What did Lawrence Keitt Know? Caning Charles Sumner, Part 6

Lawrence Keitt (D-SC)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Henry Edmundson hung around the Capitol in barely-concealed hopes of seeing Preston Brooks take his resentments out on Charles Sumner. Other witnesses, even men in the room, almost missed the start of things. It didn’t do to announce surprise violence in advance. Brooks himself may not have known that he would go as far as he did until the moment the cane swung down. Edmundson had reason to suspect violence, but only the suspicion.

Lawrence Keitt of South Carolina may have known more, and would play a supporting role in the event. Edmundson came upon him on his way into the Senate and suggested, before seeing Brooks within, that the two might go off somewhere “down the street”. Keitt answered, per Edmundson, “No, I cannot leave till Brooks does.”

That drew the interest of the investigating committee, which pressed Edmundson on the matter. Where exactly did he talk to Keitt? “[T]he small rotundo behind the main rotundo and the vestibule of the Senate.” How long before the attack did they speak? Between the Senate’s adjournment and the caning, but Edmundson didn’t recall exactly. Did they speak in the Senate chamber thereafter? No. Did Keitt ask Edmundson to hold up? He did not. Nor did Edmundson speak with Keitt at all about Brooks’ resentment of Sumner.

Obviously, the committee suspected that Keitt knew something.  At the end of almost sixty pages of testimony on the attack, they include the note

The chairman informed the committee that, under their directions he had this morning called upon Mr. Keitt, and informed him in person that the committee had directed him (the chairman) to say that he (Mr. K.) should have the privilege of reading the testimony, of testifying himself, and, if he saw fit to do so, of calling any witnesses he might see fit to have subpoenaed.

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

Keitt did not opt to testify, which seems an odd choice if he believed he could defend himself against probing questions. He couldn’t, as Brooks himself would reveal in a statement to the House of Representatives. The aggrieved South Carolinian told the House, in a statement I found in the Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, volume 61, “As soon as I had read the speech I felt it to be my duty to inflict some return for the insult to my State and my relative.” He recounted his encounter with Edmundson on Wednesday, the day after Sumner finished and places both Keitt and Senator Johnson, who Edmundson asked for an opinion on the etiquette of attacking a Senator on the floor, with him at the time. That night,

at about 10 o’clock I informed my colleagues Mr. Keitt and Mr. Orr of my purpose.

Keitt and James Orr, both South Carolinians, thus knew and probably understood Brooks’ intentions more explicitly than Edmundson. It seems that Edmundson strongly suspected violence -to the point of giving advice on how to best accomplish it- but Brooks may have told Keitt and Orr in as many words that he would assault Sumner, rather than just hinted or vented his anger. The evidence available to me doesn’t allow for a firm conviction that Brooks intended for Keitt to play a part in the affair or that Keitt went into the Senate on May 22nd with that intention on his own account. Edmundson clearly knew, at least in general terms, that violence might occur and had no problem speaking to the committee and revealing details. That Keitt refused doesn’t prove premeditation on his own or that he coordinated with Brooks beforehand, but it does suggest a greater degree of culpability than Edmundson had.

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Representing Kansas and the Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

The question of what to do about Kansas continued to occupy the Congress in March of 1856. Would the nation stay the course with the bogus legislature and its laws, authorizing them to write a constitution with slavery and come into the Union down the road? Would they roll back the clock to last year or the year before, wiping aside all the territory had done and starting from scratch? Or would they admit the illegal free state government making their Kansas into the Kansas, free of slavery and blacks? Unsurprisingly, no more consensus existed on Kansas then than two years prior when Stephen Douglas, at the behest of Archibald Dixon and the F Street Mess, repealed the Missouri Compromise and started the mess.

John Sherman

John Sherman

The continuing debate over what to do with Kansas addressed the question of its future, immediate or otherwise. It also bore on Kansas’ present. John Wilkins Whitfield and Andrew Reeder had both arrived in Washington and presented their credentials to the House of Representatives. Kansas, entitled by law to one non-voting delegate, now had two. Choosing between Whitfield, the proslavery Indian agent twice elected to the post by fraud, and Reeder, the former governor elected by the free state government in an illegal election, meant choosing between the two governments. The House’s Committee on Elections asked the authority to call for papers and testimony on the question. Southerners objected. The House had a northern, anti-Nebraska majority. That majority had its cracks, but if it investigated then few could doubt the eventual verdict.

James Orr (D-SC)

James Orr (D-SC)

To forestall that risk, James Orr (D-SC) suggested that the House yield the question to a pair of southern lawyers. They would naturally judge Whitfield the more qualified man and seat him. Nobody fell for that. On March 19, over the unanimous objection of the South, the House voted to authorize an investigative committee of three men. One Democrat, Mordechai Oliver of Missouri, and two Republicans, William A. Howard of Michigan and John Sherman of Ohio would go off to Kansas and inquire into just what had really gone on in the troubled territory. Their report, published at the start of July, provides an invaluable source for Kansas’ first two years.

While the majority speaks clearly to what conclusions it would reach, the Howard Report would give Congress something firmer than newspaper reports and letters from constituents to judge matters. Everyone understood that newspapers had a firm partisan slant, one way or another. Testimony given under oath might hold more water. Even hostile witnesses before the committee surely lied, omitted, and evaded, but most I’ve read seem to have held themselves to a more stringent standard than they might in letters or editorials.