“A miserable Abolition trick”

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

We left Charles Sumner coming into the first week after his caning. He had appeared on the rebound, but infection took its tool and doctors now advised him to convalesce for some further time. He gave his statement to the House committee and the physicians drained his wound. This takes us to May 27. He had a visit from Joshua Giddings later on, who found him in good spirits. That night, Sumner took a turn for the worse.

At this point, George Sumner fired Dr. Boyle. That decision mixed reviews. Southerners would argue that Sumner’s brother learned that Boyle’s testimony minimized the Senator’s wounds and canned him in retaliation. George maintained that Boyle simply hadn’t done a good job and claimed he decided before the testimony reached him. From that point Marshall Perry took full charge, calling in a Dr. Harvey Lindsly of Washington to consult. Perry and the new doctor agreed that Sumner’s wound ought to keep draining, which further relieved Sumner’s suffering. He suffered from emotional turbulence previously, which the sources available to me make it hard to parse. By the twenty-ninth, the one week anniversary, George could write Sumner’s friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that they had come through the worse.

For two weeks, Sumner remained “very weak” and suffered a fever that kept him in bed most of the time. He lost weight and spent many a sleepless night. A physician that Sumner’s biographer consulted suspected that the infected wound gave Sumner a dose of anemia. But as the time wore on, Sumner complained less of pain specifically from his wounds. Instead he had more general pain in the back of his head and “a feeling of oppressive weight or pressure on the brain” like “a 56-pounds weight.” He also had weakness in the small of his back, which made walking difficult.

Joshua Giddings (R-OH)

Naturally, Southern newspapers decide Sumner suffered little and now milked it for all he could. The Richmond Whig explained to its readers on May 31 that

we never believed that Sumner was sufficiently hurt to make it necessary for him to take to his bed at all. Least of all do we believe that the well-deserved gutta-perching he received was so severe a character as to detain him in confinement for more than a week. But we believe it is a miserable Abolition trick from beginning to end-resorted to to keep alive and diffuse and strengthen the sympathy awakened for him among his confederates at the North. Nigger-worshipping fanatics of the male gender, and weak-minded women and silly children, are horribly affected at the thought of blood oozing out from a pin-scratch. And Sumner is wily politician enough to take advantage of this little fact.

I’m sorry; that is the word the Whig chose to print.

The paper went on to advise that the Senate dispatch a lone Southerner to see Sumner’s real condition. The site of “a hundredth part of a Southern man” would get Sumner out of his bed and maybe on a walk all the way to Boston.

“I think he is not out of danger”

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Dr. Marshall Perry didn’t quite share Cornelius Boyle’s sanguine attitude about Charles Sumner’s head wounds. He came down from Boston and saw that one had not really closed and felt “pulpy.” He advised Sumner to stay in bed and rest. Still, he believed the Senator would recover smoothly and soon.  That takes us to Sunday, May 25.

Perry told the House Committee that Sumner appeared “very comfortable” on the afternoon of the twenty-seventh but

Still, his nervous system has received such a shock that I told him he should be very careful, or reaction would come on. I did not consider, and I so told him, that he had come to the crisis. […] He had a very hot skin-was in a very excitable condition.

Perry’s news can’t have helped Sumner’s excitable condition. He complained to the doctor of

a very uncomfortable night-great pain in the back of his head, especially. The glands on the back of his neck were beginning to swell. He was quite feverish through the night.

Sumner called for Dr. Boyle as well as Perry. Since Perry didn’t consider himself Sumner’s proper doctor, he let Boyle make the decisions. Before Sumner had his very uncomfortable night, Boyle “applied collodion, which prevented the escape of pus.” Now finding him “very nervous and excited,” with a high pulse and temperature as well as pain in the back of his head, the two physicians opened the wound.

there was about a table-spoonful of pus discharged, which had gathered under the scalp. Of course he was very much relieved from the extreme suffering he had had during the night. What the result of this state of things will be it is impossible for me to say; but I think he is not out of danger.

It bears noting that all this happened long before antibiotics. When someone got an infection, as Sumner had, doctors could do little to directly fight it. Perry believed that Sumner had gotten to “the critical period” with his system producing a delayed reaction to the trauma. He told the committee that he believed Dr. Boyle acted properly in treating the Senator, but the infection remained a possibly mortal danger to him. Perry would not recommend that Sumner leave his room for any reason in his present state.

Boyle, recalled for an update, confirmed Perry’s account of Sumner’s wounds and their treatment. The patch that kept the pus in the one, he described as “a solution of gun cotton and chloroform”. Once they took that off and let the injury drain, Sumner felt much better. Boyle didn’t contradict Perry’s opinion of the Senator’s infirmity, but he told the committee that he ordered no medication safe “Congress water” and “five grains of Dover’s powders every three hours”. Boyle proscribed both “just to allay the excitement.”

These sound more like palliatives than attempted cures, which would square with Boyle thinking Sumner well on the mend. Perry thought otherwise, but he also endorsed Boyle’s course of treatment. Both men clearly think Sumner needs to take it easy, even if they might differ on how much so.

“I look upon them simply as flesh wounds.”

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Having gone around with Southerners and Northerners of various stripes, we ought to come back to Charles Sumner himself. We left him in his bed, marveling that such a thing as his caning could happen. Dr. Cornelius Boyle, who stitched Sumner up just outside the Senate chamber, called on him at home an hour thereafter. Boyle told the House committee that the bleeding stopped as soon as he closed the wounds. On his housecall, he found Sumner “doing very well.”

Howell Cobb asked Boyle’s impression of Sumner’s injuries:

I look upon them simply as flesh wounds.

Another member, unnamed in the report, pressed on the point and Boyle repeated himself. Not quite satisfied, the committee asked how long Sumner would likely convalesce:

His wounds do not necessarily confine him one moment. He would have come to the Senate on Friday, if I had recommended it. […] He could have come with safety, as far as the wounds were concerned.

Yet Sumner did not appear. Boyle told the committee that friends advised Sumner not to turn out the following Monday. The committee asked if any doctors gave advice contrary to Boyle’s. The doctor didn’t know of any and blamed Sumner’s continued absence on his many non-medical friends, who fussed after the Senator and convinced him that he had a fever.

Sumner’s brother George, who came down from Massachusetts in a hurry, stands prominent in Boyle’s testimony. Nevermind the doctor’s twice daily visits, George Sumner

said he ought not to come out, and cited a great many cases that had come under his observation in Paris, where death had taken place in six weeks from blows of the head. His brother is not a medical man.

True enough, Boyle advised Sumner against going to the Senate on Friday. The very next day from the caning, he believed Sumner physically capable but appearance unwise “on account of the excitement.” But really, Sumner could have gotten in a carriage and gone to Baltimore. He could have stuck a hat on his maimed head, even. By this point the committee seem suspicious, inquiring about Boyle’s political inclinations. He declared himself “an old-line Whig” and that his politics did not dictate how he treated patients.

It does sound, on the balance, like Sumner bounced back in the initial few days after the caning. He might not have quite reached the level of vigor that Boyle expected, and remained mostly in bed, but Sumner didn’t visibly get worse. A rich Republican, George L. Stearns, dispatched Dr. Marshall S. Perry from Boston to ensure his Senator got the beast treatment. Boyle must either have not known of Perry or not known of his medical education. The Massachusetts doctor arrived on May 25 and discovered one of the wounds healed. The other still looked loose and he detected “a pulpy feeling”. Perry advised Sumner to keep quiet and rest.

Brooks in the Southern Press

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

Yesterday we heard what ordinary Southerners, in the persons of Preston Brooks’ constituents, and Southern Senators thought of his caning Charles Sumner. For good measure, honorary Southerner James Buchanan chimed in. However, one might expect the Washingtonian sectional elite and the people who elected Brooks to go all-in for him. For that matter, any time James Buchanan fails to shamelessly do slavery’s bidding we should probably assume he made a mistake and regretted it intensely. To get a better sense of the general reaction, we should look more broadly.

South Carolina, as one must expect, responded with delight. According to a letter in Sumner’s Works,

the Charlestonians have subscribed ten cents each and bought a splendid cane, with the words ‘Hit him again‘ engraved on the head; and if Mr. Sumner troubles South Carolina or Mr. Brooks again, he will get something engraved on his head which will be very apt to make him a grave subject.

Nineteenth century Americans of both sections loved their public meetings. Just as in the North, they convened to express themselves on the issue. The men of Martin’s Depot, South Carolina, resolved that

if Northern fanatics will persist in meddling with our private institutions, we deem it expedient that Southern members should reply to them by the use of gutta-percha.

Brooks’ own constituents got into the act with a resolution to give him a cane of their own, inscribed “Use knock-down arguments” on the grounds that nothing else would work on “a perverted mind and degenerate race.”

Of course one must also expect proslavery radicalism from South Carolina. Virginia, like every other state in the Union, had a less radical reputation on such things. The Richmond Enquirer gives the example of the University of Virginia:

Some very eloquent speeches were delivered, all of which fully approved the course of Mr Brooks, and the resolution was passed to purchase for Mr. Brooks a splendid cane. The cane is to have a heavy gold head, which will be suitably inscribed, and also bear upon it a device of the human head, badly cracked and broken.

The Richmond Examiner declared that

the precedent of Brooks vs. Sumner will become a respected authority at Washington. It will be a ‘leading case,’ as it clearly defines the distinction between the liberty of speech as guarantied to the respectable American Senator and that scandalous abuse of it by such men as Charles Sumner.

The Examiner spoke to a broader truth. White Southerners fundamentally did not believe that antislavery speech was acceptable. They spent decades fighting against it in their own borders, both by censoring the mails and extralegal vigilance against suspected dissenters. Their demands sometimes reached into the North, as when Calhoun demanded censorship even of Yankee mails. He didn’t get that, but calls to do something about antislavery groups remained a staple of Southern grievance.

The Enquirer agreed on the point the next week, saying

Sumner and Sumner’s friends must be punished and silenced. Government which cannot suppress such crimes as theirs has failed of its purpose. Either such wretches must be hung or put in the penitentiary, or the South should prepare at once to quit the Union.

Henry Wilson (R-MA)

A few days later, the same paper called for giving Sumner thirty-nine licks a day and suggested

There is the blackguard Wilson, an ignorant Natick cobbler, swaggering in excess of muscle, and absolutely dying for a beating. Will not somebody take him in hand? Hale is another huge, red-faced, sweating scoundrel, whom some gentleman should kick and cuff until he abates something of his impudent talk.

Wilson, of course, had a challenge from Brooks. John Hale served as a villain for proslavery men for near to a decade by this point. Now that someone had broken the ice by breaking a cane, Southerners lined up cheering for sequels like studio executives with a runaway summer blockbuster on their hands.

Southerners Weigh in on Brooks

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

In following the aftermath of Charles Sumner’s caning by Preston Brooks, we have largely focused on northerners. As those posts went up, I searched for Southern defenses of Brooks. Andrew Butler made a speech on his behalf, but as a directly interested party he makes a poor substitute for a sectional response. His kinsman caned Sumner on his behalf. Robert Toombs’ after the fact approval and John Slidell’s obvious indifference speak better to a sectional attitude.

To them we could add James Mason. Preston Brooks’ constituents planned to throw him a celebratory dinner to express “their complete indorsement of his Congressional course”. The authors didn’t necessarily mean for politicians to accept their invitations. Rather they wrote to get back a public letter on a subject. Mason obliged, his letter appearing in the fifth volume of Sumner’s Works:

He [Brooks] has shown himself alike able and prompt to sustain the rights and interests of his constituents in debate and by vote, or to vindicate in a different mode, and under circumstances of painful duty, the honor of his friend. I would gladly, therefore, unite with you were it in my power, in the testimonial proposed by his generous constituents

For the same occasion, Brooks’ supporter back home invited the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis. He wrote back

It would give me much pleasure, on any occasion, to meet you, fellow-citizens of the Fourth District of South Carolina; and the gratification would be materially heightened by the opportunity to witness their approbation of a Representative whom I hold in such high regard and esteem. […] I have only to express to you my sympathy with the feeling which prompts the sons of Carolina to welcome the return of a brother who has been the subject of vilification, misrepresentation, and persecution, because he resented a libellous assault upon the reputation of their mother.

Clearly, Brooks had many Senatorial friends and admirers. They include some of the most powerful men in the nation, who could easily have ignored invitations from his constituents or responded without speaking to the substance of their invitation. The editorial notes in Sumner’s Works waste no time pointing out that Toombs, Slidell, Mason, and of course Davis spent the first half of the 1860s in the Confederate government.

The editors also found a less Southern man, geographically if not politically, to say a few kind words for Brooks. Then running for president, James Buchanan attended a college graduation in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. One of the students gave an anti-Brooks speech to enthusiastic applause. The student sat down next to Buchanan, who corrected him loudly enough for the whole room to hear:

My young friend, you look upon the dark side of the picture. Mr. Sumner’s speech was the most vulgar tirade of abuse ever delivered in a deliberative body.

James Buchanan

The student protested. Surely the Old Public Functionary didn’t approve of what happened? Buchanan answered:

Mr. Brooks was inconsiderate, but that Senator Butler was a mild man.

The next President of the United States didn’t go all the way out and say Sumner had it coming, but he tried. Dismissing a dangerous attack on a sitting Senator as “inconsiderate” and expressing his sympathy for Butler spoke volumes. It also fit neatly with Buchanan’s long career of being thoroughly inclined to do a solid for any proslavery man who happened along.


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.


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.”