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.

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.

 

The Senate Committee’s Verdict

Henry Wilson (R-MA)

The Caning, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10, 11, 1213, 14, 15

The House report on the caning

Henry Wilson got his action, of a sort. He demanded that the Senate do something about Preston Brooks caning Charles Sumner. At first no one rose to take up his suggestion that they form an investigatory committee, but then William Seward introduced a resolution to that effect. After a minor amendment, the Senate approved. The committee went to work sometime thereafter, delivering its report on May 28, six days after the attack.

The committee, unsurprisingly, agreed that Brooks had caned Sumner in response to words Sumner spoke on the floor of the Senate. They opted not to comment on “the various circumstances which preceded and attended this affair.” Instead, they reported looking into precedent. They had to scour the journals of the House of Representatives, as the Senate had no previous occasion to weigh in on such an event. The record held “an assault upon a member for words spoken in debate to be a violation of the privileges of the House.”

James Mason

So Brooks warranted some kind of disciplinary action. There the Senators found a difficulty. His attack upon Sumner “was a breach of the privileges of the Senate” yet “not within the jurisdiction of the Senate, and can only be punished by the House of Representatives, of which Mr. Brooks is a member.”

To support that conclusion, the committee referred to British precedent that made the houses of Parliament equals and independent of one another “in every respect.” As independent equals, neither house could exert authority over the other. Thomas Jefferson agreed in his parliamentary manual, holding that in such occasions the offended chamber should complain to the other or redress. As a member of the House, only the House could judge and punish Brooks.

The Senate might have gotten right on that, at least for the sake of maintaining the forms. The matter came almost to a vote, but then James Mason objected again. He noted

the honorable Senator from South Carolina, [Mr. Butler,] who may feel, and probably does feel, an interest in this matter, is not in his seat. he has not been in the Senate to-day, I believe; I have not seen him. I think it would be better, therefore, to allow it to lie over. I do not know that he has any opinions in relation to it which he desires to express. I merely make the suggestion.

“Several senators” objected to delaying things, at which point Mason gave it up and the Senate agreed to the resolution.

The Senators might have found a way to try and punish Brooks if they wished to; politicians get creative about these things. A committee entirely unfavorable to Sumner, as the Senate elected, would probably not have exerted itself too much to find a solution. Yet on consideration, the problem does strike at the heart of bicameralism. The Constitution establishes two chambers of Congress, each with its own privileges. Those include the power to discipline their own members through use of each chamber’s rules. If the Senate could summon a congressman and punish his misconduct, then it sat as judge over the House.

One might reasonable counter with the argument that Brooks did not commit his crime in the House, but rather on the floor of the Senate. By entering the room, he entered their jurisdiction and had to abide by their rules. If Senate rules could regulate the behavior spectators in the gallery, as they did and do, then they clearly didn’t reach just Senators and those employed by the chamber as aides and officers. A Congressman might easily fall under them.

The committee found otherwise, but by referring the matter to the House and its antislavery coalition majority the Senators also knew the likely result. In relying on constitutional propriety to wash their own hands of Brooks, they probably expected that the House would find some way to handle him.

The Senate’s Committee

Henry Wilson (R-MA)

The Caning, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10, 11, 1213, 14, 15

The House report on the caning

The day after Preston Brooks broke his cane over Charles Sumner’s head and left the Senator covered in his own blood, Henry Wilson got up and demanded that the Senate take “prompt and decisive action.” They had to do something, lest another Brooks come along. If Senators, in the chamber itself and for things they said in debate, faced mortal danger then democracy could not long endure. The afternoon previous, while Sumner lay blooded in his bed, the GOP caucus met and discussed strategy. They thought it best not to make a party issue of the attack and that the Massachusetts delegation ought not lead an investigation. Thus Wilson looked to the Senate in general for a solution, rising for the first substantive business on May 23, 1856. He concluded:

Senators, I have called your attention to this transaction. I submit no motion. I leave it to older Senators, whose character-whose position in this body, and before the country, eminently fit them for the task of devising measures to redress the wrongs of a member of this body, and to vindicate the honor and dignity of the Senate.

In other words, Wilson understood -or his Republican colleagues understood and convinced him- that if the GOP took a prominent role in this then it would look like a partisan affair. Proslavery men could charge that Republicans wanted revenge on Sumner’s behalf, not justice or fair inquiry. By deferring to elder Senators, Wilson sought to depoliticize the chamber’s response. Senators should view themselves as Senators and Americans first, acting with a view to the sacred prerogatives and safeguarding democracy.

Such a considered plea, complete with deference to the elder men of the Senate, drew out from every Senator in the chamber an eloquent silence. No one would stand up for Sumner. The presiding officer waited a decent amount of time and then began to move on.

Senator William H. Seward (R-NY)

William Seward cut him off mid-sentence and offered a resolution. Neither the Congressional Globe nor Sumner’s biographer give any insight on whether Seward delayed for effect, out of his own doubts, or in hopes that someone, anyone, else would step forward. No one did, so he submitted a resolution:

That a committee of five members be appointed by the President [of the Senate] to inquire into the circumstances attending the assault committed on the person of the Hon. Charles Sumner, a member of the Senate, and in the Senate chamber yesterday; and that the said committee be instructed to report a statement of the facts, together with their opinion thereon, to the Senate.

That required unanimous consent. James Mason of Virginia rose to object, though he said he didn’t do so on the general principle of things. He merely preferred that Seward revise his resolution so that the Senate would elect the committee. Seward accepted and the Senate assented and the election took place at once. Lewis Cass, Phillip Allen, Augustus Caesar Dodge, Henry Geyer, and James Pearce won the spots, with Seward coming in sixth. Henry Wilson received one vote, probably his own. The committee included no Republicans, but did include Cass despite Sumner going after him in The Crime Against KansasGeyer and Pearce both hailed from slave states, Missouri and Maryland respectively, and Dodge had a career as a friend to popular sovereignty.

Lewis Cass (D-MI)

Cass objected. He asked Senators before the vote not to support him and very much did not want to chair the committee, as “the task would impose too much labor, and I am old.” The presiding officer informed Cass that committees chose their own chairmen, which he must have known, and then further that since he had the fewest votes in the Senate they would probably not choose him anyway. Cass griped once more about being elected and let the matter drop.

Wilson would have some kind of action, but nothing about the composition of the committee could have encouraged him to expect satisfaction.

“If he did not apologize, to punish him” Caning Charles Sumner, Part 1

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

We left Charles Sumner on May 20, 1856. He finished his Crime Against Kansas speech, then heard the immediate responses and gave his response to the responses. The Senate called it a day. During Sumner’s second round of speaking, Henry Wilson got word that people might attack his fellow Bay State senator. He went about assembling a small bodyguard to walk Sumner home, but Sumner blew them off. Wilson neglected to explain that he knew of danger when he asked Sumner to wait up, for reasons he doesn’t go into. He may have thought it too obvious to state or expected that a social request from a colleague would suffice. Instead Sumner ducked out a side door and left his bodyguards aspirant behind. It took them a while to realize he had truly gone. By then Sumner had overtaken William Seward, who wanted to share an omnibus with him. They had dinner plans, but Sumner needed to get to the printer and check the proofs for his speech, planned for release as a pamphlet.

Sumner took two days for his speech, beginning on Monday, the nineteenth. Spectators packed the galleries that day, including members of the House. Preston Brooks, one of the latter and a relative of Andrew Butler’s, attended at least the first day. He might also have watched the second, though it seems that he didn’t hear the entire speech straight from Sumner’s lips. Brooks, never a proslavery firebrand but as ardent in his loathing of antislavery men as any white South Carolinian, decided that Sumner insulted South Carolina and Butler so Sumner had to pay the price.

Brooks himself doesn’t offer much information about what he did between hearing Sumner and the caning that made him famous, but his encounters with a Virginian congressman, Henry Edmundson give an idea. Testifying later to the House committee tasked with investigating the affair, Edmundson said that he didn’t know anything of Brooks’ intentions except from congressional gossip on the twentieth. The next morning, the twenty-first, Edumndson saw Brooks loitering about on the steps into the Capitol.

I accosted him, saying, “You are going the wrong way for the discharge of your duties.” He [Brooks] asked me to walk with him. I did so. He then told me Mr. Sumner had been very insulting to his State, and that he had determined to punish him unless he made an ample apology.

The two sat down and talked for a while. Brooks wanted Edmundson “to take no part” in any difficulty, save to serve as a witness, unless if Sumner came along with friends. Edmundson could probably see where this all would go -a southern man of the era wouldn’t have required detailed explanations of such things- but asked just what Brooks expected to do anyway. Brooks

replied it was to call upon Mr. Sumner for the insulting language used towards his State; and if he did not apologize, to punish him.

Brooks sounded off about how southern men needed to stop putting up with “this coarse abuse used by the Abolitionists.” Brooks felt that to represent South Carolina properly, he couldn’t suffer such words in silence. He dwelled on Sumner’s premeditated rhetoric, as Douglas had, and the two sat together until twelve thirty. Like with his bodyguards, Sumner eluded them.

“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.

More Hot Water for Charles Sumner

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Charles Sumner had a rough time of it from the summer of 1854. His party lost control of Massachusetts. The architect of the coalition that elected him defected to the Know-Nothings and then swept the state. He tried to get away from it all, and escape aligning himself with the nativists, with a vacation and managed to flip his carriage. But things did improve for him in the fall. The Know-Nothings lost the Virginia governor’s race, which gave hope that anti-immigrant, anti-catholic paranoia would not form the seed of a durable movement. The phenomenal showing in the Massachusetts legislature, where the Know-Nothings had almost unanimity, stumbled under the burden of amateur legislators and an investigation of the state’s Catholic religious institutions. By summer of 1855, Charles Adams thought that denouncing the nativists now would look like a desperate attempt to jump on the bandwagon.

Henry Wilson, who had gone over to the natvists for a shot at the Senate, promptly came back and set to forming a new coalition on strictly antislavery lines. The Know-Nothing governor would take support from anywhere and signed on. Wilson reached out to Robert Winthrop and his conservative Whigs. Throw in disorganized Know-Nothings, anti-Nebraska Democrats, and together they could all join the Republicans. All that might put Sumner in a bind. Governor Gardner obviously didn’t deserve his trust. Wilson promised Winthrop something substantial for joining. That could mean Sumner’s head. Then again, if the fusion plan failed then Sumner remained without party support back home.

Sumner’s enemies might have saved him. Winthrop’s Boston Whiggery sat out the planned convention out of distrust for the Senator and Wilson. That left Wilson with no one to support in the Senate except Sumner, who he endorsed for re-election when the time came. The convention kept nativism out of its platform and opted to support a new governor rather than the Know-Nothing incumbent. Gardner in turn quit his flirtation with the Republicans and ran as a pure Know-Nothing. The realignment shook out so that all the antislavery men lined up in the Republicans and the Know-Nothings boasted only old line Whigs. That left Sumner free to campaign for the Republicans and denounce the Know-Nothings without harming his own support.

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

The new alignment closely matched the old, Free Soilers back again with a few more Whigs in attendance. Bay State voters noticed and repeated their lack of enthusiasm. The Know-Nothings increased the pressure by asking for Sumner and Wilson’s resignations. If they didn’t oblige, then the legislature might instruct them out of office. That meant delivering binding instructions to the senators with which they couldn’t easily comply, essentially forcing their resignation. Failing that, they might even just elect two new senators and send them on. Gardner liked himself for the job.

Sumner tried to revive his prospects by close attention to constituent services and the usual quest to secure federal dollars for projects back home, to little avail. He struggled to find a publisher for a collection of his speeches, with printers informing him that the book had little potential unless they could say it included the Senator’s last oration. With nothing else working, he had to resume his attacks upon slavery.

 

Without a Party Again

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Incensed at Charles Sumner’s refusal to play the part of slave-catcher, a task they believed assigned to him by the Constitution, Southern Senators plotted his expulsion from the Senate. His emergence as a competent debate partner helped turn his oratorical achievements into something far more menacing and he had to go. Alas, a quick canvass showed they lacked the necessary votes. The proslavery men would just have to put up with Sumner until his term ran out.

In the tumult of the Whig party’s slow collapse and the coalescence of the Republicans, Sumner ought to have played a leading role; he certainly hoped to do so and intended to play a large part in the fall campaigns. But many Whigs even in Massachusetts disliked the Kansas-Nebraska Act and Sumner’s extremism alike. Persistent factionalism in Massachusetts antislavery circles did its work, helped along by Henry Wilson. Wilson had orchestrated the coalition with the Democracy, which now stood in ruins. He had a reputation as a plotter and soon lived up to it. The Massachusetts GOP put on a poor campaign because Wilson betrayed it.

Wilson joined the nativist Know-Nothings, who kept their proceedings secret, and his people supported their man for governor. For that support, Wilson had a promise that he would go to Washington as Sumner’s colleague. The Know-Nothings promised a single issue party opposed to Catholicism and immigration and their ticket swept Massachusetts. The new legislature would have one each of Whigs, Democrats, and Republicans. All the rest hailed from the nativists.

Sumner, like any Massachusetts politician of the day, knew of his state’s anti-immigrant bent. The press of Irishmen into the factories transformed the demographics of Boston in just a decade. Many of his antislavery colleagues harbored nativist sentiment and the sense that the Bay State changed for the worse under the ministrations of foreign elements, whether the alliance of Massachusetts textile magnates and the Slave Power or the new immigrants, permeated political discourse. Disgusted by the development, Sumner discussed building an antislavery party clean of such elements.

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

For once Sumner kept his beliefs largely to himself and a tight circle of intimates. Know-Nothing power in Massachusetts looked too strong to permit an open challenge. He explained the success of nativism entirely by citing dissatisfaction with the old parties. Even in private correspondence, he took care not to get on the wrong side of the movement. A more venal sort might have rushed to head the new movement, living up to the belief of his enemies that Sumner cared only for his own position. Instead Sumner delayed and kept silent, which precluded assuming any kind of leadership role. In less than a year, Sumner had gone from a politician with no support back home and a dubious future to a favored son and back again.

Without a party, again, and with no clear way forward, Sumner decided on a trip to the West. There he saw slavery firsthand, including an auction and the beating of children. He went as far as St. Louis, then up the Mississippi to Minnesota. Along the way, his carriage caught on a fence and flew up into the air. It landed on Sumner, but he suffered no worse than a bad bruising.

Trouble for Sumner in Massachusetts

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

The session of Congress ended shortly after Sumner finished his Freedom National speech. He took his congratulations and condemnations from the Senate and eagerly passed the former on to correspondents back home, then set out in his letters’ wake. The conservative Bay State papers refused to print the oration, but Massachusetts read it in papers friendly to the Free Soil party and antislavery cause, as well as in pamphlets. They burned through five editions in short order. Sumner found himself restored to the good graces of his party, to the point that they staged a rally outside his house.

That didn’t last. Sumner endured a long session in Washington and wanted a vacation. He expected to dine with friends, going to off to Rhode Island and up into Canada, and generally enjoying the easy life for three months. The Free Soilers had elections coming up and they expected their hero to wear smooth as many stumps as Massachusetts could turn up for him. Supporters griped that he came home and vanished, doing nothing to help the party aside from a brief convention appearance. When the elections returned the Whigs to control of the State, Sumner took a share of the blame for his silence.

Sumner would endure the same pattern for years. He fought hard in Washington, or as hard as he felt he could, then returned to a Massachusetts that expected more of him on the home front. The more he did in the Senate, the more he obviously could do and so the more he should do for the Bay State. All through this, he believed that his speeches did the job just fine and his party should not ask more of him. They elected an orator, not a machine politician.

Henry Wilson (Free Soil-MA)

The party thought otherwise, and probably couldn’t do less. Sumner’s position as a leader in the creaky coalition could only draw distrust from many quarters. Whigs hated him as a traitor and took his antislavery speeches as the venal acts of an unregenerate office-seeker. Anti-coalition Democrats thought much the same, but also took him as an abolition fanatic. The men more properly construed abolition fanatics, for all we admire them, disliked Sumner for his failure to meet their standards of purity. Furthermore, Sumner’s personal friends included anti-coalition Whigs who kept trying to oust Henry Wilson so the pro-coalition element around him could never quite trust the Senator either.

The next Senate session brought little to relieve Sumner of the problem. He fought the acquisition of Cuba, but those battles took place in closed sessions. Democrats and Whigs agreed that Sumner belonged to no party, so he deserved no committee postings where he could at least look busy. At home the abolitionists decided that Sumner’s embrace of the Constitution made him toxic. The Massachusetts legislature introduced resolutions to protest his exclusion from committee work, but the coalition dropped them because he hadn’t done enough to earn the party’s defense.