Henry Wilson Arms Himself

Henry Wilson (R-MA)

Preston Brooks could have challenged Charles Sumner to a duel. The Yankee would have refused and his fellow Northerners would have dismissed Brooks as a barbarian, but Brooks had the option. Doing so would have meant according Sumner a kind of peer status as a fellow gentleman, which didn’t have the visceral punch that Brooks wanted. He had to degrade Sumner by treating him like less than a white man to achieve satisfaction.

Wilson damned Brooks on the floor of the Senate on May 27 and the speech roused Andrew Butler, just returned to Washington. He shouted that Wilson was a liar and other senators convinced him to withdraw the remark. Brooks didn’t take the news of it well and chose to get satisfaction again. This time, he challenged Wilson to a duel. He picked a proper second, Oregon’s delegate Joseph Lane. Lane later ran second fiddle to John C. Breckenridge on the Southern Democracy’s ticket in 1860.

Wilson received advice from Joshua Giddings, Schuyler Colfax, and some others on what to do. He ignored it and delivered an answer he related years later:

I characterized, on the floor of the Senate, the assault upon my colleague as ‘brutal, murderous, and cowardly.’ I thought so then. I think so now. I have no qualification whatever to make in regard to those words. I have never entertained, in the Senate or elsewhere, the idea of personal responsibility in the sense of a duellist. I have always regarded duelling as the lingering relic of a barbarous civilization, which the law of the country has branded a crime. While, therefore, I religiously believe in the right of self-defence in its broadest sense, the law of my country and the matured convictions of my whole life alike forbid me to meet you for the purpose indicated by your letter.

In other words, Wilson knew what Brooks resented. He would not withdraw a word of it and he would not take part in Brooks’ affair of honor. People in Massachusetts didn’t go for that kind of savagery. Still, Wilson knew his protocols or at least had the good sense not to deliver his answer to Brooks in person; he had a congressman deliver it.

Wilson took Brooks seriously, dismissal or not. He telegraphed his wife to inform her of the challenge, his refusal, and that if Brooks came upon him Wilson would “defend my life, if possible, at any cost.”  He also made arrangements with friends of his, William Claffin and John B. Alley, to look after his ten year old son and “armed himself for defence, resolved to go where duty called.”

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

Wilson’s history also tells that “a few Southern members” got together at a Washington hotel and debated doing something to him. James Orr, one of the men who knew in advance of Brooks’ plan against Sumner, told Wilson in 1878 that he talked them down. I haven’t read this from anyone else and we must suspect that Wilson may have dramatized things. Orr could also have inflated idle talk into a serious conspiracy. Still, the toxic environment in Washington at the time, where Southerners endorsed Brooks wholeheartedly renders something on those lines happening plausible.

 

 

 

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Back to Washington with Senators Wilson and Butler

Henry Wilson (R-MA)

The Public Indignation Meeting at Faneuil Hall on May 30 featured diverse Massachusetts luminaries venting their displeasure at Sumner’s treatment. Some of the same politicians made their displeasure known in a more formal setting. The Massachusetts legislature, utterly dominated by Know-Nothings, produced its own set of resolutions about Brooks’

assault which no provocation could justify, brutal and cowardly in itself, a gross breach of parliamentary privilege, a ruthless attack upon the liberty of speech, an outrage on the decencies of civilized life, and an indignity to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The resolutions further approved of Sumner’s “manliness and courage” and demanded an investigation. State legislatures passed resolves on this order fairly often, dispatching them as petitions for their congressional delegation to enter into the record. Each might get a brief speech and the Congress would then do as it liked. Massachusetts bypassed the ordinary process, instead directing the Governor send copies directly to the President of the Senate, Indiana slaveholder Jesse Bright, and Speaker of the House.

I haven’t found a date for the resolutions or their reception by the Senate. Given that the chamber voted for Seward’s proposal for a committee on the attack the day after, it seems unlikely that they played a direct part in consideration. Matters in Washington did not inspire much confidence. The Senate passed the buck to the House. The House committee delivered its recommendations: expulsion for Brooks and censure for Edmundson and Keitt. Those proceedings take us up to June 2, 1856.

Henry Wilson didn’t wait for all that. He had a smaller, but much more exalted audience than a New York or Boston crowd in the United States Senate. By May 27, word of Sumner’s testimony had gotten around to the Senators. Some of them didn’t like how they came off in it and took to the floor to offer their explanations for the record; Slidell explained himself then. Wilson accepted that explanation and granted that he didn’t think Sumner meant to cast Slidell in a bad light. He also granted Douglas’ version of events.

Wilson continued:

Mr. Sumner was stricken down on this floor by a brutal, murderous, and cowardly assault-

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Andrew Butler, returned from South Carolina to defend his kinsman, broke in here. The Congressional Globe reports that he

impulsively uttered words which Senators advised him were not parliamentary, and he subsequently, at the insistence of Senators, requested that the words might be withdrawn.

Butler admitted he spoke rashly, saying that

I used a word which I hope will not be put down. I have never used an epiphet on this floor, and therefore ask that I may be excused.

Reading that, you might think he speculated about Wilson’s parentage or his sexual inclinations. Wilson recalled what the South Carolinian said in his history of the era, History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in Americapublished in 1874. His words

provoked the exclamation “You are a liar!” from Mr. Butler; although at the request of Senators he immediately withdrew the words.

Directly calling a man a liar, in the Southern code of honor, essentially dared him to admit lying or prove his convictions in a duel. The accusation itself came near to a challenge and so, understandably, Butler’s colleagues talked him down and he at once regretted it. Two days later, an interested party took up Butler’s claim as his own and challenged Henry Wilson to a duel properly: Preston Brooks.

To “record our protest against such a doing”

George Hillard

George Hillard, who has known Charles Sumner for years and once considered him a friend as well as a law partner, condemned Preston Brooks’ caning of his old friend as inhuman and brutal. More than that, and more importantly, he called it cowardly. If Brooks faced Sumner in even terms he would still have transgressed against the respectable mores of Massachusetts gentlemen, but to attack a man unawares made his caning the work of an assassin.

Hillard continued by noting that every man had a duty to come forward, as he and they had, and

record our protest against such a doing, to express our sympathy with our Senator from Massachusetts who has been thus assaulted, and to proclaim to the United States and the world that this is an occasion in which we are able to soar above party distinctions. It is not a gentleman belonging to this or that political party, but it is a man representing Massachusetts, who has been cruelly and brutally assaulted for the honest discharge of what he deems to be his duty, and we have only to say against such doings, we do protest now and all times. (Applause.)

In his own life, Hillard probably felt that pull. He and Sumner hadn’t gotten on in years and retained only a formal remnant of their old friendship. Brooks’ attack took precedence over their personal disagreements, just as it did over Governor Gardner’s differences with Sumner. He represented Massachusetts and that mattered.

Having gone so far, Hillard dialed back:

I hope, in conclusion, that we will not suddenly jump at the inference, that this brutal and cowardly act, is in any degree the expression of public sentiment or sanctioned by the public feeling in any particular section of the country. As yet we have no evidence of it, and let us wait until we have that evidence. I trust we shall not have it

Boston gathered for public indignation on Saturday, May 24. Only two days had passed since the caning. News clearly hadn’t reached Boston of the general delight with which the South greeted received word of Sumner’s plight. Hillard, as a more moderate and less political man than Sumner, might of his own accord approach the question with more circumspection. Doing so before evidence had come in speaks to general prudence and good sense in an era when it could take days for news to travel the country.

“Not first that it was inhuman and brutal, but it was cowardly”

George Hillard

Massachusetts’ Know-Nothing governor, Henry Gardner, had mixed feelings about Sumner’s caning. He condemned it at the public indignation meeting, but left room in his condemnation for anyone who harbored doubts about whether Sumner had gone too far. As a member of a party which positioned itself often as an alternative to antislavery extremism, while retaining some antislavery preferences, he had to thread that needle whatever his private thoughts. Resolutions followed Gardner’s speech, in the same vein as the New York set, but with an additional dig at the congressmen who voted against the House investigatory committee.

George Hillard, a former law partner and friend of Sumner’s who grew apart from him as the latter became more invested in politics, took the stage next. Hillard noted that Sumner’s speech had “strong expressions” but no one called him to order. Therefore, his speech had to be proper. After disclaiming any commitment to pacifism, Hillard got to the meat of it:

the principle that in a civilized community a man may resort to physical violence for the sake of redressing a private wrong, is a doctrine which you and I, and all of us, do most distinctly repudiate, because by adopting or admitting it you render null and void all that has been done by our fathers and mothers to build up this goodly fabric of the State, the highest work of man’s hands.

Hillard had the right of it, by his mores and I hope our own. White Southerners disagreed, but they didn’t attend public indignation meetings in Boston. Sumner’s old partner went on to expound about degrees of culpability in assaults. One could justify, or at least forgive attacks, “made in hot blood” or “under sudden provocation”. Even attacking a person of “notorious violent, manners and deportment” could get a pass.

Brooks did none of that. He couldn’t have acted in the heat of the moment as he “had had at least one sun go down upon his wrath” and against a man who

I can testify, after a friendship of twenty years, is a most amiable, gentle, and kindly man. (Applause.)

Hillard and Sumner hadn’t actually carried on a friendship since the late 1840s, but close enough. He drilled further down, distinguishing Brooks’ assault from “a boxing match”. Men in Massachusetts must still have settled things that way on occasion. He declared such bouts “not a pretty thing to look at” but resolving things that way made one

far nobler or at least less ignoble than the assassin who dogs the steps of his victim in the dark and stabs him in the back. So too the man who comes to me, face to face, at noonday in the street, and tells me he is going to inflict a personal chastisement upon me, there is even in that some little show of fair dealing, of honesty so to speak, even in the very attitude and circumstance of the assault.

If you had to do violence, and Hillard accepted that you sometime might have to, then do it the right way. Stand up and face your foe, don’t skulk around, plot, and strike from surprise. What Brooks did struck Hillard as

a very bad specimen of a very bad school, and the comment I made upon it, was not first that it was inhuman and brutal, but it was cowardly.

The cowardice, mention of which drew applause, stood out to Hillard more than the brutality or inhumanity even in retrospect. He depicted Sumner as, “a man imprisoned, tied hand and foot, so to speak, in an arm-chair and desk” when Brooks struck, “without warning.” That made the South Carolinian an assassin striking a nearly helpless victim. Compared to that Hillard, could commend the “manliness and courage” of someone who met him on the road and whipped him.

 

Governor Gardner on Sumner’s Caning

Henry Gardner (Know-Nothing-MA)

New Yorkers across the political spectrum, from the conservative establishment of the North’s most proslavery city to reformers and radicals, united in condemning Charles Sumner’s caning by Preston Brooks on the floor of the United States Senate. At the city least likely to generate such a response, New York stands out from the crowd. That said, it had a big crowd to stand out from. Sumner’s biographer, David Donald, recounts that

There were not merely rallies in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, not merely in Albany, Cleveland, Detroit, New Haven, Providence, and Rochester, but in Newmarket, New Hampshire, Lockport, New York, Rahway, New Jersey, Berea, Ohio, Burlington, Iowa, and in dozens of other towns.

Preston Brooks had at least briefly united most of the white North, a feat not quite accomplished by the Fugitive Slave Act, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, or all of Bleeding Kansas to date. The outrage naturally united Massachusetts, where a public indignation meeting occupied Faneuil Hal on May 24. Governor Gardner gave the opening speech, wherein he rehearsed familiar themes and then drove into a condemnation of political vitriol:

Gentlemen, I cannot resist this opportunity to say to you that this event, unparalleled heretofore in the history of our country, can perhaps be traced by easy and slow gradations to that habit which is too frequently adopted even in Massachusetts, of unbridled abuse and calumnious insinuations and assaults against the character, purposes, designs and motives of our public men – While I stand here to defend the liberty of speech, I would not have that liberty degenerate into licentiousness. He who strikes into the bosom of an opponent with a dagger, or he who uses a bludgeon upon his head attacks his physical life; but he who uses the dagger of the assassin on the character of a political opponent, or the bludgeon of an untruth upon his reputation, is as bad as the other.

One could hear all that and get the wrong idea. Governor Gardner sounds like a man with more than half a mind to pin this all on Sumner, the martyred victim. The five thousand or so gathered in and around the hall can’t have minded Gardner’s previous pleas to rise above party too much, but just where did he mean to go with the next part? Gardner himself must have realized that, because he immediately dispels the obvious inference:

I can hardly trust myself to speak of this despicable conduct as it deserves. I have read the speech which gave rise to it, and I am constrained to say that in my judgment there is not a pretext for the assault. But whether the words were weighed carefully and were in good taste or not, is not the question. the question is, whether a man from Massachusetts can be indulged with the same latitude that the other sixty senators of Congress are allowed. That is the point for us to consider, and I hesitate not to say that this speech does not surpass many speeches which have been uttered there and gone abroad to the winds, without the first word of complaint against them.

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

The Governor has obvious mixed feelings. The content of Sumner’s speech doesn’t matter, as a matter of principle. On the other hand, nothing in it would justify an attack upon his person. But do remember, character assassination has no place in decent politics. I don’t know what Gardner’s delivery was like, and my report of the speech lacks crowd reaction notes, but he sounds like a man trying to please diverse factions without committing to much to any of them. If you believe Sumner’s speech completely within bounds, you can draw lines out of Gardner to support that. If you believe it outside the limit of good taste, or just minimally acceptable discourse, then Gardner also supports you. Only the position that Sumner really had it coming doesn’t get clear support.

 

“We respectfully await the action of the House of Representatives”

The New York Herald reports on the indignation meeting

New York City’s public indignation meeting got off to a bit of a slow start, despite the packed Tabernacle. The crowd arrived on time, but not the committee and speakers. I don’t know what caused the hold up, but they arrived with a set of resolutions for the multitude to endorse. Those resolutions condemned Preston Brooks’ caning Charles Sumner as an attack upon democratic government, and consequently an attack upon the North in general. Furthermore, as the Southern press and politicians united in endorsing Brooks’ assault they had to understand the caning as retroactively the work of the entire white South. That united the leading men even of a proslavery city like New York. They continued

from no other motive and from no other impute we are called upon to a distinct and unequivocal expression of our feelings and opinions on this important event, in our deep, unchanged and unalterable attachment to the federal constitution and federal Union, we should find abundant reasons for the most earnest solicitude and the most decided action to arouse reflecting, disinterested, and patriotic citizens, in all parts of the country, to a manful and united determination to frown upon and extinguish the first indications of violence and terror as agencies in our political system.

In other words, the people on the speaker’s platform and in the audience understood themselves as often political adversaries. By diverging from their usual alignments they could look like men trying to ride a wave for selfish purposes. The resolutions denied that, casting the caning emphatically as an American matter, not merely one of party sentiment. They had their disagreements, but they staked out a norm that no one should conduct politics as Brooks and his many southern admirers had.

At this point, one might expect a course of action to appear in the resolutions. The meeting articulated the problem and their understanding of it; a remedy forms a next logical step. Here they pulled back just a little,

we respectfully await the action of the House of Representatives in the premises, but we announce, we believe, the universal sentiment of our citizens, as demanding the immediate and unconditional expulsion of Mr. Brooks from their body, as a necessary vindication of their own character.

The meeting did not presume to dictate the House’s course; it merely expressed the universal belief that the House take a certain course of action and kick Preston Brooks out. This double talk can’t have fooled anyone, but given that the resolutions focused so closely on the sanctity of government and the prerogatives of men holding public office, specifically Sumner, an outright order would have been a jarring departure from theme. Customarily, public meetings didn’t dictate to Congress in so many terms. They requested or recommended actions as expressions of their members in the form of petitions, not ultimatums.

The resolutions closed with an order they could make, because it applied only to them. The newspapers should publish the resolutions and send them to New York’s delegation in Congress, where those men should lay them before the House and Senate for proper consideration.

To “firmly and boldly oppose and overthrow any and every set scheme”

The New York Herald reports on the indignation meeting

New Yorkers did not think highly of Preston Brooks’ violent escapade against Charles Sumner’s skull on the floor of the United States Senate. By breaking a cane over Sumner’s head, the South Carolinian attacked the fabric of republican self-government. White men of the North took that as their birthright whatever they thought of the party now claiming republicanism in their name and declaring slavery’s threat to it. In caning the Republican, Brooks also caned the Republic. Furthermore, they could not dismiss the caning as a private affair. Yankees might brawl on occasion, or more often; heated politics didn’t necessarily bother them. That the South appeared united in endorsing Brooks’ conduct elevated the dispute to a higher and ominous plane. They couldn’t dismiss him as a bad apple in light of all that. When Brooks caned the Republic, the whole white South joined in.

Ramping up on that theme, the New Yorkers spoke then for their whole section:

We rejoice to believe and to say that the general community of the free States, by their public men and their public press (with a few base exceptions to prove the honorable rule), and through all the channels of public opinion and public influence do thoroughly denounce, and by word and act will firmly and boldly oppose and overthrow any and every set scheme, system, or principle which avows or upholds violence as a means or mode of affecting political action, or restraining personal freedom, or enforcing servile inequalities among the statesmen or common citizens of this country; that in public questions, where each citizen is the keeper of the rights of his fellow citizens, and each generation holds a solemn trust for its posterity, next to the commission of injustices and violence there is no greater crime against the commonwealth than their permission, with power to prevent them, and their sufferance with a spirit that can feel them.

This said a great deal. Yankees would no longer stand by, complicit, in systems that endorsed violence to suppress political action or restrain personal freedom, whether among statesmen or ordinary white men. The white South practiced just such a system, enforcing censorship of its mails to keep out antislavery material and through the use of violence and intimidation to rout any antislavery whites who happened to live in the slave states. Neither system worked perfectly, and both saw prosecution most aggressively in moments of perceived threat to slavery, but free white men suffered under them all the same.

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

For many antislavery whites, those sins against freedom counted as much for despotism as any offense against blacks. For most, they counted much more. The antislavery movement had its greatest successes not in defending the lives, safety, or freedom of black Americans, but in advocating for white men. Republicans wanted to spread free labor across the West, in lieu of slavery. The free laborers they had in mind had white skin. When black laborers threatened to join them, even as free men, westerners saw fit to pass laws against their presence.

Still, one must take notice. The New Yorkers assembled at the Tabernacle that day came together in the North’s most proslavery city and represented a cross-section of the city’s politics. Antislavery radicals could produce resolutions like this at the drop of a hat. It took a truly extraordinary and unprecedented event to bring in the city’s conservatives. For once, the white community unified against a proslavery attack. If it could happen in New York, it could happen far more easily elsewhere.

Complicity, Honor, and the Choice of Weapons

The New York Herald reports on the indignation meeting

New York’s public indignation meeting, packed wall to wall with angry men, opened up with denunciation of Preston Brooks’ attack on Charles Sumner. In attacking a sitting Senator, in the Senate, and for words said there, the South Carolinian attacked more than one man. He assaulted the entire fabric of constitutional governance. He attacked the republic itself and every self-governing white man who considered himself a right and proper citizen of it. If such a thing went unanswered, the United States could not long endure. Their resolutions continued:

to urge the casual violence of an individual to the disgrace and injury of the community in which he lives, and of the social institutions of that community, is ungenerous and unjust, until it appears that such community approves the act and applauds the actor; but when such concurrence of public sentiment and public action with the particular and personal transaction are manifested on authentic evidence, the private outrage is swallowed up in the public infamy, and the question involved is enlarged to an immense magnitude and importance.

In other words, the people of New York didn’t immediately take this as an assault upon the North at large by the South; they had some sense of proportion. In order to implicate the sections in general, the South would need to show some kind of general approval of Brooks’ course. This could remain a deeply troubling, but isolated incident.

Lawrence Keitt (D-SC)

Then again:

we have witnessed with unmixed astonishment and the deepest regret, the clear, bold exulting espousal of the outrage and justification and honor of its perpetrator, exhibited by Senators and representatives of the Slave States without distinction of party, in their public places, and by the public press without distinction of party in the same portion of our country, and that upon the present state of the evidence, we are forced most unwillingly to the sad conclusion that the general community of the slave States is in complicity, in feeling and principle, with the system of intimidation and violence for the suppression of freedom of speech and of the press, of which the assault on Senator Sumner is the most signal, but not the singular, instance.

I’ve not yet looked at the Southern papers, but the meeting clearly knew of Keitt’s and Edmundson’s involvement; they had an eyewitness on the speaker’s stage that night in the person of Edwin Morgan. He could probably point to Robert Toombs as the guilty senator. Neither of those quite reaches beyond partisan lines, but the South’s two party system had fallen into steep decline by this point. Either way, the endorsement of Southern political leaders all by itself counted for something. One couldn’t dismiss their chosen representatives to the national Congress as irrelevant nobodies. The logic of representative democracy required taking them as proxies for their constituents.

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

They also spoke to a deeper truth about how the sections diverged over the nineteenth century by raising the notion of honor. Cultural developments had loosened the bounds of traditional codes of honor in the North. Once, those codes happily endorsed resenting slights and washing them away with violence. Those times had largely ended north of Maryland, with codes of conduct based on public shame supplanted by those stressing private guilt and self-control.

Traces of the old ways remained, of course, but nothing like they thrived in the South. To white Southern eyes, Brooks repaid Sumner for a grievous slight and acted strictly correctly in doing so. Not to endorse him would have been the greater shame for many. Thought had gone into the assault, after all. Brooks spent a few days carefully looking over the speech and considering options. He did not challenge Sumner because Sumner would never accept a duel. That made him no gentleman to Brooks, if he could ever have qualified anyway, so attacking him fairly and on even terms might even disgrace Brooks. As something less than manly, less than white, Sumner warranted striking like an inferior. The South Carolinian’s first choice of weapon, cowhide, speaks to that. Southerners literally whipped slaves with cowhide, so striking a white man in that way would disgrace him more than anything else. Brooks feared Sumner might get hold of the cowhide, so he opted for the cane also occasionally used to discipline slaves. Pragmatism dictated a slight deviation from perfect symbolism.

Groans for Brooks and Cheers for Sumner

The New York Herald reports on the indignation meeting

The House committee delivered its report on Charles Sumner’s caning on June 2, 1856. They advised that the House expel Preston Brooks for wielding the cane and censure Henry Edmundson and Lawrence Keitt as accessories. The committee took a week to the day from their first business meeting to deliver that report. While they investigated, the American public made up their minds. A public indignation meeting at New York’s Tabernacle drew “tremendous” numbers of who gave “groans for Brooks and cheers for Sumner.” The crowd filled the venue long before its scheduled start, all men “with the exception of one or two” women. The throng “jammed up” the aisles so you couldn’t get in or out. People stood on the backs of seats so they could see the speaker’s platform.

The multitude came in response to this public notice:

The undersigned, in view of the vital necessity of preserving unimpaired freedom of discussion in our national Legislature, the equal rights of the several States therein, and the inviolability of their representatives “for any speech or debate in either house” as guaranteed by the constitution of the United States, all of which have been stricken down by the late assault on the Hon. Charles Sumner

New York understood the caning as Henry Wilson had. A Senator, in the Senate, suffered a physical attack for words spoken there in debate. Brooks broke his cane over Sumner’s head, but in so doing he also broke it over the Constitution, over self-government itself.

Like any good public meeting, this one had resolutions to express the will of the community. They began by

sincerely and respectfully tender[ing] our sympathies to Senator Sumner in the personal outrage inflicted upon him, and the anguish and peril which he has suffered and still suffers from that outrage, and that we feel and proclaim that his grievance and wounds are not of private concern, but were received in the public service; and every blow which fell upon his head we recognize and resent as an insult and injury to our honor and dignity as a people, and a vital attack upon the constitution of the Union.

Here the authors found a vision of popular sovereignty not moored to proslavery politics, unlike that territorial settlement that heralded these woes. The people, or rather the white men, of America ruled. An attack on their representatives constituted an attack on them themselves. What Brooks did to Sumner, he did to all of them by proxy and they would not suffer it in silence.

Furthermore, they made it clear that the concern cut across partisan lines:

we express and imply no opinion on the political merits of the public debate which preceded this occurrence, and make no account whatever of the respective States whose public servants have thus been brought into contact; that Mr. Sumner is a member of the Senate of the United States, and Mr. Brooks a member of the House of Representatives of the United States and we speak our minds as citizens of the United States, comprehending the great and essential elements of public freedom on which our national character and safety depend.

If one could poll the meeting about Sumner’s speech, or about antislavery in general, one might not like the results. New York had close economic and political ties to the South for almost its entire history. New York ships carried most of the cotton to Europe. New York banks financed plantations and wrote loans on slave collateral.

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Brooks assault overcame those concerns. In raising the issues of national character and safety, New York asked if republican government could endure. If it could not, what came next? For years antislavery Americans warned of a proslavery despotism that would rule white men as it did black, bloody lash in hand. The prophecy came true with the Fugitive Slave Act, but most of the suffering extracted through that law still adhered to black Americans. White Americans could generally shift uncomfortably, occasionally exert themselves in rescues, and muddle through. Brooks did something more, something personal. If a proslavery man could attack a Senator in the Senate itself, not only where he should expect safety but where the Constitution guaranteed it, then none of them could hope for it.

 

Asking Permission: Caning Charles Sumner, Part 3

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

Parts 1, 2

Preston Brooks had a rough week. He sat through Charles Sumner insulting slaveholding, South Carolina, and his senatorial relative Andrew Pickens Butler. That filled his Monday. Tuesday brought more of the same, which Brooks may have heard personally as he did the day prior. Wednesday, he staked out the front of the Capitol and waited for Sumner. He wanted an apology (unlikely) or some satisfaction drawn unwillingly from Sumner’s body. He missed Sumner. For a second try, Brooks stationed himself in in the gatehouse. If Sumner came on foot, good enough. Should he come by carriage, Brooks would follow him through the Capitol and confront him before the Bay Stater reached the Senate chamber. Henry Edmundson of Virginia found him there and convinced him that he had a bad plan. Sumner, the larger of the two men, would have an edge over Brooks even if the congressman hadn’t run across the building and up many flights of steps to start with.

Brooks gave it up for the moment and the two went into the building. They parted, with Brooks headed toward the Senate and Edmundson for the House. Edmundson arrived to news that a Missourian congressman named Miller had died. The House, following the custom in such matters, adjourned for the day. Edmundson walked over to the Senate side, where he spotted Brooks “standing in the lobby on the opposite side of the main aisle from where Mr. Sumner was sitting.” Edmundson took a seat and in short order Senator Geyer of Missouri announced Miller’s death and the Senate adjourned too. Edmundson lost track of Brooks for at least a few moments, but caught sight of him again “occupying a seat in the Senate chamber.”

Charles Sumner

Edmundson walked over and asked Brooks if he thought himself a Senator:

He then said to me he would stand this thing no longer; he would send to Mr. Sumner to retire from the chamber. He then got up, and went into the vestibule outside of the chamber with that view. I followed him, and said, that if he sent such a message, Mr. Sumner would probably sent for him to come into the Senate chamber. He seemed to be busy at his desk directing documents, as I supposed; and he would effect nothing by this, he having previously said he did not desire to have an interview with Mr. Sumner while ladies were present.

One lady remained seated in the lobby just then. Furthermore, in an era when Senators had no offices provided save their desks in the chamber, Sumner might remain in his seat for hours on end. The two went back into the chamber and there Edmundson ran into a friend of his, Senator Johnson of Arkansas

to whom I propounded the question, if there would be any impropriety, should an altercation occur between Mr. Brooks and Mr,. Sumner, of its taking place in the Senate chamber, the Senate having adjourned at the time.

I can only imagine how this conversation must have gone: Do you think anyone would mind if Preston here beat up that Senator over there?