“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.

 

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Know-Nothings vs. Know-Nothings 2.0

Henry Wise

Henry Wise

The original version of this post should have gone live Friday. It did not and I lost it. You can imagine my discontent. So here I have reconstructed it from memory, my sources, chiefly Allen Nevins’ Ordeal of the Union and Potter’s The Impending Crisis, and a copy of the old post forwarded to me after I wrote most of this. You get the best of both worlds, Gentle Readers.

The Know-Nothings lost in Virginia. Henry Wise extracted his narrow victory with accusations that the party, with all its private meetings and secret society trappings, provided a haven for abolitionism. Some antislavery men lived up to Wise’s accusation, even if others did not and still others men disdained nativism the same way they disdained slavery. But parties have come together from less coherent bodies. The Whigs started off as the official party of people who hated Andrew Jackson, though they eventually developed a more coherent ideology built around a national bank, internal improvements, and a more prime ministerial vision of the presidency. Ex-Whigs and rebel Democrats could do the same, and that new ideology might mitigate the American Party’s demographic challenges in the South. If they could get people fired up about other things in addition to immigrants, they had a road to electoral success even where immigrants had barely penetrated.

The election of 1856 would give nativism another chance. They would have a national convention and vote on a party platform. That national platform would serve as their ideological manifesto for the next four years. They had already staked out a position on the Union, introducing a Union degree in their rituals and getting maybe 1.5 million Know-Nothings to swear out an oath to stand against sectionalism from the North or South.

But state conventions fed into the national convention and each one saw in the convention a chance to swing the national platform their way. These state conventions, of course, lived in one section or the other and acted accordingly. Massachusetts and New Hampshire got the ball rolling by approving antislavery resolutions. New Jersey’s delegates arrived instead with a resolution that the party ought to seek the friendship of the South. Illinois found too much division to agree on a resolution either way. But those resolutions did not necessarily bind the delegates down the road. A few nonconforming states could be dragged to orthodoxy easily enough, right?

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church's perceived attempt to "take over" American life

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church’s perceived attempt to “take over” American life

The Know-Nothing bigwigs got together in a National Council in Philadelphia in June, 1855, with an eye toward using the upcoming presidential race as their next stepping-stone to becoming the one true national Unionist party. The delegates agreed easily on excluding the foreign-born and foreign-schooled from office. They signed on for a twenty-one year wait before naturalization. They condemned Catholicism. (A Louisiana convention later condemned the condemnation on behalf of the righteous, native-born Catholics unfairly lumped in with the newly arrived sorts.) A majority of the platform committee damned Whig and Democrat alike for slavery agitation and pledged the party to preservation of the Union in its existing state. In other words, they pledged themselves to Kansas-Nebraska. The document went on to say that Congress ought not legislate on slavery in the territories again. All the slave state delegates, plus California and New York signed on.

That asked far more than the rest of the Know-Nothing North would give. Their minority report demanded either restoration of the Missouri Compromise or, failing that, refusal to admit any slave states to the Union from its former territory. That would make any future Kansas and Nebraska both free soil. When the majority would not accept those demands, the delegates from all the free states save New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and California seceded from the convention.

This from the party of sectional comity and national Union?

The States Speak

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase (FS-OH)

Most sectional disputes prior to Kansas-Nebraska involved something like a united South forcing its will on a divided North. The South had its own internal divisions that we should not ignore, but the common interest in preserving slavery usually trumped the North’s indifference to the subject. The South did not always win all that it wanted, and never pleased its radicals, but one can reasonably argue that Southern, proslavery interests prevailed more often than not. That only stands to reason. A committed minority that cares far more about its signature issue than its opposition often prevails in a democratic system. The rickety constitutional structure of the American republic, packed to the gills with anti-democratic measures proved an able accomplice. Had matters involved just what the House of Representatives preferred, the Wilmot Proviso would have sailed into law. The Senate changed all of that.

One might expect, given the reversal of the usual pattern, that the House’s plan to bury the Kansas-Nebraska act would have succeeded. The more united section would prevail over the less united. Probably the men in the House who voted to bury the bill expected something like that. With Nebraska wrapped up in the Missouri Compromise repeal from the get-go, future Congresses would have a far harder time bringing it back than Stephen Douglas had in pushing the bill through the Senate. The South would accept the loss and move on. Maybe Union-minded Southerners would even come around and vote to defeat the bill as one provocation too far and to show themselves Union men first and Southern men second.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas (D-IL)

Politicians with such hopes had good reason to hold them. In early 1854, as the Senate debated, ten free states had their legislatures in session. Only Douglas’ own Illinois could rouse itself to pass a resolution in favor of the Kansas-Nebraska act, and that with considerable pressure from his supporters. Only fifty of the legislature’s hundred members voted on the issue. Rhode Island condemned it unanimously. Maine, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin damned the bill by large margins. The New York legislature instructed its delegation directly to vote against Kansas-Nebraska. In the other five, Democratic majorities made their influence felt through inaction. Pennsylvania and New Jersey contemplated the issue, but refused to take a vote. Salmon Chase’s own Ohio kept the subject tabled, fearing reaction either way. The California Democracy, in firm control of the state, likewise opted for silence.

Lewis Cass

Lewis Cass (D-MI)

Other states did not have their legislatures in session, but voice their objections by other means. Connecticut, the conservative home of manufacturers with strong Southern business ties, saw its state conventions for both parties vote anti-Nebraska resolutions through. In Pierce’s own New Hampshire, which held the first election after the bill came before the Senate, the Democracy’s majority in the governor’s race dropped by two-thirds and the party lost its House majority of 89. Pierce insisted that Nebraska had nothing to do with the result, which would have surprised the voters. The Pennsylvania Democratic convention let Douglas down too, resisting pressure to toe the administration line. In Detroit, home of Mr. Popular Sovereignty Lewis Cass, elected an anti-Nebraska Whig mayor by the kind of margin that the Democracy customarily enjoyed. The town’s Democratic paper, the Times, insisted that Michigan stood against Nebraska and if the Little Giant’s bill passed, there would be hell to pay.

To answer all of that, and more, the South responded tepidly. Georgia and Mississippi endorsed the bill. The Tennessee Senate came just short, endorsing its principles but not Kansas-Nebraska itself. Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, and Texas opted for the same silence that Pennsylvania, Ohio, and California chose.