“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.

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“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?

Giddings for Peace, Part Three

Joshua Giddings (Free Soil-OH)

Joshua Giddings (Free Soil-OH)

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

Giddings for Peace: parts 1, 2

Joshua Giddings called out Franklin Pierce in the House of Representatives over the latter’s apparent eagerness to go to war with Cuba over the seizure of the Black Warrior. He and others had already taken Pierce to task for his eagerness to spread slavery to Nebraska, and would continue to do so. Giddings opened with how the Spanish authorities had every right to enforce their revenue laws, which everyone agreed the ship had violated. Furthermore, Pierce did not even wait for the Spanish to give any kind of answer to American concerns before starting in with warmongering.

Giddings pressed on. Pierce declared

There have been in the course of a few years past many other instances of aggression upon our commerce, violations of the rights of American citizens, and insults to the national flag by the Spanish authorities in Cuba

Giddings would not have it:

Gentlemen of the House of Representatives, has this nation pocketed insults? Where-where are the Representatives of this nation; where is the former Executive who has pocketed an insult from Spain -that inert and decayed Government? When and where, sir, has the American flag been insulted by Spain? On what occasion? What officer of this Government has demeaned himself as so  unworthy of the name of an American citizen? -and when did this Government sit silent under insult from the feminine majesty of Spain- that weak and powerless kingdom?

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

The man from Ohio’s Western Reserve knew no such person and no such insult. Did Pierce mean to pull one over on the House? Did he tease them like a playground bully about how they let a feeble girl on a throne far away push the United States around. Giddings would not hear his patriotism so impugned. More than that, the House could judge for itself just what an insult constituted, how to respond to it, and when:

coming from the people of the United States, and authorized and commissioned by them, we are authorized to act upon our own judgments -our own responsibility; and we are not to sit here and listen to lectures from the Executive upon the maintenance of national honor or our duties. We were not sent here to be dictated to from that or any other quarter; and I would that members of this Hall should feel the dignity of their position, and hurl back from this Hall such efforts to excite our indignation against the powerless Government of Her Most Christian Majesty of Spain.

Maybe Pierce’s democratic lackeys would take that lecture to heart, but Giddings and his fellow anti-Nebraska men would not. They knew their own business, thank you very much.

Giddings for Peace, Part Two

Joshua Giddings (Free Soil-OH)

Joshua Giddings (Free Soil-OH)

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

Giddings for Peace: part 1

On March 16, 1854, Joshua Giddings, the Ohio Free Soiler and lately member of the Opposition coalition on his way to becoming a Republican, rose to pour some cold water on all the outrage over Spain’s seizure of the Black Warrior for technically violating its revenue laws. He began with the simple points that Spain had every right under its laws to seize the ship. Everybody admitted that omitting four to five hundred bales of cotton from her manifest broke the law. Spain treated the ship no differently than it had treated ships flying the Union Jack or other flags. Furthermore, the United States had done the same thing with British ships. One in New York got taken on the same grounds as the Black Warrior before this whole business erupted and just since the Congress convened another port authorities had seized another in Boston. Yet the United Kingdom did not threaten war.

Franklin Pierce, by contrast, acted like a man unusually bent on stirring up a war. To do so he broke with established precedent. When a house of Congress requested information or documents from the president, they got it with a brief note saying that these papers belonged to this request. Pierce gave Congress sixteen such notes in March of 1854. You can read the lot online here. With the exception of one where Pierce explains why he has not referred a treaty to the Senate, only the Black Warrior message goes beyond simple, utilitarian prose.

Giddings noticed. He quoted the first paragraph, calling it “full and complete.”

It is to this extent, in accordance with the universal practice of this Government, from its earliest period down to the present day. And here let me say that this is the first instance in the history of Executive communications to this House, so far as my recollection extends, where a President has traveled out of the record and undertaken to obtrude his opinions on this House, or dictate to this representative body the course which they should pursue under such circumstances.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Pierce just can’t help himself. He feels the need to turn routine communications into pressure on the Congress to gin up a war. Does a responsible head of state act that way? Even in a time when many saw war as a welcome expression of national vigor, this put the thumb on the scale a bit. Worse still:

As yet we have not heard from the Spanish Government. We know not what justification they will urge. Nor has the President thought proper to wait for any excuse or justification

You can almost imagine Giddings imagining Pierce foaming at the mouth. Whatever Spain would say couldn’t matter. Damn it all; he wanted his war and he wanted it now. He’d show the ghost of old James K. Polk, dead 103 days after leaving office, how to gin up a crisis, make war, and come away with pockets full of someone else’s land. Either Pierce himself would or the expansionists like Davis and Cushing, who held the reins in his Cabinet, would do it in his name.

The nation ended up liking the Mexican War just fine despite largely sectional tension over starting it. No one could have planned on the Marqués de la Pezuela seizing a ship at just this moment, but why let the crisis go to waste? The war enthusiasm could undermine the antislavery movement at a critical time. If the Kansas-Nebraska act failed then, maybe the South would settle for slavery in Cuba. If it passed, maybe the outrage would find itself badly exposed and tarred with accusations of disloyalty in a nation at war or being sore winners after the United States triumphed.

Giddings for Peace, Part One

Joshua Giddings (Free Soil-OH)

Joshua Giddings (Free Soil-OH)

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

In the middle of the KansasNebraska crisis, the United states now had a Cuba crisis. Riding a wave of outrage over the seizure of the Black Warrior on a legal technicality, but really as a show of strength by the new Spanish governor, the Pierce administration threatened war. If Madrid would not give Washington satisfaction, Pierce proposed to take it. He had his attorney-general, Cuba annexation fan Caleb Cushing, leaning on him to make a war of it. He had the Congress up in arms.

Or rather, Franklin Pierce had half the Congress up in arms about the Black Warrior, more or less. The same people alarmed by the Africanization of Cuba under the Marqués de la Pezuela now cried out for war, or at the very least giving filibusters like John A. Quitman a free hand. The men inflamed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, antislavery northerners, found they had not much more outrage in them over the seizure of the ship than their proslavery opposites had over the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Had the Pierce administration not brought both crises on itself, one could feel some sympathy. But Pierce’s policy, whether he chose it himself or had it selected by Jefferson Davis and Caleb Cushing in private, did a great deal to bring things to this point at home and in Cuba.

What outrage antislavery interests had about the Black Warrior affair revolved around the administration’s warlike attitude on the whole matter. On March 16, 1854, Joshua Giddings, signatory to the Appeal of the Independent Democrats despite being a Whig turned Free Soiler, rose in the House to voice his objections. He began with the obvious: the Spanish had every right to seize the ship for her violation of their revenue laws. The manifest declared only her ballast, but “she had four or five hundred bales of cotton on board.”

I would call the attention of the House and the country to the fact that it is precisely teh same case in all its bearings which was pursued by our authorities in regard to the British steamers of the Cunard line. They have, on more than one occasion, been seized for having goods on board in violation of our revenue laws. One was seized in New York precisely as the Black Warrior was seized. In Boston, since we convened here, another instance occurred. They were seized, and those goods not mentioned in the manifest were confiscated. No voice has come from Old England in remonstrance. She has not called on her Parliament to prepare for war. She expects her citizens hwo land in our ports to conform to the laws and to the revenue system which we have established.

Pierce, for all his crying about how extraordinary and outrageous he found the seizure, had revenue officers under his supervision that did the same thing. Furthermore, Giddings pointed out that far from picking just on American ships, the Cuban authorities had treated British ships under the same system. He had it from the American consul at Havana, who learned the fact from his British counterpart and passed it on in the documents Pierce himself supplied to the House. If the vessels of other nations got seized for violations, why not American vessels also?

All of this had to smell a bit like Stephen Douglas’ line about how the nation repealed the Missouri Compromise back in 1850, to universal acclaim that no one noticed at the time.