Brooks vs. Burlingame: Second and Third Tries

Anson Burlingame

Anson Burlingame and Preston Brooks came to the edge of a duel, then backed down. Burlingame offered an apology, Brooks accepted, and both men went about their lives. Shortly thereafter, Burlingame’s apology hit the New England papers and they turned on him. Burlingame promptly changed course, publishing a retraction of his apology in the National Intelligencer. Since Burlingame determined to stand by his words on the House floor and withdrew his explanation that he condemned the caning, not Brooks personally, Brooks sent him a note on the day of publication, July 21, 1856.

Sir:-

Will you do me the kindness to indicate some place outside of this District where it will be convenient to you to negotiate in reference to the difference between us.

A duel in the District of Columbia would break the law. Politicians took their disputes usually to Bladensburg, five miles away. No Washington duel had taken place more than nine miles distant. Burlingame may not have known the exact numbers, but he clearly understood the pattern. He likely didn’t want to risk a duel, which could backfire on him politically and might just cost his life. So he asked Lewis Campbell how he might accept the challenge, thus avoiding any appearance of cowardice, but not have to go through with it. Campbell came up with just the solution and wrote back to Brooks:

In reply I have to say that I will be at the Clifton House on the Canada side of Niagara Falls on Saturday next at 12 o’clock M. to “negotiate” in reference to “any differences between us” which in your judgment may require settlement “outside of this district.”

Brooks knew exactly what Burlingame meant with all this. He wrote later

I could not reach Canada without running the gauntlet of mobs and assassins, prisons and penitentiaries, bailiffs and constables. … I might as well have been asked to fight on Boston Common.

He could go there, but if Preston Brooks showed his face far north of the Mason-Dixon Line he might get his own caning and then some. Brooks naturally refused, at which point the northern papers took him to task whilst simultaneously puffing up Burlingame as a man ready to go to the ends of the Earth to fight. The New York Evening Post published a doggerel mocking the South Carolinian

To Canada Brooks was asked to go

To waste of power a pound or so.

He sighed as he answered no, no, no

They might take my life on the way, you know.

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

The mockery can’t have delighted Brooks, but the paper had him dead to rights. Burlingame then appeared in the House once more, on July 28, and suggested that if Brooks didn’t have the courage to go to Canada, which Burlingame considered neutral ground, Brooks could name another place. Then he promptly left Washington. Only Lewis Campbell knew where he went. Brooks’ second spent the next days looking for Burlingame to deliver a counter-proposal as asked.

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Brooks vs. Burlingame

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

Anson Burlingame castigated Preston Brooks for caning Charles Sumner. Brooks resented that as he resented Henry Wilson’s remarks on the caning and challenged Burlingame to a duel. Burlingame made a distinction between Brooks’ action, which he deplored, and Brooks himself. That satisfied Brooks’ seconds and Burlingame shortly left Washington to stump for the upcoming presidential race. I intended today to progress from that point, but a kind friend has put in my hands perhaps the only article ever written about the Brooks-Burlingame affair. It hails from The Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly XXXIV, hot of the presses in 1925. Therein, James E. Campbell relates that Preston Brooks practically went shopping for dueling partners.

He began with Henry Wilson, as we know. Campbell adds that Brooks issued a challenge to a Congressman Woodruff, who answered much in the same vein that Wilson did. Brooks resented Lewis Campbell for introducing the motion to investigate the caning and then chairing the committee which recommended Brooks’ expulsion. (Historian Campbell, incidentally, is Congressman Campbell’s nephew.) The day after the caning, friends advised the elder Campbell that he would soon face a challenge.

Mr. Campbell made no reply until they passed a shooting gallery; when, turning back, he invited his friend to enter. Asking the proprietor to remove the customary target and replace it with a lighted candle, he proceeded to snuff that candle with a rifle ball, “off-hand” three times in succession. It is hardly necessary to add that the subject of his challenge was never afterward alluded to, for the certainty of death has a tendency to cool the ardor of the most persistent duelist.

This sounds like one of those stories an older relative tells you in your childhood, but I know of other duels called off in part on the grounds that the challenged party had excellent aim. Burlingame had a similar reputation as a crack shot. It seems Brooks came to him last of all. Campbell quotes from Burlingame’s apology, written in Nathaniel Banks’ hand. Burlingame

disclaimed any intention to reflect upon the personal character of Mr. Brooks, or to impute to him in any respect a want of courage; but discriminating between the man and the act which he was called upon to allude to

Anson Burlingame

That did settle things, temporarily. Then the apology made its way to the newspapers. They cared not at all for Burlingame backing down, with the Boston Courier leading the charge. Timothy Davis, a “colleague” of Burlingame’s, brought matters to his attention. Between July 18, when the Courier attacked him, and July 21, Burlingame consulted with Campbell. Campbell told him that if he meant what he said on the House floor, he ought to stand up for it. On the latter date, he published a note in the National Intelligencer about his prior apology:

Inasmuch as attempts, not altogether unsuccessful, have been made to pervert its true meaning, I now withdraw it; and, that there may not be any misapprehension in the future I say, explicitly, that I leave my speech to interpret itself, and hold myself responsible for it without qualifications or amendment.

“And smote him as Cain smote his brother” Anson Burlingame Speaks Out, Part 3

Anson Burlingame

Anson Burlingame took to the floor of the House of Representatives on June 21, 1856 to express his outrage at Preston Brooks’ attack upon Charles Sumner. He would have the House know that Charles Sumner gave a fine speech full of righteous indignation and such a great and good man deserved not a single lick from anyone’s gutta-percha cane. All of this, plus a lengthy vindication of the antislavery cause in Kansas and a defense of Massachusetts, brought Burlingame to the fourth page of his speech in the Congressional Globe. There he came to the point:

On the 22nd day of May, when the Senate and the House had clothed themselves in mourning for a brother fallen in the battle of life in the distant State of Missouri, the senator from Massachusetts sat in the silence of the Senate Chamber, engaged in the employments appertaining to his office, when a member from this House, who had taken an oath to sustain the Constitution, stole into the Senate, that place which had hitherto been held sacred against violence, and smote him as Cain smote his brother.

The Senate chamber didn’t have quite the perfect innocence from violence that we would hope. Henry Foote once drew a pistol on an angry and advancing Thomas Hart Benton, after all. But to the best of my knowledge no one before Brooks took the final step of actually committing violence. Everything before 1856 stopped at threats, brandishing arms, or went outside.

Lawrence Keitt (D-SC)

As Burlingame said all this, Lawrence Keitt sat there listening. As soon as the line about Cain came out, he spoke up.

Mr. KEITT, (in his seat.) That is false.

Mr. BURLINGAME. I will not bandy epithets with the gentleman. I am responsible for my own language. Doubtless he is responsible for his.

Mr. KEITT. I am.

Mr. BURLINGAME. I shall stand by mine.

After that posturing, Burlingame reached the event itself. He gave a brief summary of what everyone already knew and then really tore in. He denounced the caning in the name of the Constitution, Massachusetts, humanity, civilization, and fair play. Brooks himself, “if he has a spark of that chivalry and gallantry attributed to him” should lament his attack. Burlingame went on to castigate Slidell, Douglas, and Toombs.

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

Some days after Burlingame closed his speech, Preston Brooks chose to take action. He recruited a couple of men as go-betweens to approach Nathaniel Banks, Speaker of the House, and George Ashmun, both friends of Burlingame’s. They wanted satisfaction, as Henry Wilson puts it, “amicably or otherwise.”

It seems that they came on Banks and Ashmun in Burlingame’s company. He “expressed his personal regard for Brooks” but persisted in attacking the caning. Distinguishing between the act and the actor opened up hope for a non-violent resolution. Everyone left the meeting convinced they had a modus vivendi. Burlingame left Washington to stump for the Republicans in the presidential race.

“Martyrdom on the scaffold or the stake”

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Robinson concluded his first message (PDF) to Kansas’ new legislature with some further remarks on their situation. Everyone had seen Sheriff Jones taking names down as men came forward and swore their oaths of office. They might have exchanged some jokes or tossed a few insults his way, but everybody knew Jones meant business. Robinson didn’t name him, but none could have had to guess for long just who he meant when the new governor said

It is understood that the Deputy Marshal has private instructions to arrest the members of the Legislature and the State officers for treason as soon as this address is received by you. In such an event of course, no resistance will be offered to the officer.

The last time someone, Samuel Newitt Wood, offered resistance to Jones it ended with an army outside Lawrence. For all the bellicose language common in such times, the free state movement had barely gotten clear of that without a battle they might well have lost or, failing that, won at the expense of bringing the United States Army down on their heads.

The standards of manly performance would not allow Robinson to admit to that in so many words, but nineteenth century discourse permitted him other avenues:

Men who are ready to defend their own and their country’s honor with their lives, can never object to a legal investigation into their action, nor to suffer any punishment their conduct may merit. We should be unworthy the constituency we represent did we shrink from martyrdom on the scaffold or at the stake should duty require it. Should the blood of Collins and Dow, of Barber and Brown, be insufficient to quench the thirst of the President and his accomplices in the hollow mockery of “Squatter Sovereignty” they are practising upon the people of Kansas, then more victims must be furnished. Let what will come not a finger should be raised against the Federal authority until there shall be no hope of relief but in revolution.

If the vampiric president descended upon them, Robinson told the free state men to stand ready. Should Pierce throw a war, they ought to come. Should he martyr them, they died for righteousness’ sake and could claim whatever patriotic and heavenly blessings such an office would convey. Kansas had hard times yet ahead, Robinson averred, but together and putting their faith in the Almighty, “His wisdom who makes ‘the wrath of men praise him'” they would make their Kansas into the Kansas, a state of the Union free twice over. Their Kansas would have no slaves and no black Americans alike, preserving it for them and their posterity. To that cause, the Governor need not add, they would commit their lives, their liberty, and their sacred honor.

Nathaniel Banks

Nathaniel Banks

It must have made for a rousing read, thick with the patriotic and religious sentiments most potent to Robinson’s audience. But the bold words had to come with more than a hint of desperation. Jones would probably try nothing then and there, but what would happen down the road? The free state men had stuck their necks out, then stuck them out still further, in the hope that Congress would come to their rescue. That same Congress finally agreed on who ought to serve as Speaker of the House after a solid two months of debate, finally settling on a Know-Nothing antislavery man called Nathaniel Banks. They elected him on a plurality, not a majority, and it took one hundred and thirty-three ballots. The question of the free state government’s legitimacy could not hope to be any less explosive than that.

Franklin Pierce’s Third Annual Message

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Sorry for yesterday’s tardy post, Gentle Readers. I mistakenly scheduled it for the wrong date entirely.

We left the House of Representatives with a new Speaker. Nathaniel Banks claimed the office with a plurality vote on February 3, 1856, just a day shy of  two months after the 34th Congress opened. The fate of slavery in Kansas had created that struggle to begin with, as northern antislavery reaction had cost the Democracy control of the House and support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act made various candidates entirely unacceptable. Every round of voting occasioned further speeches on the question. While the Speaker’s race wore on in the legislature, the executive made its own statement on the matter.

From the very start of Kansas’ troubles, free state men had expressed their hope that if Franklin Pierce knew what had gone on he would stand with them. It suited their position to say so, as they constantly emphasized that they rejected only the bogus government of Kansas rather than the United States as a whole. They wanted nothing of treason, but rather only their rights as Americans and as promised to them by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Self-preservation and cynical positioning play their role in those declarations, but we should not confuse Franklin Pierce with Jefferson Davis or John C. Calhoun. As a New Hampshire man, his contemporaries might not have expected him to defend every proslavery excess. Furthermore, the border ruffians had sinned against the cardinal tenet of the Democracy: popular sovereignty. As far back as Thomas Jefferson, Democrats (then calling themselves Republicans) had proclaimed themselves the advocates of the common white man against distant and elite authority. Andrew Jackson, who gets the press for doing the same, largely benefited from a well-advanced trend toward greater white male democracy. As a northerner and a Democrat, Pierce must have seemed to some, like his fellow northern Democrats in Kansas, like exactly the man you’d want to sort out the entire Kansas mess.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

So far as official acts go, Franklin Pierce had not given much encouragement to antislavery Kansans. He had fired Andrew Reeder, who demonstrated at least some devotion to genuine popular sovereignty in Kansas. But officially, Pierce dismissed Reeder for land speculations. Even if you didn’t believe that reason, and I doubt many did, at least the president hadn’t called Reeder a damned abolitionist plotting servile insurrection. And the first governor of Kansas had engaged in shady land speculations involving both land reserved for Indian tribes and the United States Army. Pierce had removed a guilty man from office, if not for his actual crimes.

The President had an annual message to give to Congress. We call that a State of the Union today and expect it delivered in person, but at the time they called it an annual message and presidents sent it along in writing. Pierce opened his third on a testy note:

The Constitution of the United States provides that Congress shall assemble annually on the first Monday of December, and it has been usual for the President to make no communication of a public character to the Senate and House of Representatives until advised of their readiness to receive it. I have deferred to this usage until the close of the first month of the session, but my convictions of duty will not permit me longer to postpone the discharge of the obligation enjoined by the Constitution upon the President “to give to the Congress information of the state of the Union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

He waited all month, not sending the message until the last of December. Custom expected Congress to have its House in order, but as that chamber hadn’t done so Franklin Pierce reached the last possible moment to do his duty. Tradition or no, he had a job to do. He assured Congress that “the Republic is tranquilly advancing in a career of prosperity and peace” before progressing to the nation’s troubles, which might imperil said advance of prosperity and peace.

Finding a Speaker

We left the 34th Congress deadlocked on who to elect Speaker of the House. Until they did, they lacked a presiding officer and could hardly get any business done. Someone had to become Speaker, but the administration’s candidate couldn’t get the required majority. The opposition coalition of Know-Nothings, Free Soilers, Whigs, Republicans, and anti-Nebraska Democrats together had the votes to fill the seat, but such a heterodox group has its own problems finding the right man for the job. They agreed on not accepting Franklin Pierce’s choice of William Richardson, but little else.

Lewis Campbell (Whig-OH)

Lewis Campbell (Whig-OH)

After Richardson won a plurality and, consequently, lost the first ballot the opposition made a go of uniting around Lewis Campbell, an Ohio Whig. Campbell earned their esteem through an attempted filibuster against the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the last Congress. Things went so well back then that Campbell nearly found himself physically attacked. That had to count for something, right?

Apparently not enough. Giving it another try after Campbell also failed to command a majority, a large group of Republicans settled on Nathaniel P. Banks. Banks, a Massachusetts man, had the kind of pedigree that would inspire mixed emotions in such a fraught time. In the Bay State, he had stood as a Democrat but then combined with free soilers. Lately Banks had hopped parties again, moving over to the Know-Nothings. That made him a traitor twice over, to more orthodox Democrats, and might look shifty to his latest band of allies. But his career also spanned contentious spectrum of party politics in the middle 1850s.

Bank’s fellow Know-Nothings preferred Kentucky’s Humphrey Marshall and without them he didn’t have a majority either. When Marshall’s run ended similarly, they tried Henry Fuller. The votes went on and on, with no winner emerging. Every ballot came with a new round of recrimination. The Republicans laid into anti-Nebraska men who opposed Banks, which naturally endeared them to their targets. The southerners and administration Democrats had their own frustrations in the minority, still voting for Richardson ballot after ballot.

William Aiken (D-SC)

William Aiken (D-SC)

The 34th Congress opened on December 3, 1855. Yet on the 24th, Allan Nevins reports that with the sixty-eighth ballot,

Banks has 101 votes, Richardson 72, and Fuller 31, with eleven for minor figures.

As part of the process, congressmen quizzed the candidates. Nevins relates how a Mississippian asked Banks if he believed in racial equality. Banks

responded that it seemed to be the general law that the weaker of two juxtaposed races was absorbed or disappeared altogether. “Whether the black race … is equal to the white race, can only be determined by the absorption or disappearance of one or the other, and I propose to wait until the respected races can be properly subjected to this philosophical test before I give a decisive answer.”

Nathaniel Banks

Nathaniel Banks

The House thought that pretty funny, but it probably didn’t win Banks any votes.

With the grinding process, the constant rounds of fruitless questioning and votes, and endless speeches, one might expect tempers to flare. Congressmen had assaulted one another on the floor before, and would again. But only Horace Greeley took any lumps, and he took them away from the floor of the House. I sought further details, but haven’t found a copy of the New York Weekly Tribune for February 2 online.

The battle for the Speakership wore on through December and January, not ending until the start of February when the House voted a rule to elect the Speaker with a plurality. Nathaniel Banks at last prevailed, 103-100, over South Carolina’s William Aiken, Jr. In settling on Banks, the opposition coalition had not repudiated nativism, but the majority within had clearly chosen an antislavery nativist, from Massachusetts no less, over proslavery or indifferent candidates available to them from climes further South. A victory barely managed out hardly made for a grand triumph, and Banks would use his powers in a decidedly impartial way, but the opposition had moved at least a small step beyond single-issue rejection of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and toward a consolidated party.