The Court Season Begins

John Brown

We left John Brown and proslavery Missourians both anxious about Kansas. Joshua Giddings could promise no war, but Brown had to deal with the real prospect and the Missourians seemed bent on ginning it up even if they had to canvass the whole South for the job. Franklin Pierce declared from the White House that the free state movement constituted an insurrection and must cease or face suppression. The free state movement responded by running elections and forming a government in which Brown’s eldest, John Junior, served as a legislator. When the government met for the first time, at Topeka, Junior set to forming a set of laws for the state of Kansas.

The legislature approved of those laws, but disappointed the Browns all the same. They could pass laws easily enough, but at the urging of Governor Charles Robinson they delayed enacting them until such time as Washington accepted them as the real government of Kansas. Instead, the main affirmative act of the Topeka government involved electing two Senators, Andrew Reeder and James Lane, and dispatching Lane off to Washington with a memorial pleading the case of a free Kansas to Congress. Junior signed the memorial. He later claimed that about that time Lane also initiated him into the Kansas Regulators, aka the Kansas Legion.

Stephen Oates, the elder Brown’s biographer, notes that no evidence besides Junior’s word points to his joining the Regulators. His endnotes go into no more detail than that, which leaves me puzzled. It would fit the characters of Lane and Junior both at this point for him to have signed up. A chip off the old block, Junior didn’t shy away from militant talk. He didn’t go to the polls with a small arsenal expecting not to need it. Nor would we necessarily expect a full roster to have existed. Individual companies of Regulators and other groups may have kept muster rolls, but such an incriminating document would not circulate widely if they did.

As winter melted into spring, colonization of Kansas resumed largely from the free states. Many of the men now arrived armed and willing to fight to make Kansas free. April brought copies of the proslavery laws of Kansas into the hands of many lawyers and judges who would soon begin the court season. Junior, and many others, had broken those laws simply by saying no one had a right to own a slave in Kansas. With the opening of the court term, they might face formal consequences instead of informal brawls. The district court with jurisdiction over the Browns would meet at Dutch Henry’s tavern, a proslavery gathering place run by alleged thieves and rapists. Sterling Cato, a proslavery man, would preside. Now the Browns, and many others, might find out just how far they could go in ignoring the bogus legislature.


“We must have men in Kansas”

Joshua Giddings (R-OH)

Joshua Giddings could promise John Brown no war in Kansas from the comfort of Washington City. Brown had to deal with the reality on the ground. At first, it didn’t look too bad and Brown’s perpetual optimism might well have kicked in. He busied himself readying a cabin for a man he knew who planned to move to Kansas soon. Then he and the boys set to surveying the boundaries of the Ottawa reservation. March brought new streams of white colonists along with Giddings’ promises, mostly from the free states.

Those Yankees came in part because the Emigrant Aid Societies stepped up their efforts, spurred on by warnings from Kansas and Franklin Pierce’s openly proslavery course. That brought its own reaction, with the Missourian operating kicking into higher gear. To this point, the Show Me State had largely worked on its own in Kansas. The whole South might express solidarity, as Giddings said the North did for the free state cause, but solidarity did not win far away elections or make one’s home secure. The Kansas Emigrant Aid Society of Missouri, a proslavery outfit, begged more than well wishes from the other slave states:

The time has come when she [Missouri] can no longer stand up single-handed, the lone champion of the South, against the myrmidons of the North. It requires no foresight to perceive that if the ‘higher law’ men succeed in this crusade, it will be but the beginning of a war upon the institutions of the South, which will continue until slavery shall cease to exist in any of the States, or the Union is dissolved.

The struggle in Missouri would lead to a struggle for the South entire. Anxious border state men and deep South enslavers alike had to take note, because events in Kansas now neared a critical stage. Kansas had elections in October of 1856 “and unless at that time the South can maintain her ground all will be lost.” Enough talk, the time for action had come and slavery did not have much time at all to win through.

we must have men in Kansas, and that by tens of thousands. A few will not answer. If we should need ten thousand men and lack one of that number, all will count nothing. Let all them who can come do so at once. Those who cannot come must give money to others to come.

Tens of thousands of men would probably come near equaling Kansas’ white population, but urgency breeds exaggeration. Even if nowhere near so many men showed up armed and ready to fight for slavery, the proslavery side now threatened to at least match the Yankees with a national movement. Already anxious about more Missourians showing up, they had to wonder how many men might make the long trek from other states. Back in December, the Missourians had homes nearby to get back to. Anyone who came from farther away would probably mean to stay for the duration and want more satisfaction for the trouble. Giddings might promise peace, but the other side looked bent on war.


“There will be no war in Kansas” Joshua Giddings and John Brown

Joshua Giddings (R-OH)

In late February, 1856, John Brown wrote Joshua Giddings from Kansas. He feared that the Army would soon suppress the free state movement. If that happened, Brown thought that antislavery Kansans might well fight it out and so make themselves traitors to the United States by the ordinary understanding of the term as well as by the one Franklin Pierce dreamed up. Congress might get in the way of that, so Brown wrote Giddings pleading for an inside line on what the body intended.

It took a while for Giddings to write back, but he did on March 17. He gave Brown mixed news, pointing out that the anti-Nebraska coalition that controlled the House but that they depended on Know-Nothings for their majority “and they are in a very doubtful position.” Giddings could only promise that he and other antislavery men would “try to relieve you.” Brown can’t have taken much solace in that.

Giddings then moved from Brown’s general plea for help in Congress to his specific concern:

The President never will dare employ the troops of the United States to shoot the citizenbs of Kansas. The death of the first man by the troops will involve every free State in your fate. it will light up the fires of civil war throughout the North, and we shall stand or fall with you. Such an act will also bring the President so deep in infamy that the hand of political resurrection will never reach him.

Pledging to Franklin Pierce’s good faith would satisfy few save proslavery extremists, then or now, but Giddings repeated the common understanding of the political class. Affairs in Kansas posed a genuine risk of civil war. Should the conflict intensify, passions already ignited over the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and kept alive through continued news of strife would ensure that it spread. None could say where it would end.

John Brown

None of that really promised Brown much security. Giddings pledged him solidarity to come, not guarantees in the present which he, admittedly, could not deliver. He and other northern men could deliver in different ways, though:

Your safety depends on the supply of men and arms and money which will move forward to you relief as soon as the spring opens.

The Congressman told Brown that if he could make it through the winter, the North would flood Kansas with the men and guns enough to warn off Missouri for good. He admitted he “may be mistaken” but predicted that “there will be no war in Kansas.”

John Brown and Joshua Giddings

John Brown

As January turned to February, back in 1856, John Brown wanted to know what Congress meant to do about Kansas. He suffered bitterly from homesickness and the news of the murder of an antislavery man on the heels of rumors that Missouri would come back can’t have helped his state of mind. Nor could word from the President of the United States that he considered Brown and the free state movement dirty traitors who needed suppression. He wrote home anxiously about the situation. As a frequent Ohioan of antislavery bent, Brown had long followed the career of Joshua Giddings. The two men had met previously and Brown expressed his admiration then. Now he turned his pen to learning what Congress might do from an actual congressman.

I write to say that a number of United States Soldiers are quartered in this vicinity for the ostensible purpose of removing intruders from certain Indian Lands. It is, however, believed that the Administration has no thought of removing the Missourians from the Indian Lands; but that the real object is to have these men in readiness to act in the enforcement of those Hellish enactments of the (so called) Kansas Legislature; absolutely abominated by a great majority of the inhabitants of the Territory; and spurned by them up to this time. I confidently believe that the next movement on the part of the Administration and its Proslavery masters will be to drive the people here, either to submit to those Infernal enactments; or to assume what will be termed treasonable grounds by shooting down the poor soldiers of the country with whom they have no quarrel whatsoever.

Emphasis Brown’s.

Joshua Giddings (R-OH)

Brown asked, essentially, if Giddings thought that Franklin Pierce meant his declaration of war. Would soldiers dispatched, officially, to preserve Indian reservations instead be used to force white men to submit to proslavery tyranny? He thought so, warning Giddings that if things went that way antislavery Kansans would probably take up arms against the Army.

Or at least that Brown might; the free state leadership consistently chose otherwise. The rank and fire antislavery men of the territory might go either way. They proved receptive to Brown’s style of militancy and did suffer under a genuine, often present threat to their lives and property. Such things can drive one to extreme measures. Brown had charisma and clarity of vision. With their backs to the wall and the regular leadership trying to navigate some kind of politically prudent, emotionally unsatisfying course many might choose to follow the straight talking old man from Osawatomie.

Immediately thereafter Brown begs Giddings “in the name of Almighty God,” “our venerated fore-fathers,” and “all that good or true men ever held dear” would Congress go along with that?


“I may yet be doomed to that heaviest of all afflictions, to spend my time on earth in a living sepulcher.”

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

We left Charles Sumner at a health spa up in the Alleghenies. There he continued to struggle with his recovery, but seemed at last on a slow mend. He looked forward to some time home in Massachusetts, though not the grand reception he expected. Sumner usually enjoyed the public eye, so his dread of it now speaks volumes to his state of mind. Walking still strained him and mental exertion gave him headaches.

At the spa, Sumner showed more troubling symptoms still. When tired, which must have happened frequently given the continuous references to his exhaustion, Sumner felt

as tho’ the blows were raining upon his head again; then will feel a numbness in the scalp; then again acute pains; then a sense of exhaustion that prevents any physical or mental effort.

We would say Sumner had flashbacks. He had trouble sleeping still and began to fear the loss of his faculties. The Senator now stared down the prospect of permanent disability, something he feared more than death. He wrote Joshua Giddings that

I sometimes am led to apprehend that I may yet be doomed to that heaviest of all afflictions, to spend my time on earth in a living sepulcher.

George Sumner didn’t help matters by talking about cases of mental illness he observed in Parisian hospitals. Way to go, George. Dr. Wister, of Philadelphia, told Sumner that he couldn’t comment on whether the Senator suffered a brain “deranged organically or only functionally.” A functional disorder, someone might recover from. Actual brain injury? Maybe not. Sumner probably suffered both. He also became preoccupied with his symptoms, for which one can hardly blame him. Every time he fell short of his expectations, his body reinforced his fears.

Eventually, Sumner could take no more of the spa at Cresson. He wanted more engaging surroundings that could get his mind off his debilitated state and left, against the advice of the doctor there. Leaving took him back to Philadelphia and Dr. Wister. Once again he seems to have improved briefly, but then relapsed. He later wrote to the spa’s physician that he left too soon.

Come the end of September, Dr. Perry examined Sumner again and found his frailty largely unchanged. As before, he believed the Senator could not take much stress at all if he hoped to keep his life.

“His steps were feeble and tottering”

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Charles Sumner declined to take any further part in Preston Brooks’ prosecution than grand jury testimony; he did not consider himself at all well. The psychological strain of revisiting the attack constantly, perhaps even in Brooks’ presence, can’t have appealed even when he felt physically better and Sumner rarely felt that. Visitors described him as a man much enfeebled, who may not make it. Francis Blair’s home in Silver Springs gave him some relief from Washington’s summer heat, but it remained close enough for a steady steam of visitors that further exhausted the Senator.

On July 5, Sumner returned to Washington City to put his affairs in order before departing for less demanding climes. That prompted a fresh bout of visitors, including both antislavery luminaries and members of the diplomatic corps. Edward L. Pierce’s Memoir and Letters of Charles Sumner relates that the only administration men, excepting Lewis Cass who Sumner once befriended in Europe, stayed away. The parade of well-wishers can’t have helped, but Sumner left the city on July 7, staying the night in Baltimore before proceeding on to Philadelphia and Dr. Caspar Wister. At the time, Sumner expected to return to the Senate in August.

Dr. Wister examined Sumner on July 9 and found him in

A condition of extreme nervous exhaustion, his circulation feeble, and in fact every vital power alarmingly sunken. At that time his steps were feeble and tottering, as if in extreme old age; he complained of constant pain in the back and lower extremities, -in the latter it was a tired and weary sensation and he had a sense of construction and pressure about the head. At that time his pulse was quick and small, appetite language, and his sleep broken, disturbed, and unrefreshing. All the above conditions were heightened by exertion either mental or physical.

Wister recommended Sumner go to Cape May for relaxation. He spent a week there, improving, but then suffered another relapse. On July 22, he wrote to Giddings that he might resign his seat. Sumner still wanted to come back and resume his duties, but clearly doubted that he could. He abandoned Cape May for a health resort at Cresson, Pennsylvania. There, but he managed a daily ride on horseback, though he still struggled with walking. By mid-August, he could write -again to Giddings- that he hoped “to do good service in the coming campaign” for the presidency. The Republicans nominated John C. Fremont in June, with a sympathy vote going to Sumner for vice-president.

On August 28, Sumner wrote a friend that he had not made a full recovery,

but I ride on horseback, converse, read, write letters, and hope soon to be in working condition, though I fear that a perfect prudence would keep me from all public effort for some months to come.

Walking still exhausted him, but Sumner felt on the mend. He expected to return to Massachusetts soon, but dreaded the inevitable public welcome. He would rather “slip into Massachusetts, run about for a few days” and then maybe get on the stump.


“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.

“A soulless, eyeless monster-horrid, unshapely, and vast” Sumner vs. Douglas

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

We have followed Charles’ Sumner’s career in the Senate all the way to the fall of 1853. At the end of it all, his coalition lost their majorities in Massachusetts. They blamed Sumner’s refusal to campaign for the party. Under their increasing criticism Sumner took out his frustrations on a friend of his, Francis Lieber. It must have seemed likely he would serve only the one term, or less. The elections trimmed the Free Soil Senate caucus by half, leaving only Sumner and Salmon Chase in the chamber. He had no committee assignments. People suspected he would resign rather than spend four years in futile opposition to the Pierce Administration.

The new Congress met for the first time in December of 1853. Augustus Caesar Dodge submitted a bill for the organization of the Nebraska Territory, west of Missouri. Stephen Douglas had big plans for that land: a Pacific Railroad, reunification of the Democracy, and four years in the White House just to start. Come January, he sought out David Rice Atchison to see what the Senator from Missouri would need in order to allow a new territory so near to Missouri’s plantation country. Atchison wanted repeal of the Missouri Compromise.

Sumner smelled a rat in all the quiet negotiating Douglas got up to and put his head together with Salmon P. Chase and Joshua Giddings. Giddings wrote the original draft of the Appeal of the Independent Democrats, which Chase revised and Sumner gave some rhetorical embroidery. He and Chase asked Douglas to delay his bill a week so they could get their message out, claiming that they wanted to study the territorial issue more. The Appeal hit the newspapers that day, after Douglas agreed to the pause, and the Little Giant girded for battle.

Salmon P. Chase

Sumner tried to argue he arraigned the act, not its author. The Appeal might call Douglas an accomplished architect of ruin, but nothing personal. He went on to call the act “a soulless, eyeless monster-horrid, unshapely, and vast.” For some reason, Douglas didn’t buy that. The Appeal focused his attacks on Chase and Sumner, who thus inherited leadership of the anti-Nebraska side. Neither conservative Whigs nor established antislavery men took a major part. William Seward, the horrid antislavery radical of 1850, delivered only a single speech against the act.

Stephen Douglas

Chase took the initial lead, while Sumner embarked on one of his lengthy planning sessions. He didn’t speak until late February, by which point other Senators had answered Douglas at length and thoroughly. As he had against the Fugitive Slave Act, Sumner progressed over well-trod ground. He arraigned Douglas and the bill’s other Northern supporters, saying slavery

loosens and destroys the character of Northern men, even at a distance-like the black magnetic mountain in an Arabian story, under whose irresistible attraction the iron bolts, which held together the strong timbers of a stately ship, were drawn out, till the whole thing fell apart, and became a disjointed wreck.

You could do the math yourself, but Sumner spelled it out all the same: Slavery drew the iron principles right out of Stephen Douglas and company, creating “that human anomaly-a Northern man with Southern principles.” Applause rained down from the Senate gallery.


The Fashions and Passions of Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

By the time Joshua Giddings rose to oppose the Pierce administration’s plan to get Cuba by war, or induce Spain to sell with the threat of war, over the Black Warrior affair (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4), the Senate had signed off on the KansasNebraska Act. That chamber did so on March 3. The Cuban port authorities seized the ship on February 28. Giddings sp0ke on March 16, as the House stared down the barrel of its own Kansas-Nebraska debates and vote. Giddings spoke for many in the increasingly antislavery North.  

In theory, William H. Marcy had control of American foreign policy on behalf of Franklin Pierce. Pierce had chosen him to lead the State Department and the Senate confirmed him as Secretary of State. He often had reason to doubt that those facts mattered, but he did have the authority to send instructions to Pierce’s minister in Madrid, exiled French revolutionary turned proslavery zealot Pierre Soulé. That incendiary politician, former Louisiana senator, had warmed to the Cuban junta in New York and its revolutionary, with a side of future annexation, goals on hearing from the Pierce administration just what it intended toward the island. Now he had his big chance to achieve what he understood as the whole goal of his mission and be the diplomat who negotiated Cuba’s purchase or oversaw the opening of the war from Madrid.

Soulé had just one problem dogging him at this critical moment in his career: everybody in Madrid high society wanted nothing to do with him. That high society emphatically included the court to which he had to represent American interests. Matters had not begun that way, despite Soulé’s involvement with Cuban revolutionaries. Marcy had issued a circular letter ordering American diplomats to appear in the simple clothes of an American citizen, a plain black suit, rather than elaborate court uniforms. That strategy worked well enough for Ben Franklin in Paris during the Revolution. Why not now?

William L. Marcy

William L. Marcy

Marcy ought to have noted that when Franklin lived in London, he dressed to high society norms. His Parisian austerity made him a striking standout figure at court. It may also have been the kind of audacious fashion choice that only an amiable man like Franklin could pull off. American ministers in various courts had a great deal of trouble. Some ignored the instructions outright, some obeyed and took the lumps for the slight they gave to the courts. In London, James Buchanan absented himself from state functions to avoid having to pick a side. Soulé had a better idea: he went to a Parisian tailor and got a simple, American suit made out of fine black velvet and embroidered in silk instead of the customary gold lace. Amos Aschbach Ettinger has a contemporary description of him in The Mission to Spain of Pierre Soulé, 1853-1855, from which much of my details about Soulé’s mission come:

the black-velvet clothes, richly embroidered, the black stockings, a black chapeau, and a black dress sword set off his black eyes, black locks, and a pale complexion, and gave him a striking appearance. He looked indeed, not like the philosopher whose costume he imitated, but rather like the master of Ravenswood.

Forget charming, plain Franklin. Pierre Soulé had him beat. The Queen and court agreed. He must have cut a striking figure indeed to the Europeans. The American press criticized him for giving up his republican simplicity to dress like an Old Europe aristocrat, suggesting that he would do better to dress as a monkey than follow the bidding of crusty nobility. But Madrid’s opinion counted in Madrid, not that of far away American newspaper men. The Spanish court liked the outfit and liked Soulé. How, then, did he find himself in disgrace and ostracized when he received Marcy’s new instructions regarding Cuba and the Black Warrior?

Pierre Soulé offended polite society in one of those ways most scandalous to the European glitterati: He shot one of them.

Giddings for Peace, Part Four

Joshua Giddings (Free Soil-OH)

Joshua Giddings (Free Soil-OH)

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

Giddings for Peace: parts 1, 2, 3

Joshua Giddings stood in the House to oppose Franklin Pierce’s warmongering over the Black Warrior affair. After most of a page about how the Spanish authorities acted in compliance with their own laws, just as American authorities had done, how Pierce broke with convention to editorialize in answer to a simple request for documents, and how he had the effrontery to lecture the House about how to do its business and how it ought to view American honor, Giddings came to the real heart of the matter. Pierce insisted that late events in Cuba, not just the matter of a seized steamer, amounted to

the adoption of a policy threatening the honor and security of these States

Wait, what? Honor maybe, but what did Cuba do that threatened American security? It did comment the Florida Strait, a major artery, but Spain had not closed the strait or even harassed traffic within it. Madrid’s men in Havana seized only a single ship then docked there. So what threat?

Every member within the sound of my voice knows its meaning. The policy of Cuba, as it is now known and read of all men, is a “progress towards civilization; it is the emancipation of her slaves, an effort to strike off the shackles of her bondmen, and to allow them to stand forth clothed with the attributes of humanity.” That is the policy which the President considers as “threatening the honor and security of these States.” He then, in the last paragraph, advises a preparation for war. This, then, is the policy which we are called upon to guard against, and to involve ourselves in war, to prevent which we are to resort to by arms, to the last dreadful resort of battle and deadly strife. In order to preevent the progress of civilization and freedom in Cuba we must prepare to send our countrymen to premature graves. Our freemen are therefore to die that Cuban slaves may continue to sigh and groan in chains.

Given the panic over Cuba’s Africanization program and the obvious motives of the filibusters, with Pierce’s encouragement, who could argue with Giddings? A strike against Cuba would mean a strike to save Cuban slavery. Giddings naturally brought it back to the other great issue before the Congress at the same time:

The President calls for authority to resist these encroachments upon the barbarous institution of slavery in Cuba. He no longer holds to non-intervention; that only applies to Nebraska; but in Cuba he will interfere to maintain slavery, at the point of the bayonet, at the expense of our blood, our treasure, and our honor.

If Congress should keep its filthy, interfering, strife-causing hands off slavery in Nebraska, where it had full authority and jurisdiction, then why must it lay those same hands on slavery in Cuba where it had neither?