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.

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Kansas-Nebraska: Shattering the Democracy

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

The dream that Kansas-Nebraska would give the Union some tough love that restored its strength rested on the proposition that northern voters, most especially northern Democrats, cared very little about slavery. If the North, most especially the Northwest, had decent portions of men like Stephen Douglas, they could combine with men like Jesse D. Bright, Indiana’s slaveholding senator, to revitalize the Democracy and restore its position as a true bisectional party and thus, they hoped, confirm its position as the natural party of American governance. The new final settlement on slavery and the territories, unlike the old final settlement, would retire slavery from the national consciousness. Abolitionist and fire-eater alike could go fume in the corner while sensible, moderate, compromise-minded adults ran the nation.

This meant a very small word, if, had to carry a very large burden. If Stephen Douglas had taken the North’s temperature correctly, if slavery really did not pan out in Kansas, if no new provocation for either section arose, if proslavery men could take yes for an answer, then they could have the sectional comity of the 1840s back again. It worked once before. Henry Clay got the northern votes he needed for the Missouri Compromise in part from enslaved Illinois.

If only the men of 1854 lived in the same world as the men of 1820. The world had changed. Railroads realigned Northwestern commerce toward Chicago and away from New Orleans. Texas, then Mexico and Wilmot, CalhounNashville, the Fugitive Slave Act, the secession conspiracy, the Georgia Platform, fugitive slave rescues, and all the rest shined a spotlight on slavery. Neither section consented to playing by the old rules.  Old times would not come again.

The Democrats held the majority in both chambers of Congress in 1854. The fact that a majority of the House voted to bury Kansas-Nebraska speaks volumes. Douglas’ own party would not unite behind him. Instead the Democracy split at least three ways. Some Democrats, more than Douglas or anybody else supporting the bill counted on, increasingly disliked slavery and especially loathed its expansion.  Still others, in the South, supported Kansas-Nebraska for the Missouri Compromise repeal but fiercely loathed popular sovereignty. If the people could decide, they could after all decide against slavery. Douglas himself said so often. The Northwestern Democrats who did accept Kansas-Nebraska often loved popular sovereignty but loathed the Missouri Compromise repeal.  Thus even the coalition in support of the bill split diametrically: the repeal that made the bill so appealing to Southern men made it a bitter pill to swallow for Northern men who supported it on grounds that Southern men could barely tolerate.

Those divisions existed already, but Kansas-Nebraska threw them in sharp relief. Whatever hopes Douglas and other Democrats had for revitalizing their party came up hard against deep divisions that their strategy could only deepen further. Stephen Douglas might passionately believe in popular sovereignty and not mind slavery either way, but he may have been the only man in the party who did.

Kansas-Nebraska: Saving the Union

Phillip Phillips (D-AL)

Phillip Phillips (D-AL)

We look at the past with hindsight goggles. We know how things played out, so often historical figures can look like reckless fools that set themselves up for calamity after calamity and then refuse to change course. Didn’t Douglas know what F Street forced him into when it made him change his bill to suit Phillip Phillips and Archibald Dixon? Didn’t Phillips and Dixon know that they demanded measures that would help ruin the institution they meant to protect? Couldn’t they see disaster coming?

In the strictest sense, they could not. Nobody had a crystal ball. Could they have foreseen how repealing the Missouri Compromise would go over in the North? Perhaps, but it’s only with our hindsight goggles that we know so surely that the dispute over slavery animated passions like no other. People at the time could genuinely believe they provoked a brief, transient firestorm. If it helped the South save face, and helped southern Democrats keep their seats, why not concede a Kansas over to a phantom slavery that would never really develop? If saving a few southern Democratic seats against the threat of resurgent Whigs, however distant, cost a few northern Democratic seats then so be it. In the Democracy, the southern caucus had long held the lion’s share of the power. With the party’s strong hold over the South, it need not command equal favor in the North to maintain its accustomed control of the nation.

Archibald Dixon (Whig-KY)

Archibald Dixon (Whig-KY)

But what if the naysayers had it entirely wrong? The potential of KansasNebraska to swing the southwest to slavery obviously appealed to Southern men, but opening the great plains to white settlement appealed greatly to land-hungry whites. They might not desperately need it, as Bell and Houston noted, but more land to settle meant a bigger, broader future. If the advance of white settlement also meant a few tokens to slavery, that need not bother some Northern men. Most cared little about the institution in itself and less about the plight of those suffering under it. In the westernmost line of states and territories, on the banks of the Mississippi, land meant a great deal. Westerners moved out to get land and many of them could see a future for their sons and daughters one more state over. Westward expansion had the potential to become a Western issue and the core of a new Western identity, indifferent to slavery but very keen on settling the frontier.

Thomas Hart Benton, though he opposed the bill when it came to the House, had long thought that his Missouri had a more western character than southern. William Seward argued a few years before that the nation had not two sections, but three: North, South, and West. Real cultural and economic divides separated the frontier West from the settled East. The West had a rough, homespun character against the East’s settled gentility. Only recently had rail linked it to the great cities of the East. Before that, the West sold its crops down the Mississippi through New Orleans. Furthermore, much of the border Northwest had Southern people to go with its Southern geography. They almost made Illinois a slave state. In Indiana they elected a senator, Jesse D. Bright, who owned slaves in Kentucky and proved so studiously loyal to the Southern cause that the Senate expelled him in 1862. Men like him demonstrated that the Northwest had friends to slavery. An emerging western identity could dilute any opposition to proslavery politics, with the draw of white expansion distracting from any qualms about slavery expansion.

Jesse Bright

Jesse D. Bright (D-IN)

That new identity required people and states where those people could elect politicians to Congress, but here Kansas-Nebraska served admirably by throwing open the whole of the public domain. Furthermore, new western states would sprout farther from Chicago’s railroads, which had drawn Northwestern commerce eastward, and back down the Mississippi by way of the Missouri. The new West would so naturally share economic interests with the South, even if it lacked slavery. If it cared little about slavery, that difference would consequently matter little.

An alliance between new wheat and corn states west and north of Missouri and Iowa and the Cotton Kingdom could bring back the old days, with slavery’s security in the Union taking it out of the political limelight. The abolitionists couldn’t threaten it and the slaveholders would see that. Passions would cool and the nation could go back to living as thought the Mexican War never reopened the issue. This one Union-threatening, radical strike for slavery could paradoxically save the Union. It would surely revitalize the Democratic party by giving it eager supporters in the Northwest. Already the Democracy had high hopes for Iowa and Minnesota. Throw in Kansas and Nebraska and it would turn the Whigs into a tiny sectional party in the Northeast. Those extra seats could even dilute the proslavery bloc’s power to the point where it could no longer be forced into radicalism by renegade members, further safeguarding the Union by making proslavery men the happy victims of their own success.