moved to dismiss James Mason. The Virginian “said nothing of argument, and, therefore, there is nothing for response.” He chided Mason for confusing “hard words,” “frowns,” and “scowls” for reasoned debate. He insisted that he had done nothing to earn such behavior, calling it “plantation manners,” and let the matter drop. They exchanged final barbs over plantation manners and, according to The New York Daily Tribune

Mr. MASON was understood to say-the Senator is certainly non compos mentis.

The Tribune, and antislavery papers in general, praised Sumner to the heavens for his Kansas speech. Some of his friendly colleagues in the Senate had advised against insulting senators and states in private, or objected to the tone, but the main opposition came from the usual quarters. Few Democrats liked an attack on the Democracy and its proslavery policy. Nor did Southerners happily suffer attacks upon slavery of any sort. Angry talk filled the streets of Washington.

Sumner may have underestimated the wrath he provoked. He later testified that he had no inkling of his danger

Never, directly or indirectly; nor had I the most remote suspicion of any attack, nor was I in any way prepared for an attack. I had no arms of means of defence of any kind. I was, in fact, entirely defenceless at the time, except so far as my natural strength went. In other words, I had no arms either about my person or in my desk. Nor did I ever wear arms in my life. I have always lived in a civilized community where wearing arms has not been considered necessary.

Henry Wilson

Sumner’s colleagues didn’t feel so confident of his safety. Henry Wilson, Massachusetts’ other senator, testified later that John Bingham, of the House, came up to him as the Senate adjourned and said:

“You had better go down with Mr. Sumner; I think there will be an assault upon him.”

Wilson didn’t buy it at first, but Bingham insisted that he “heard remarks made, from which I think an assault will be made.” That changed Wilson’s mind and he asked walked over and asked Sumner to hold on

I am going home with you to-day-several of us are going home with you.

With a quick “None of that, Wilson,” Sumner declined. Wilson tried to get Anson Burlingame and Schuyler Colfax to join him in escort duty all the same, but Sumner left by a side door rather than wait. The would-be bodyguards thought he might come back and hung around  for a little while before realizing the senator had well and truly left. Sumner may have taken things more seriously, but Wilson admitted that he gave his colleague no reason to believe they worried about Sumner’s safety. He probably thought they just wanted to talk.

Sumner “shot off just as I should any other day.” On his way out, he ran into William Seward. They had dinner plans so Seward suggested that they share the omnibus, essentially a horse-drawn taxi. Sumner begged off on the grounds that he needed to get to the printing office and look over proofs for The Crime Against Kansas in pamphlet form.