Henry Wilson Arms Himself

Henry Wilson (R-MA)

Preston Brooks could have challenged Charles Sumner to a duel. The Yankee would have refused and his fellow Northerners would have dismissed Brooks as a barbarian, but Brooks had the option. Doing so would have meant according Sumner a kind of peer status as a fellow gentleman, which didn’t have the visceral punch that Brooks wanted. He had to degrade Sumner by treating him like less than a white man to achieve satisfaction.

Wilson damned Brooks on the floor of the Senate on May 27 and the speech roused Andrew Butler, just returned to Washington. He shouted that Wilson was a liar and other senators convinced him to withdraw the remark. Brooks didn’t take the news of it well and chose to get satisfaction again. This time, he challenged Wilson to a duel. He picked a proper second, Oregon’s delegate Joseph Lane. Lane later ran second fiddle to John C. Breckenridge on the Southern Democracy’s ticket in 1860.

Wilson received advice from Joshua Giddings, Schuyler Colfax, and some others on what to do. He ignored it and delivered an answer he related years later:

I characterized, on the floor of the Senate, the assault upon my colleague as ‘brutal, murderous, and cowardly.’ I thought so then. I think so now. I have no qualification whatever to make in regard to those words. I have never entertained, in the Senate or elsewhere, the idea of personal responsibility in the sense of a duellist. I have always regarded duelling as the lingering relic of a barbarous civilization, which the law of the country has branded a crime. While, therefore, I religiously believe in the right of self-defence in its broadest sense, the law of my country and the matured convictions of my whole life alike forbid me to meet you for the purpose indicated by your letter.

In other words, Wilson knew what Brooks resented. He would not withdraw a word of it and he would not take part in Brooks’ affair of honor. People in Massachusetts didn’t go for that kind of savagery. Still, Wilson knew his protocols or at least had the good sense not to deliver his answer to Brooks in person; he had a congressman deliver it.

Wilson took Brooks seriously, dismissal or not. He telegraphed his wife to inform her of the challenge, his refusal, and that if Brooks came upon him Wilson would “defend my life, if possible, at any cost.”  He also made arrangements with friends of his, William Claffin and John B. Alley, to look after his ten year old son and “armed himself for defence, resolved to go where duty called.”

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

Wilson’s history also tells that “a few Southern members” got together at a Washington hotel and debated doing something to him. James Orr, one of the men who knew in advance of Brooks’ plan against Sumner, told Wilson in 1878 that he talked them down. I haven’t read this from anyone else and we must suspect that Wilson may have dramatized things. Orr could also have inflated idle talk into a serious conspiracy. Still, the toxic environment in Washington at the time, where Southerners endorsed Brooks wholeheartedly renders something on those lines happening plausible.

 

 

 

Advertisements

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.

To “record our protest against such a doing”

George Hillard

George Hillard, who has known Charles Sumner for years and once considered him a friend as well as a law partner, condemned Preston Brooks’ caning of his old friend as inhuman and brutal. More than that, and more importantly, he called it cowardly. If Brooks faced Sumner in even terms he would still have transgressed against the respectable mores of Massachusetts gentlemen, but to attack a man unawares made his caning the work of an assassin.

Hillard continued by noting that every man had a duty to come forward, as he and they had, and

record our protest against such a doing, to express our sympathy with our Senator from Massachusetts who has been thus assaulted, and to proclaim to the United States and the world that this is an occasion in which we are able to soar above party distinctions. It is not a gentleman belonging to this or that political party, but it is a man representing Massachusetts, who has been cruelly and brutally assaulted for the honest discharge of what he deems to be his duty, and we have only to say against such doings, we do protest now and all times. (Applause.)

In his own life, Hillard probably felt that pull. He and Sumner hadn’t gotten on in years and retained only a formal remnant of their old friendship. Brooks’ attack took precedence over their personal disagreements, just as it did over Governor Gardner’s differences with Sumner. He represented Massachusetts and that mattered.

Having gone so far, Hillard dialed back:

I hope, in conclusion, that we will not suddenly jump at the inference, that this brutal and cowardly act, is in any degree the expression of public sentiment or sanctioned by the public feeling in any particular section of the country. As yet we have no evidence of it, and let us wait until we have that evidence. I trust we shall not have it

Boston gathered for public indignation on Saturday, May 24. Only two days had passed since the caning. News clearly hadn’t reached Boston of the general delight with which the South greeted received word of Sumner’s plight. Hillard, as a more moderate and less political man than Sumner, might of his own accord approach the question with more circumspection. Doing so before evidence had come in speaks to general prudence and good sense in an era when it could take days for news to travel the country.

“Not first that it was inhuman and brutal, but it was cowardly”

George Hillard

Massachusetts’ Know-Nothing governor, Henry Gardner, had mixed feelings about Sumner’s caning. He condemned it at the public indignation meeting, but left room in his condemnation for anyone who harbored doubts about whether Sumner had gone too far. As a member of a party which positioned itself often as an alternative to antislavery extremism, while retaining some antislavery preferences, he had to thread that needle whatever his private thoughts. Resolutions followed Gardner’s speech, in the same vein as the New York set, but with an additional dig at the congressmen who voted against the House investigatory committee.

George Hillard, a former law partner and friend of Sumner’s who grew apart from him as the latter became more invested in politics, took the stage next. Hillard noted that Sumner’s speech had “strong expressions” but no one called him to order. Therefore, his speech had to be proper. After disclaiming any commitment to pacifism, Hillard got to the meat of it:

the principle that in a civilized community a man may resort to physical violence for the sake of redressing a private wrong, is a doctrine which you and I, and all of us, do most distinctly repudiate, because by adopting or admitting it you render null and void all that has been done by our fathers and mothers to build up this goodly fabric of the State, the highest work of man’s hands.

Hillard had the right of it, by his mores and I hope our own. White Southerners disagreed, but they didn’t attend public indignation meetings in Boston. Sumner’s old partner went on to expound about degrees of culpability in assaults. One could justify, or at least forgive attacks, “made in hot blood” or “under sudden provocation”. Even attacking a person of “notorious violent, manners and deportment” could get a pass.

Brooks did none of that. He couldn’t have acted in the heat of the moment as he “had had at least one sun go down upon his wrath” and against a man who

I can testify, after a friendship of twenty years, is a most amiable, gentle, and kindly man. (Applause.)

Hillard and Sumner hadn’t actually carried on a friendship since the late 1840s, but close enough. He drilled further down, distinguishing Brooks’ assault from “a boxing match”. Men in Massachusetts must still have settled things that way on occasion. He declared such bouts “not a pretty thing to look at” but resolving things that way made one

far nobler or at least less ignoble than the assassin who dogs the steps of his victim in the dark and stabs him in the back. So too the man who comes to me, face to face, at noonday in the street, and tells me he is going to inflict a personal chastisement upon me, there is even in that some little show of fair dealing, of honesty so to speak, even in the very attitude and circumstance of the assault.

If you had to do violence, and Hillard accepted that you sometime might have to, then do it the right way. Stand up and face your foe, don’t skulk around, plot, and strike from surprise. What Brooks did struck Hillard as

a very bad specimen of a very bad school, and the comment I made upon it, was not first that it was inhuman and brutal, but it was cowardly.

The cowardice, mention of which drew applause, stood out to Hillard more than the brutality or inhumanity even in retrospect. He depicted Sumner as, “a man imprisoned, tied hand and foot, so to speak, in an arm-chair and desk” when Brooks struck, “without warning.” That made the South Carolinian an assassin striking a nearly helpless victim. Compared to that Hillard, could commend the “manliness and courage” of someone who met him on the road and whipped him.

 

Governor Gardner on Sumner’s Caning

Henry Gardner (Know-Nothing-MA)

New Yorkers across the political spectrum, from the conservative establishment of the North’s most proslavery city to reformers and radicals, united in condemning Charles Sumner’s caning by Preston Brooks on the floor of the United States Senate. At the city least likely to generate such a response, New York stands out from the crowd. That said, it had a big crowd to stand out from. Sumner’s biographer, David Donald, recounts that

There were not merely rallies in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, not merely in Albany, Cleveland, Detroit, New Haven, Providence, and Rochester, but in Newmarket, New Hampshire, Lockport, New York, Rahway, New Jersey, Berea, Ohio, Burlington, Iowa, and in dozens of other towns.

Preston Brooks had at least briefly united most of the white North, a feat not quite accomplished by the Fugitive Slave Act, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, or all of Bleeding Kansas to date. The outrage naturally united Massachusetts, where a public indignation meeting occupied Faneuil Hal on May 24. Governor Gardner gave the opening speech, wherein he rehearsed familiar themes and then drove into a condemnation of political vitriol:

Gentlemen, I cannot resist this opportunity to say to you that this event, unparalleled heretofore in the history of our country, can perhaps be traced by easy and slow gradations to that habit which is too frequently adopted even in Massachusetts, of unbridled abuse and calumnious insinuations and assaults against the character, purposes, designs and motives of our public men – While I stand here to defend the liberty of speech, I would not have that liberty degenerate into licentiousness. He who strikes into the bosom of an opponent with a dagger, or he who uses a bludgeon upon his head attacks his physical life; but he who uses the dagger of the assassin on the character of a political opponent, or the bludgeon of an untruth upon his reputation, is as bad as the other.

One could hear all that and get the wrong idea. Governor Gardner sounds like a man with more than half a mind to pin this all on Sumner, the martyred victim. The five thousand or so gathered in and around the hall can’t have minded Gardner’s previous pleas to rise above party too much, but just where did he mean to go with the next part? Gardner himself must have realized that, because he immediately dispels the obvious inference:

I can hardly trust myself to speak of this despicable conduct as it deserves. I have read the speech which gave rise to it, and I am constrained to say that in my judgment there is not a pretext for the assault. But whether the words were weighed carefully and were in good taste or not, is not the question. the question is, whether a man from Massachusetts can be indulged with the same latitude that the other sixty senators of Congress are allowed. That is the point for us to consider, and I hesitate not to say that this speech does not surpass many speeches which have been uttered there and gone abroad to the winds, without the first word of complaint against them.

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

The Governor has obvious mixed feelings. The content of Sumner’s speech doesn’t matter, as a matter of principle. On the other hand, nothing in it would justify an attack upon his person. But do remember, character assassination has no place in decent politics. I don’t know what Gardner’s delivery was like, and my report of the speech lacks crowd reaction notes, but he sounds like a man trying to please diverse factions without committing to much to any of them. If you believe Sumner’s speech completely within bounds, you can draw lines out of Gardner to support that. If you believe it outside the limit of good taste, or just minimally acceptable discourse, then Gardner also supports you. Only the position that Sumner really had it coming doesn’t get clear support.

 

Asking Permission: Caning Charles Sumner, Part 3

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

Parts 1, 2

Preston Brooks had a rough week. He sat through Charles Sumner insulting slaveholding, South Carolina, and his senatorial relative Andrew Pickens Butler. That filled his Monday. Tuesday brought more of the same, which Brooks may have heard personally as he did the day prior. Wednesday, he staked out the front of the Capitol and waited for Sumner. He wanted an apology (unlikely) or some satisfaction drawn unwillingly from Sumner’s body. He missed Sumner. For a second try, Brooks stationed himself in in the gatehouse. If Sumner came on foot, good enough. Should he come by carriage, Brooks would follow him through the Capitol and confront him before the Bay Stater reached the Senate chamber. Henry Edmundson of Virginia found him there and convinced him that he had a bad plan. Sumner, the larger of the two men, would have an edge over Brooks even if the congressman hadn’t run across the building and up many flights of steps to start with.

Brooks gave it up for the moment and the two went into the building. They parted, with Brooks headed toward the Senate and Edmundson for the House. Edmundson arrived to news that a Missourian congressman named Miller had died. The House, following the custom in such matters, adjourned for the day. Edmundson walked over to the Senate side, where he spotted Brooks “standing in the lobby on the opposite side of the main aisle from where Mr. Sumner was sitting.” Edmundson took a seat and in short order Senator Geyer of Missouri announced Miller’s death and the Senate adjourned too. Edmundson lost track of Brooks for at least a few moments, but caught sight of him again “occupying a seat in the Senate chamber.”

Charles Sumner

Edmundson walked over and asked Brooks if he thought himself a Senator:

He then said to me he would stand this thing no longer; he would send to Mr. Sumner to retire from the chamber. He then got up, and went into the vestibule outside of the chamber with that view. I followed him, and said, that if he sent such a message, Mr. Sumner would probably sent for him to come into the Senate chamber. He seemed to be busy at his desk directing documents, as I supposed; and he would effect nothing by this, he having previously said he did not desire to have an interview with Mr. Sumner while ladies were present.

One lady remained seated in the lobby just then. Furthermore, in an era when Senators had no offices provided save their desks in the chamber, Sumner might remain in his seat for hours on end. The two went back into the chamber and there Edmundson ran into a friend of his, Senator Johnson of Arkansas

to whom I propounded the question, if there would be any impropriety, should an altercation occur between Mr. Brooks and Mr,. Sumner, of its taking place in the Senate chamber, the Senate having adjourned at the time.

I can only imagine how this conversation must have gone: Do you think anyone would mind if Preston here beat up that Senator over there?

“If he did not apologize, to punish him” Caning Charles Sumner, Part 1

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

We left Charles Sumner on May 20, 1856. He finished his Crime Against Kansas speech, then heard the immediate responses and gave his response to the responses. The Senate called it a day. During Sumner’s second round of speaking, Henry Wilson got word that people might attack his fellow Bay State senator. He went about assembling a small bodyguard to walk Sumner home, but Sumner blew them off. Wilson neglected to explain that he knew of danger when he asked Sumner to wait up, for reasons he doesn’t go into. He may have thought it too obvious to state or expected that a social request from a colleague would suffice. Instead Sumner ducked out a side door and left his bodyguards aspirant behind. It took them a while to realize he had truly gone. By then Sumner had overtaken William Seward, who wanted to share an omnibus with him. They had dinner plans, but Sumner needed to get to the printer and check the proofs for his speech, planned for release as a pamphlet.

Sumner took two days for his speech, beginning on Monday, the nineteenth. Spectators packed the galleries that day, including members of the House. Preston Brooks, one of the latter and a relative of Andrew Butler’s, attended at least the first day. He might also have watched the second, though it seems that he didn’t hear the entire speech straight from Sumner’s lips. Brooks, never a proslavery firebrand but as ardent in his loathing of antislavery men as any white South Carolinian, decided that Sumner insulted South Carolina and Butler so Sumner had to pay the price.

Brooks himself doesn’t offer much information about what he did between hearing Sumner and the caning that made him famous, but his encounters with a Virginian congressman, Henry Edmundson give an idea. Testifying later to the House committee tasked with investigating the affair, Edmundson said that he didn’t know anything of Brooks’ intentions except from congressional gossip on the twentieth. The next morning, the twenty-first, Edumndson saw Brooks loitering about on the steps into the Capitol.

I accosted him, saying, “You are going the wrong way for the discharge of your duties.” He [Brooks] asked me to walk with him. I did so. He then told me Mr. Sumner had been very insulting to his State, and that he had determined to punish him unless he made an ample apology.

The two sat down and talked for a while. Brooks wanted Edmundson “to take no part” in any difficulty, save to serve as a witness, unless if Sumner came along with friends. Edmundson could probably see where this all would go -a southern man of the era wouldn’t have required detailed explanations of such things- but asked just what Brooks expected to do anyway. Brooks

replied it was to call upon Mr. Sumner for the insulting language used towards his State; and if he did not apologize, to punish him.

Brooks sounded off about how southern men needed to stop putting up with “this coarse abuse used by the Abolitionists.” Brooks felt that to represent South Carolina properly, he couldn’t suffer such words in silence. He dwelled on Sumner’s premeditated rhetoric, as Douglas had, and the two sat together until twelve thirty. Like with his bodyguards, Sumner eluded them.

The Apology Tyrannical: The Crime Against Kansas, Part 7

Charles Sumner (Republican-MA)

Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6Full text

Charles Sumner laid it all out for the Senate: The crime against Kansas admitted no denial, so instead his fellow senators had offered defenses. The Massachusetts Senator broke them down into four categories, the Apologies tyrannical, imbecile, absurd, and infamous. He went from the top:

The Apology tyrannical is founded on the mistaken act of Governor Reeder, in authenticalting the Usurping Legislature, by which it is asserted that, whatever may have been the actual force or fraud in its election, the people of Kansas are effectually concluded, and the whole proceeding is pleaded under the formal sanction of law.

In other words, Kansas’ first governor had the legal power to set aside bad elections and call for new ones, at least until the moment that the territorial legislature assembled at Pawnee. He failed to throw out the whole slate, or enough of it, so the apologists argued that the legislature’s formal legitimacy trumped all. Reeder accepted it and that made the bogus legislature the true government of Kansas, end of story. Congress had no business changing things, just

as the ancient tyrant listened and granted no redress to the human moans that issued from the heated brazen bull, which subtle cruelty had devised, This I call the Apology of technicality and inspired tyranny.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Of course that didn’t mean that Sumner let Reeder off. He criticized the governor for only permitting five days for election complaints to reach him. Reeder erred then and erred in accepting the great majority of the elections as-is. But his endorsement could not make a wrong into a right, “violence and fraud, wherever disclosed, vitiates completely every proceeding.” Furthermore, Sumner admitted that Reeder went to Kansas as Franklin Pierce’s proslavery “tool”. There, the governor’s “simple nature” and Pennsylvania upbringing worked to rouse his conscience to his proper duty. By turning on the legislature and serving the free state movement, Reeder atoned for his past errors.

Something certainly happened with Reeder, and he does come across as a man in over his head. He had no political experience to take with him to Kansas and he did repudiate the territorial government, though most probably he cared far less for slavery than he did for vindicating himself. The free staters came to Reeder, almost literally with his bag in hand and set to depart the territory for good. In exchange for joining them and serving as their spokesman, he demanded that their movement endorse his personal grievances against the legislature.

“Piling one mass of elaborate error upon another mass” The Crime Against Kansas, Part 5

Charles Sumner (Republican-MA)

Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4Full text

Charles Sumner went for the low blow. Andrew Pickens Butler, an elderly man, had then-recently suffered a stroke that left him with some facial paralysis. As a result, he tended to drool and spray when he spoke. Sumner went beyond criticizing the politics and morals of his proslavery oratory and damned him for “loose expectoration.” This went somewhat beyond the ordinary bounds of political invective, even in an era when making fun of disabilities didn’t arouse the kind of opprobrium it might now. Hearing all of this while angrily pacing the Senate chamber, Stephen Douglas told a reporter “That damn fool will get himself killed by some other damn fool.”

Of course Sumner had choice words for Douglas too. The Little Giant made the Kansas-Nebraska Act with his enthusiasm for the Pacific railroad, his political ambitions, and his eagerness to sweep aside Native Americans. “[T]he squire of Slavery” defended his course on Kansas in a “labored address,”

piling one mass of elaborate error upon another mass-constrained himself, as you will remember, to unfamiliar decencies of speech. Of that address I have nothing to say at this moment

Anthony Burns

And if you believe that, Sumner has some beachfront property in Kansas that you may like. Most of The Crime Against Kansas responds to Douglas and others. To open that, five pages in, Sumner engaged in a lengthy recapitulation of Kansas history from “the Missouri discussion” on down. He indicted Franklin Pierce and slavery’s friends in Congress for trampling over the rules of the House and Senate to organize the territory with slavery permitted and took swipes at the blue lodges. He made all the familiar accusations of conspiracy and rehearsed the attacks upon democracy in the territory. He called out Pierce further for claiming impotence to enforce law and order within Kansas against proslavery lawlessness when the president exerted himself eagerly to enforce it in Massachusetts to deliver up Anthony Burns.

At length -nine pages in, now- Sumner came to the Wakarusa War:

in the latter days of November, 1855, a storm, long brewing, burst open the heads of the devoted people. […] like the Heathen of old, they [proslavery Missourians] raged, particularly against Lawrence, already known, by the firmness of its principles and the character of its citizens, as the citadel of the good cause. On this account they threatened, in their peculiar language, to “wipe it out.” Soon the hostile power was gathered for this purpose.

Wilson Shannon

That this all arose out of a proslavery man murdering an antislavery man and led to a proslavery force marching against an antislavery town made the whole thing downright perverse, and multiplied its evil in Sumner’s mind. Wilson Shannon “[t]he weak Governor, with no faculty higher than servility to slavery” only compounded the error further by giving official license to the mob. The Senator passed over the role Shannon played in defusing the situation, though considering how heavily he contributed to bringing things to that dire point one can hardly grant him much credit. He tried to clean up the mess only after making it.

Loose Expectorations: The Crime Against Kansas, Part 4

Charles Sumner (Republican-MA)

Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3Full text

Andrew Butler, that “Heroic knight! Exalted Senator! A second Moses come for a second exodus!” always had a good word for his mistress, the harlot Slavery. Charles Sumner would not let the Senate soon forget that. There among them sat a man happy to defend the practice of selling children at auction. Many others did the same, but not all of them both played an important supporting role in repealing the Missouri Compromise and remained in the Senate for Sumner to castigate. Like some of those others, Butler had laid into Sumner. Sumner hit back:

the Senator, in the unrestrained chivalry of his nature, has undertaken to apply opprobrious words to those who differ from him on this floor.

That opprobrium included calling Sumner and company sectional fanatics. Standing against the theft of Kansas by proslavery fraud made for “an uncalculating fanaticism.” Sumner damned the attacks as untrue and unoriginal and turned them back on Butler, painting him as the ardent sectionalist and returning to his theme of freedom national. Butler’s “too great a perversion of terms” could not stand.

Many pages and a day later, Sumner returned to Butler again. The Senator, while absent then from the Senate, remained,

omnipresent in this debate, overflowed with rage at the simple suggestion that Kansas had applied for admission as a State; and, with incoherent phrases, discharged the loose expectoration of his speech […] The Senator touches nothing which he does not disfigure-with error, sometimes of principle, sometimes of fact. He shows an incapacity of accuracy, whether in stating the Constitution or in stating the law […] He cannot open his mouth, but out there flies a blunder

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

On the face of it, Sumner insulted Butler in no more unusual a manner than he would anyone else. One can easily imagine him indicting Franklin Pierce or Daniel Webster with similar words. Sumner’s “loose expectoration” remark would, strictly speaking, fit anybody speaking incautiously. Andrew Butler suffered from partial facial paralysis, which gave him a speech impediment. Disability, not rage or fanaticism, afflicted the Senator’s oratory.

Many historians believe that Sumner drew the assault on his person that would come shortly with those words. Calling attention to a man’s disability attacked him in a way that indicting his politics did not. Sketching him as a bumbling fool and making the disability a centerpiece of that portrayal made it all the worse. Nineteenth century Americans didn’t have our scruples about mocking the unfortunate, but Sumner probably still exceeded the bounds of good taste by a wide margin. Often politicians could flay one another viciously and then kick back for a few drinks after Congress let out. Sometimes they even delighted in the insults they threw back and forth as a kind of game. Butler and Sumner’s friendship likely had some of that element to it, at least at the start. Maybe it could have again, but Butler died in 1857 and Sumner remained largely absent from Washington for the next few years.