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.


“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.

“The noisome, squat, and nameless animal” Sumner Answers Douglas

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

Having dispensed with Lewis Cass’ response to him, Charles Sumner moved on to his main target. Stephen Douglas said many things about the Massachusetts Senator that Sumner cared to answer. In the course of doing so, he even went into the Congressional Globe to quote old debates. Where Sumner had a historical argument with Cass, at least in the main, he had a principled and personal one with Douglas, who he called “a common scold.”  He told the Senate that he would shrug off the personal baggage and let the Little Giant have the last word, except that Douglas

has crowned the audacity of this debate by venturing in rise here and calumniate me. He has said that I came here, took an oath to support the Constitution, and yet determined not to support a particular clause in that Constitution.

Sumner gave that “the flattest denial.” Andrew Butler tried that argument too, claiming that Sumner declared against the Constitution by saying he would not render over a fugitive slave. Sumner had made that avowal and wouldn’t deny it, but argued as he had before

that as I understand the Constitution, this clause does not impose upon me, as a senator or citizen, any obligation to take part, directly or indirectly, in the surrender of a fugitive slave.

That sounds like a point that a bad stereotype of a lawyer would make, a distinction without difference used to hide a multitude of sins. In reading Sumner’s defense again, I realized that he has the right of it. The Fugitive Slave Act that James Mason wrote and the Congress passed in late 1850 did that work and Southerners wanted a similar provision in the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act. They didn’t get it then, but the decades made their dreams come true. Sumner protested the very obligation that made the law so odious in the North. Many who thought little either way about slavery or who loathed antislavery politics still had qualms about seeing an innocent person hunted down and hauled back from their communities. Antislavery whites may have enjoyed their greatest popularity, at least before the middle 1850s, when they aided fugitives in escaping.

Stephen Douglas

The individual obligation vs. Constitutional duty point remains a technical one, but it has substance to it. Mason, who drafted the law, could not have missed that no obligation to ordinary people in the North existed before he wrote one into the statute books. If he believed otherwise, he could have saved some ink and much effort. A state might have some obligation to render fugitives up, but not a random person on the street. As Sumner held a United States Senate seat, he did not count as part of his state’s government. Thus, the Fugitive Slave Clause did not apply to him, even if the Fugitive Slave Act did.

Sumner then complained of Douglas’ personal insults, which must have struck the Senate as a bit rich. He further lectured Douglas on how he should remain

above the intemperance of youth, and from character to be above the gusts of vulgarity. […] let him remember hereafter that the bowie-knife and the bludgeon are not the proper emblems of senatorial debate.

He went on in that vein for a long paragraph, finally working himself up to “no person with the upright form of a man can be allowed-” And there Sumner stopped. Douglas told him “Say it.”

no person with the upright form of a man can be allowed, without violation of all decency, to switch out from his tongue the perpetual stench of offensive personality. Sir, that is not a proper weapon of debate, at least, on this floor. The noisome, squat, and nameless animal, to which I now refer, is not a proper model for an American Senator.

James Mason and the Slave Power

Stephen Douglas

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

After Stephen Douglas finished castigating Charles Sumner for The Crime Against Kansas, James Mason took his turn. Sumner didn’t get personal with Mason quite like he did with the absent Andrew Butler, but the Massachusetts senator singled out the Fugitive Slave Act for particular scorn on every occasion. Mason wrote the law.

The Virginian began with now familiar complaints about Sumner’s incivility, then centered his objections on Sumner’s believe in the Slave Power. That conspiracy of Southerners and turncoat Yankees dominated the Union, as Sumner had it. Others argued much the same. Mason’s objection began with a lack of clear definitions. What did Sumner mean by slave power, if he never explained it? Where did its great might come from?

It is not the wealth of the slaveholding States, for the Senator from Massachusetts himself, by an extravagance of speech, declared here yesterday, that, the productive industry of his own small State was greater than the whole cotton-growing labor of the South.

If the South couldn’t buy and sell the North, then whence came its power? Mason dismissed numbers, because the slave states lacked a majority in the House and Senate alike. If not money or numbers, then what?

If there be any slave power exerting an influence upon the counsels of this country, it is that moral power diffused through the world, acknowledged everywhere, and to which kings and potentates bow-it is the moral power of truth; adherence to the obligations of honor, and the dispensation of those charities of life that ennoble the nature of man. That is the moral power which the Senator ascribes to the institution of slavery.

Mason had the truth of it closer than he or Sumner might care to admit, if for the opposite reasons. The disproportionate power of the slave states come in part from the anti-democratic nature of the American Constitution, which we struggle with still. It granted them strength beyond their number, then added more on top to help protect slavery specifically. But the moral power in those obligations of honor came down to the steadfast unity of most of the South, most of the time, in slavery’s defense. Even shy of a numerical majority, the slave states formed a plurality interest of vast influence. Many northerners objected to slavery in the abstract or in principle, but even into the Civil War they didn’t view its eradication as a civilization-defining trait. The South, by contrast, understood slavery as the ultimate, indispensible foundation of civilization.

“Exhausting all the epithets in the English language” Douglas Answers Sumner, Part 4

Stephen Douglas

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

Stephen Douglas felt insulted, on account of all the insults Charles Sumner threw his way. He inveighed against Sumner as a hypocrite, a man who claimed to follow and defend the Constitution but refused to cooperate in surrendering fugitive slaves. He damned Sumner as a vulgarian. He laid into the senator all the more so for doing this all in a calculating, practiced way. Sumner wrote his insults down, memorized them, and practiced their delivery. Most senators wrote their speeches in advance and might have had a dry run or two, but more commonly they read their speeches to the chamber. Sumner went the extra mile and performed his.

Douglas took all that personally, but he also spoke up for the aggrieved Andrew Butler. Butler came under Sumner’s withering attack for his proslavery politics, fair enough, but also for his stroke-induced speech impediment. Sumner lacked the courtesy to deliver that insult to Butler’s face, instead speaking while he was away from the Senate. When Douglas came to that point, James Mason interjected. The author of the Fugitive Slave Act insisted that Sumner took advantage of the absence. The craven would never have mocked Butler’s disability to his face.

Douglas thought otherwise:

I think the speech was written and practiced, and the gestures fixed; and, if that part had been stricken out, the Senator would not have known how to repeat the speech.

The Senate laughed, but considering how much Sumner memorized, he may have had the right of it. Long orations develop a momentum all their own. Skipping around or over some content might have thrown Sumner badly off. Also Sumner seems like the kind of person who would have insulted Butler to his face if the occasion required it. He could charm people, but Sumner had convictions not easily shaken by social convention.

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Douglas went on, telling the Senate that everyone there loved Andrew Butler. No one would stand up for Sumner’s insulting of their old friend. Douglas averred that they all felt the same outrage on his behalf. But Butler would come back and give his own answer, so Douglas left it to him. When that happened, the Little Giant knew

The Senator from Massachusetts will go to him, whisper a secret apology in his ear, and ask him to accept that as satisfaction for a public outrage on his character. I know how the Senator from Massachusetts is in the habit of doing those things. I have had some experience of his skill in this respect.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Maybe Douglas did and Sumner had made up with him in private before, but it sounds unlike him. Douglas decided to construe Sumner’s Latin as vulgar without any textual basis, so he didn’t consider himself above inventing things on the point. Then he pronounced himself offended on behalf of David Rice Atchison, “a gentleman and an honest man.” In that tirade,

exhausting all the epithets in the English language, the Senator went off to the Latin, to see if he could not find more of them there

Sumner neglected many words as familiar to him as to us, but within the bounds of nineteenth century etiquette and Senatorial standards, he did go far. Between mocking Butler’s disability and implying sexual impropriety with slaves, Sumner went straight to the gutter.


“This last appeal,” The Crime Against Kansas, Part 15

Charles Sumner (Republican-MA)

Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14Full text

Charles Sumner told the Senate that they could deny Kansas’ free state movement its statehood only by bastardizing Michigan’s. Both states had wildcat constitutions and state governments that presented themselves to Congress and asked admission to the Union. If Michigan could come in to general approval, pending the revision of some boundary disputes, when why not Kansas? Nobody held it against Michigan that the state colored outside the lines a little bit, so any reasonable person could see that admitting the Topeka government as Kansas would come and go to no great harm. By contrast, denying it cast doubt on the wisdom of admitting the Wolverine State.

Sumner moved on to argue from principle as well as precedent:

the fundamental principle of American institutions, so embodied in the Declaration of Independence, by which Government is recognized as deriving its just powers only from the consent of the governed, who may alter or abolish it when it becomes destructive of their rights.

Stephen Douglas

The territorial government of Kansas prosecuted an organized campaign of destruction to the rights of antislavery whites, to say nothing of the rights of black Americans. It lacked the consent of the governed, who attended the free state polls regularly but largely ignored the government’s elections. By the American creed, Kansans had every right to cast it off and make their own. Nowhere in the Declaration of recent history could Sumner find an American precedent for choosing the other path, to endorse tyranny over whites as a principle for the foundation of government. He could find one only by looking abroad, or across the Senate floor at Stephen Douglas.

Douglas and the other proslavery men in the Senate stood, Sumner argued, on the ground of the Holy Alliance,

which declares that “useful and necessary changes in legislation and in the administration of States ought only to emanate from the free will and the intelligent and well-weighed conviction of those whom God has rendered responsible for power.”

Sumner put this principle against the Declaration “and bid them grapple!” With the propositions carried forth by Seward’s bill for free Kansas and Douglas’ for the proslavery government, they needed too the grapple on the floor of the Senate. In an era that took political contention as a source of popular entertainment, some constituency probably existed which would delight in seeing Seward and Douglas literally throwing each other around.

William H. Seward in 1851

From that metaphor, Sumner moved on to his summation. He repeated his insults against Butler, “incoherent phrases, discharged the loose expectoration of his speech,” and lines about South Carolina’s “shameful imbecility from Slavery”. Then Douglas came in for a review, adding “the superior intensity of his nature.” Sumner checked in with James Mason over the Fugitive Slave Act before finishing:

The contest, which, beginning in Kansas, has reached us will soon be transferred from Congress to a broader state, where every citizen will be not only spectator, but acting; and to their judgment I confidently appeal.

In other words, vote Republican in 1856 and this problem will get sorted

In just regard for free labor in that Territory, which is sought to blast by unwelcome association with the slave, whom it is proposed to task and sell there; in stern condemnation of the Crime which has been consummated on that beautiful soil; in rescue of fellow-citizens, now subjugated to a tyrannical Usurpation; in dutiful respect for the early Fathers, whose inspirations are now ignobly thwarted,; in the name of the Constitution, which has been outraged-of laws trampled down-of Justice banished-of Humanity degraded-of Peace destroyed-of Freedom crushed to earth; and in the name of the Heavenly Father, whose service is perfect Freedom, I make this last appeal.

“They cannot afford to be generous or even just.”

Charles Francis Adams

The Senate gagged Charles Sumner, denying him the customary permission to speak on behalf of a motion he presented for the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act. The man with three backbones had shown his backbone at last. His fellow senators, citing their parties’ commitment to the finality of the Compromise of 1850, told Sumner that he shouldn’t take this personally. They had to do what they had to do, just as he did in bringing the resolution to the floor to begin with. Before the vote, Sumner had every expectation that he would speak. He got on well with Southern men. His oratory had won praise before. Senate custom stood on his side. In rising to ask the chamber to take up his resolution, Sumner got in his only words on the subject:

As a Senator, under the responsibilities of my position, I have deemed it in my duty to offer this resolution. I may seem to have postponed this duty to an inconvenient period of the session; but had I attempted it at an earlier day, I might have exposed myself to a charge of a different character. It might have been said, that, a new-comer and inexperienced in this scene, without deliberation, hastily, rashly, recklessly, I pushed this question before the country. This is not the case now. I have taken time, and, in the exercise of my most careful discretion, at last ask the attention of the Senate. I shrink from any appeal founded on a trivial personal consideration; but should I be blamed for delay latterly, I may add, that, though in my seat daily, my bodily health for some time past, down to this very week, ash not been equal to the service I have undertaken. I am not sure that it is now, but I desire to try.

Did you hear that, William Lloyd Garrison? Sumner had good reasons to delay, including personal illness. David Donald, citing Sumner’s letters, names the sickness as diarrhea and attributes it to Sumner’s nerves. He might have the right of it. One doesn’t want to give a lengthy speech while cramped up or likely to have dire need of a recess midway through. Now, at last, and against his better judgment given continuing infirmity, Sumner would speak. The Senate need only let him and they would hardly refuse a man who deliberated so long and confessed to such a weakness.

But they did, blindsiding Sumner. Charles Francis Adams wrote Sumner on August 1 explaining how he had gone wrong:

The result at which you arrived is not in the least surprising to me. You are in your nature more trusting than I, and therefore expected more. Where slavery is concerned I have not a particle of confidence in the courtesy, honor, principles, or veracity of those who sustain it, either directly by reason of selfish interest, or more remotely through the servility learned by political associations. In all other cases I should yield them a share of confidence. I should not, therefore, had I been in your place, have predicated any action of mine upon the grant by them of any favor whatever. They cannot afford to be generous or even just. If you can get even that to which you have a clear right, you will do pretty well; but to get it you will have to fight for it.

Adams spoke from experience, both in his own career and upbringing and as a Northern man in general. To a significant degree, the political progress of the free states during the last decade of the antebellum involved their moving from an innocence like Sumner’s, or at least an indifference, to a hardened awareness like Adams already preached in 1852.

“By God, you shan’t.” Gagging Charles Sumner

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Charles Sumner might have endured William Lloyd Garrison’s criticism. He might even have ignored the effect it may produce among Garrison’s voting supporters. But Sumner liked being subject to public opprobrium no more than anyone else. When the mastermind of the Free Soil-Democracy coalition, Henry Wilson, started bending his ear Sumner had to act. He planned to speak last on slavery, giving himself time to learn the ways of the Senate and polish up his debate chops. That might have made sense on a personal level, but also made for bad politics at a time when Sumner’s movement could not afford them.

Back in Massachusetts, the Free Soilers did their part in helping the Democracy pass its reform laws. The Democrats, however, failed to hold up their end of the coalition bargain by passing a personal liberty law that Sumner helped write. Nor had they passed resolutions against the Fugitive Slave Act or do anything else to advance the cause of antislavery in the Bay State. As the months wore on, it looked increasingly like only Sumner’s election had come of a fraught coalition. In a situation like that, Palfrey’s argument that they ought not to have done it to begin with must have carried some force.

Realizing he had to do something, Sumner acted on July 27. Going back to his promise of immediate repeal for the hated Fugitive Slave Act, he rose and offered a resolution:

That the Committee on the Judiciary be instructed to consider the expediency of reporting a bill for the immediate repeal of the Act of Congress, approved September 18, 1850, usually known as the Fugitive Slave Act.

Sumner had the right to present any resolutions he liked to the Senate and the moment seems to have passed without incident. Massachusetts’ senator asked that Congress take up the issue the next day, July 28, and the leave of the house to speak on the resolution’s behalf. The rules required that permission but, like many things in the Senate, custom reduced that to a pure formality. If you wanted to speak on your resolution, the Senate let you speak. Senators did not gag their peers.

James Mason

We might better say that Senators do not usually gag their peers, but they made a special exception on July 28, 1852. Sumner’s southern friends turned on him. Andrew Butler damned him for putting the resolution up as a pretense to deliver an antislavery speech. Others claimed Sumner’s resolve tantamount to disunion. Northern Democrats castigated him. Stephen Douglas declared, as quoted in Donald’s biography, the he refuse to “extend any act of courtesy to any gentleman to…fan the flames of discord that have so recently divided this great people.” The Senate voted 32-10 to gag Charles Sumner. Afterwards, his friends came up and apologized. Their parties restrained them from allowing such a speech on the floor of the Senate. Nothing personal, ok?

James Mason, the author of the Fugitive Slave Act, told Sumner to wait for next term. Sumner insisted it must come this term, at which point Mason told him “By God, you shan’t.”

A Closer Look at David Rice Atchison, Part Two

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)


We left David Rice Atchison, Senator from Missouri, invisible in the records. Between February second and twentieth of 1855, he drops off the map. During that time, Lewis Cass believed that Atchison toured the South soliciting support for his crusade in Kansas. Large rallies would have generated news reports, but if Atchison came to a state capital quietly and talked to fellow politicians behind closed doors, we might never know. Outside of Missouri and Washington, few people likely knew him on sight. He appears again back in Missouri, possibly in St. Louis on the twentieth and definitely in Jefferson City by the twenty-second.

Bourbon Dave arrived to disappointing news. The Missouri legislature had just voted to postpone choosing a new senator. Until that point, Atchison may have expected easy reelection. It turned out that his battle with Thomas Hart Benton had cost him the support of many Democrats, enough together with Missouri’s Whigs to deny him a clear majority. With nothing much to do in the state capital, he made for the border the next day. He had Kansas to save for slavery, after all. Elections for the legislature would take place on March 30 and he could hardly miss that. On the twenty-fifth, Atchison went into Kansas in the company of “eighty men and twenty-four wagons.” He came packing two Bowie knives and four pistols, just for himself. The proceeds of his movement, in fraud and intimidation, amounted to control of the legislature of Kansas.

Robert Morse Taliaferro Hunter (D-VA)

Atchison wrote his F Street messmate, Robert M.T. Hunter, celebrating the victory and asking for ten thousand southerners to come and consolidate their victory. If they could “take possession of and hold every acre of timber” then Kansas could never go against slavery. Missouri could swing half of the ten thousand, he believed, but the rest of the section had to do its part. If the section failed Atchison, then it would lose Missouri and, soon after, Texas and Arkansas. With them gone, the South would have to concede the territories entire to freedom.

But none of this made Atchison “a Bandit, a ruffian, an Aaron Burr.” Atchison did not, he would have his friend know, preside over a regime of violent hooliganism. Instead he saved the lives and homes of antislavery Kansans by restraining his men. Where he went, nothing violent transpired. He couldn’t claim any responsibility for other places, but he assured Hunter that only the most impudent got “the hickory.”

One must suspect Atchison of polishing up his reputation here, but the Howard Report found only violent threats where he personally went. He may, as he did when proslavery forces moved against Lawrence, have acted to restrain his followers just as he claimed. He still got the mob in position where it could do harm and we ought to understand the border ruffians as part of a movement he started, organized, and led. The two do not cancel out, but only together form a complete picture of Missouri’s senator.

Andrew Butler of South Carolina, another of Atchison’s late messamates fabulously declared

the advent of Kansas shall be to the living Atchison a Star in his varied galaxy of life.

A young friend or relation of Butler’s had just gone off to Kansas and Butler asked Atchison to look after him.

James Mason

James Mason, author of the Fugitive Slave Act, proved less effusive. He heard rumors that people in Kansas wanted Andrew Reeder deposed in favor of a more pliable governor. The proslavery side should not use their victory as an excuse to color outside the legal lines. Instead, if Reeder proved intransigent against the proslavery legislature, then they could charge him with various offenses and ask his removal. Atchison had anticipated Mason’s advice, bending Franklin Pierce’s ear on the issue through his old friend, classmate, and present Secretary of War. Jefferson Davis had his back, to the point where the papers referred to a coalition of the two men against Reeder. In the summer, Pierce fired him at the request of Kansas’ legislature.

In the mean time, Atchison’s Platte County men destroyed the Parkville Industrial Luminary for objecting to how Missouri had outright stolen Kansas’ legislature. Parrish, Atchison’s biographer, stresses that he has no evidence the man himself took part in the destruction, but also notes that the Squatter Sovereign praised the act. Given the close personal and political relationship between the brothers Stringfellow and Atchison, it seems unlikely they would have done so if Atchison objected. Instead they advised continuing the campaign against antislavery papers elsewhere in Missouri and, as they later would, in Lawrence.

Atchison’s reelection campaign also got off to an odd start. A proslavery convention met at St. Louis between the twelfth and fourteenth of July. It heard a motion that Atchison and his old law partner Alexander Doniphan, leading contenders for the Senate seat, give speeches. Atchison tried to give them a pass, aiming to keep the convention a proslavery affair rather than introduce partisanship into things. Doniphan, a Whig, followed his lead. The convention wouldn’t hear of it and appointed a committee, which Atchison again refused. The usual order of such things seems to have involved such refusals, but then one reconsidered when a committee affirmed that the convention really wanted you to speak. Maybe Atchison proved himself in earnest in the hopes that it would win him popularity enough to keep his post in the Senate, but Parrish rightly points out that he didn’t give up on Kansas after realizing that he would not again serve as senator. Rebuffed, the convention turned to the favorite pastime of nineteenth century mass meetings: drawing up a set of resolutions. Over in Kansas., the free state men did the same.

Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Twelve

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

(Introduction, Parts 12, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11. Full text.)

After Lincoln told his audience at Peoria that, however much he opposed Stephen Douglas’ plan to expand slavery, however much he thought slavery itself a great evil, he did not see black people as the equals of whites. He went beyond just acknowledging the prejudice of his audience and the time, embracing it as his own. Then he had still one more way to disappoint a modern reader:

When they [southerners] remind us of their constitutional rights, I acknowledge them, not grudgingly, but fully, and fairly; and I would give them any legislation for the reclaiming of their fugitives, which should not, in its stringency, be more likely to carry a free man into slavery, than our ordinary criminal laws are to hang an innocent one.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850? Really, Abe? On first blush it reads like Lincoln signing on to that most radical law. I’ve read frequent references to that effect, most often in the context of Lincoln’s first inaugural, where he declares that in swearing to uphold the Constitution, he swore to uphold its fugitive slave clause therein. There Lincoln goes on to say:

I take the official oath to-day with no mental reservations and with no purpose to construe the Constitution or laws by any hypercritical rules; and while I do not choose now to specify particular acts of Congress as proper to be enforced, I do suggest that it will be much safer for all, both in official and private stations, to conform to and abide by all those acts which stand unrepealed than to violate any of them trusting to find impunity in having them held to be unconstitutional.

He had his doubts about the fugitive slave act, which he laid out immediately prior:

In any law upon this subject ought not all the safeguards of liberty known in civilized and humane jurisprudence to be introduced, so that a free man be not in any case surrendered as a slave? And might it not be well at the same time to provide by law for the enforcement of that clause in the Constitution which guarantees that “the citizens of each State shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States”?

I think one can fairly say that Lincoln endorsed the infamous law in March, 1860. But he did so with open reservations even then and even when using it as an olive branch in a crisis. Even at this extreme, Lincoln will only go so far as enforcement until repealed of a law already largely a dead letter. And even if Lincoln’s government pushed prosecution against a new rush of slave rescuers, would a northern jury convict?

Back in 1854, on closer examination, Lincoln’s doubts come out much more clearly. In both cases he wants some kind of law that provides the sort of protections that an accused criminal would receive: a real trial, habeas corpus, the right to speak in his or her own defense and to introduce evidence…all the things that the fugitive slave act precluded. Lincoln would have southerners get their slaves back, but only if they worked hard for it. The model they chose, James Mason’s fugitive slave act, simply did not suffice. They needed to do much better.

All of this makes another appearance of Lincoln the conciliatory moderate. He hates the fugitive slave act, but will uphold it until its repeal. He has all the right doubts, the same that a modern civil libertarian might have, but ultimately views himself not as a revolutionary working to overthrow the system but as a reformer bent on its incremental improvement.