Guns, Chickens, and Checks: The Journey to Kansas, Part 5

John Brown

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

John Brown had letters on hand from three of his sons when he started for Kansas. Junior told him the general situation and advised him against expecting to make money raising livestock or land speculating. He did suggest that antislavery men in the territory should arm themselves, though. Jason wrote of his and his wife’s depression at the death of their son. Salmon wanted food and summer clothes. Further correspondence kept Brown up to date on the political situation  and asked if he could raise some money to send guns to Kansas. In better news, Junior also wrote that while all the territory’s surveying had all been contracted out it went so slowly that Brown stood a chance of getting work at it all the same.

All of this goes to the elder Brown’s motivation in coming to Kansas. John Brown went to Kansas to fight slavery and help his sons. He also wanted some means of support while doing so and took a keen interest in money making opportunities, inquiring about prices and the feasibility of various agricultural operations. When Brown got news that he would probably not make piles of money and an at best qualified endorsement of his plan to work as a surveyor, he still went. A person driven entirely by pecuniary interest would have looked elsewhere. Much later, sitting in a Virginia jail, Brown told Clement Vallandingham essentially the same thing:

Vallandingham. How long have you been engaged in this business?

Brown. From the breaking out of the difficulties in Kansas. Four of my sons had gone there to settle, and they induced me to go. I did not go there to settle, but because of the difficulties.

Vallandingham then asked why Brown came to Virginia. Brown gave an answer that would fit his trip to Kansas just as well:

We came to free the slaves, and only that.

Brown made his arrangements. From Chicago, he wrote explaining the progress of his journey since leaving North Elba. He picked up a good horse for $120

but have so much load that we shall have to walk a good deal-enough probably to supply ourselves with game.

Brown traveled with his son Oliver and son-in-law Henry Thompson. He continued on this theme on September 4, by which time they had reached just into Iowa. They tarried longer in than expected in Chicago because “our freight” hadn’t arrived. That freight included guns, of which Brown had a crate from Cleveland as well, and some artillery swords. In further firearms news, he told the family that Oliver turned out to have a good aim and had brought down many free-roaming chickens for the party. Brown closed with instructions for Watson, left in charge back in New York, on how to cash a check for some cattle Brown ordered sold.

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Money and Provisions: The Journey to Kansas, Part 4

John Brown

Parts 1, 2, 3

We left John Brown inquiring with his sons who went to Kansas about prices in Westport. Brown still planned to make a trip to North Elba, but by spring of 1855 he had decided to go at least for a time to the nation’s newest territory himself. As he settled up affairs in Ohio and looked forward to that tip, Brown had a letter in hand from John, Jr., describing all Kansas’ troubles with election-stealing Missourians. He recommended, in language close to that his father used when establishing the League of Gileadites, that “The Antislavery portion of the inhabitants should immediately, thoroughly arm and organize themselves in military companies.”

The younger John Brown avowed that his brothers with him in Kansas, except maybe the unusually gentle Jason, would take up the fight in a heartbeat, if only they had guns and ammunition. Since Brown the elder intended to come to Kansas anyway, could he pick up some for them? To get the cash, Junior suggested hitting up Gerrit Smith.

Brown already had some years of familiarity with Smith from his North Elba involvement. Smith had the right politics and the deep pockets to provide. Brown meant to go to New York anyway. All the pieces fell together and Brown found Smith at Syracuse, where “Radical Political Abolitionists” had gathered for a convention. Brown stepped into the hall on June 28 and informed the body, who had already voted $4,600 to antislavery business, that Kansas needed support.

Brown explained what happened next in a letter collected in The Life and Letters of Captain John Brown, by Richard Webb. He received “a most warm reception from all” and got just that day

a little over sixty dollars-twenty from Gerrit Smith, five from an old British officer; others giving smaller sums with such earnest and affectionate expressions of their good wishes as did me more good than money even. John’s two letters were introduced, and read with such effect, by Gerrit Smith, as to draw tears from numerous eyes in the great collection of people present.

Gerrit Smith

Smith and Frederick Douglass also spoke to the convention on Brown’s behalf.

Brown sounds genuinely moved by his reception. He tells his family that he wishes they could have seen it with him and that he made many “warm hearted and honest friends.” He took their sixty-odd dollars, not a great deal considering what the convention pledged elsewhere, back to Ohio and bought bought a box of guns.

In Springfield, he received advice from Junior that he had requested about the best way to get into Kansas. Brown should avoid the river at this time of year and travel by lumber wagon. Junior also warned him of the weather and reported that the amount of squatters made land speculation dubious. Nor should Brown hope to do well with horses or cattle. Jason wrote as well, explaining that he had fallen silent out of depression over Austin’s death. His wife Ellen had taken it worse still and he might have to bring her back east. Salmon wrote asking Brown to bring food and summer clothing, while also reporting slaves owned not three miles away from the boys’ claims.

 

Visions of Prosperity: The Journey to Kansas, Part 3

John Brown

Parts 1, 2

With Austin Brown dead of cholera and buried in Missouri, the families of Jason and John Brown, Jr., made their way back to the steamer and found that it had left them behind. They paid for a full passage and departed the boat only to bury four year old Austin, in the middle of a thunderstorm no less, but got abandoned all the same. By the most charitable reading, the captain simply didn’t know they left. More likely he didn’t care or saw the chance to spite Yankees as a fringe benefit to making up lost time. That left the Browns to proceed by land, paying passage all over again. That included food, which many Missourians refused to sell to Northerners.

Still, the Browns soldiered on and reached Kansas

her lovely prairies and wooded streams seemed to us indeed like a haven of rest. Here in prospect we saw our cattle increased to hundreds and possibly to thousands, fields of corn, orchards, and vineyards. At once we set about the work through which our visions of prosperity could be realized.

The Browns had the standard frontier experience, gleefully imagining their future prosperity on stolen land. They came to the town of Osawatomie, where the Marais des Cynges met Pottawatomie Creek, an area with ample timber. They a brief time time with John Brown’s in-law, Samuel Adair, and he probably got them up to speed on what the Missourians did come election time. Then they headed off to find Frederick, Salmon, and Owen Brown’s claims by North Middle Creek, a tributary of the Marais des Cynges. There they established adjoining claims. Kansas greeted its new arrivals with the height of its rainy season, delivering thunderstorms aplenty.

All this takes us up to May of 1855, at which point Brown biographer Stephen Oates says Brown decided to join his sons in Kansas. He references Sanborn’s Life and Letters of John Brownfrom which I have most of the Brown correspondence I’ve quoted to date. Sanborn doesn’t produce a letter indicating Brown’s official change of heart, but the relevant page includes narrative from Sanborn that Brown made his decision at this point. Considering Sanborn knew Brown personally and served as one of his Harper’s Ferry backers, his word should suffice.

Oates refers to Brown writing John, Jr., on May 24 to ask about the best way to come to Kansas and what his sons wanted him to bring along. The relevant page of Sanborn does include two brief letters Brown wrote from Rockford, dated May 7 and June 4. Neither letter refers to any plan to come to Kansas directly or includes the questions Oates has Brown ask. Nor does the letter that Junior wrote Brown on May 2 informing him of the situation in the territory appear there. I would rather have both, but will have to settle for Oates’ rendition:

On May 24, Brown himself wrote his sons from Rockford, Illinois, asking how he should come to Kansas and what necessities they might want him to bring. He also inquired about the prospects for surveying and speculating in land and about the going prices for beans, apples, cornmeal, bacon, horses, and cattle.

In the letter of May 7, Brown asks only about the prices of wheat and corn in Westport. The next, June 4, reports that Brown has sold his Devonshire cattle and planned to head up to North Elba. Reading those in conjunction with Sanborn’s declaration that Brown chose for Kansas at this point makes for a convincing case, but the absent letters remain a personal research frustration.

The Journey to Kansas, Part 1

John Brown

John Brown and North Elba: parts 1, 234

According to Stephen Oates’ biography, John Brown felt conflicting urges to go ahead with his plan to relocate to North Elba and to go with his sons to Kansas. He had a prior commitment to New York and most of his family already lived there, but Kansas did beckon. He asked advice from friends and gave the black community in the Adirondacks potentially the deciding vote. By November of 1854, Brown had settled on the point. He would stick with his first plan.

That same month, Owen, Salmon, and Frederick Brown drove their herd of eleven cows and three horses into Illinois for the winter. Come spring, 1855, they continued on and staked claims near Osawatomie. That put them some thirty miles south of Lawrence and near to where Samuel Adair set up his homestead.

While Owen, Salmon, and Frederick moved their stock and wintered over, Jason and Brown’s namesake son sold their Ohio farms and readied themselves to follow. Not burdened by herds, they expected to travel across Missouri by riverboat. Brown himself kept on making arrangements and trying to scrape together the money to remove permanently from Ohio to North Elba. By February, he hoped that he could quit the state sometime in the next month and also

I got quite an encouraging word about Kansas from Mr. Adair the other day. He had before then given quite a gloomy picture of things. He and family were all well.

On the same day, February 13, he wrote another letter where he declared his interest in Kansas as considerably beyond the abstract:

Since I last saws you I have undertaken to direct the operations of a Surveying; & exploring party to be employed in Kansas for a considerable length of time, perhaps for some Two or Three years.

Contrary to his first biographer, James Redpath, Oates found evidence that Brown intended to do more than survey a bit. He would look into land speculation and business opportunities. If any of those appeared promising, and Brown tended to find most business opportunities promising, then he could relocate his whole family to Kansas. John Brown would go to Kansas, at least for a few years and maybe for good, sometime in the summer or fall of 1855.

The other Browns had already gotten underway. Jason and Ellen, with their son Austin; and John Jr, Wealthy, and their son John Brown III went by boat as planned. They loaded up on supplies in St. Louis: “two small tents, a plough, and some smaller farming-tools, and a hand-mill for grinding corn.” In April they got going aboard the New Lucy,

which too late we found crowded with passengers, mostly men from the South bound for Kansas. That they were from the South was plainly indicated by their language and dress; while their drinking, profanity, and display of revolvers and bowie-knives -openly worn as an essential part of their make-up- clearly showed the class to which they belonged, and their mission was to aid in establishing slavery in Kansas.

John Brown and North Elba, Part 2

John Brown

We left John Brown set on removing from Ohio to North Elba, New York. There he would teach those black Americans, many former slaves, who took Gerritt Smith’s offer of free land how to farm in the cold, rugged Adirondacks. Thus order would emerge from disorder and Brown would create a community that modeled the America he hoped for, where black and white Americans lived together in harmony and relative equality. Before Brown could do all that, he needed to close out his wool business. Tinkering with prices moved 37,000 pounds of top-grade material, but that still left north of two hundred thousand pounds and tens of thousands of dollars of debt to clear.

Brown decided that the wool manufactures conspired to dominate the market, so he would try shipping his wool to England. He shrugged off news that the English exported wool to the United States, where it sold for less than domestic product despite the tariff. The Englishmen didn’t grade wool like John Brown did. Brown made his plans for export and relocation in the same month, April of 1848. His youngest daughter also caught sick that month and died in his arms. Another daughter reported that Brown “broke down completely and sobbed like a child” when she was buried.

Life had to go on. May found the Browns renting a farm in North Elba until Brown could build his own. Setting things in order consumed June, during the course of which Brown hired black laborers and tried to work out property lines in the unsurveyed mountains. Once, lost travelers happened on his farm. Brown fed them, housed them for the night, and scandalized them by sharing a table with black men and calling them Mister. In July, he left the farm in his daughter’s charge and set off to see to the wool.

Brown arrived in London in August, where he learned he could not sell his wool until September. He tried France and freed himself of only five bales. Brussels, with a side trip to see the Waterloo battlefield, and Hamburg did no better. In desperation, he tried Leeds and got the same result. Finally he sold the lot at a considerable loss. Brown blamed prejudice against Americans in a letter to his business partner, but insisted that he had at least done something to advance American commerce in Europe.

He probably believed that, but the facts do not bear Brown out. A Massachusetts woolens manufacturer offered Brown sixty cents a pound before he exported the wool. The same man bought the same wool back over from England at fifty-two cents a pound, including the costs of shipping and the tariff. The debacle added $40,000 in losses to the more than $50,000 of debt the business already owed. Depressed, facing his second bankruptcy, Brown traveled Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia trying to explain himself and settle up with his suppliers. Many of them opted to sue instead.

Brown turned to dreams of getting rich quickly by establishing a vineyard, but that vision would keep him from North Elba. His mind also turned to the politics of late 1850, which slavery dominated.

“I am something of a pioneer.” John Brown and North Elba, Part 1

John Brown

John Brown has an interesting and often unfortunate life prior to his arrival in Kansas. By the time the nation’s most troubled territory came into the news, he had failed at business in multiple states. He dreamed already of revolution. Brown told his family that he envisioned going into the South with an armed band to free slaves. They would raid, terrify the enslavers, spirit those who didn’t want to or couldn’t fight up to Canada, and keep the rest in the mountains. Once he had a core group going, they could spark a general uprising that would purge slavery from the land. Brown thought he might get a start of it with the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. His antislavery convictions won him the notice of Frederick Douglass, who called at his Ohio home and praised Brown in his paper long before anyone but neighbors and business associates knew John Brown as anything other than a man with an unexceptional name.

Smarting from his recent failures at business, most recently in wool, and the protracted illness of his son Frederick, 1848 found John Brown near to the end of his rope. He heard that abolitionist Gerrit Smith, who donated some land to Oberlin College that Brown helped survey in 1840, wanted to establish a colony of black Americans in far Upstate New York. There, away from most hostile whites, they might prosper in peace. Few had taken Smith up on the offer for free land, more than a hundred thousand acres of it, on account of the distance and the bitter Adirondack winters. Those few lived in a small community called North Elba.

Gerrit Smith

In April of that year, Brown went to Smith’s mansion and presented the abolitionist with an idea:

I am something of a pioneer. I grew up among the woods and wild Indians of Ohio, and am used to the climate and the way of life that your colony find so trying. I will take one of your farms myself, clear it up and plant it, and show my colored neighbors how much work should be done; will give them work as I have occasion, look after them in all needful ways, and be a kind of father to them.

This all has more than a whiff of racist condescension to it, but the free black population of the North largely lived in cities. Smith’s colonists might genuinely have lacked ordinary farming experience and certainly had little opportunity to work land so remote and cold as North Elba. Either way, Brown impressed Smith and he agreed on the spot. Smith’s grant in hand, Brown went straight there and fell in love. The surroundings reminded him of “Omnipotence” and his “dependence” upon the Almighty.

Brown also found a colony in disarray. The land remained unsurveyed, so no one knew if they had the right parcels or not. Nor did it make for prime farm land. Their plight moved Brown, who would later sent them barrels of pork and flour. He imagined himself as their kind leader, teaching them agriculture, self-improvement, and religion. Brown aimed to make from this disorder and confusion a model community. He just had to close up his failing wool business first.

“A call from the Almighty to gird up his loins and go forth to do battle” The Browns go to Kansas, Part 3

John Brown

Parts 1, 2

We left John Brown’s sons, including John Brown, Jr., setting up shop near the Pottawattomie. Proslavery men stole from them, threatened them, and generally made themselves a nuisance on account of the Browns’ antislavery politics. According to James Redpath, they soon came to regret going to Kansas unarmed. They came to win Kansas for freedom with their votes, not their bullets. The proslavery party insisted otherwise, so they wrote to their father asking him to come and bring guns with him.

Here Redpath’s admiration for Brown shines through. He has Brown receive the letter and unable to resist. The abolitionist

undoubtedly regarded it as a call from the Almighty to gird up his loins and go forth to do battle “as the warrior of the Lord,” as “the warrior of the Lord against the mighty,” in behalf of His despised poor and His downtrodden people. The moment long waited for had at length arrived; the sign he had patiently expected had been given; and the brave old soldier of the God of Battles prepared at once to obey the summons.

Gentle Readers, Redpath’s theological take on brown appears elsewhere in his biography. It suits the style of the times and cloaking Brown’s violent actions in holy righteousness. It probably also suited Brown himself, an intensely religious man even by the standards of a far more pious age. For most figures in the era, I would take religious proclamations like this with a few grains of salt. They may mean them, but the standards of discourse essentially demand that they say such things. For Brown it rings more true than most.

That didn’t mean that Brown shot out of the house minutes after receiving the letter, of course. Getting weapons and going to Kansas cost money, something John Brown had trouble keeping in his pockets. He took himself to an abolitionist convention in Essex County, New York. I haven’t found a copy of the speech -sorry; I have biographies on order- but Redpath quotes what appears to be a report of the affair. He uses quotation marks, but doesn’t give us a source. Thanks.

When in session, John Brown appeared in that convention, and made a very fiery speech, during which he said he had four sons in Kansas, and had three others who were desirous of going there, to aid in fighting the battles of freedom. He could not consent to go unless he could go armed, and he would like to arm all his sons; but his poverty prevented him from doing so. Funds were contributed on the spot; principally by Gerritt Smith.

Smith would keep on funding Brown and we know that the old man had the poverty and charisma to arrange such a thing, particularly with a sympathetic audience and an especially sympathetic plea. Brown didn’t want to go just to fight for freedom, a noble goal in itself. He aimed to go to Kansas to rescue his sons from possibly mortal peril.

Brown added another reason, which Redpath quotes from the man himself:

with the exposure, privations, hardships, and wants of pioneer life, he was familiar, and thought he could benefit his children, and the new beginners from the older parts of the country, and help them to shift and contrive their new home.

In other words, John Brown knew his way around the frontier. His boys could use that experience. Here we have at least a hint of the softer side of a famously hard man. He would go to Kansas for the cause, but also with an eye toward making himself of use to the many people there.

“We respectfully await the action of the House of Representatives”

The New York Herald reports on the indignation meeting

New York City’s public indignation meeting got off to a bit of a slow start, despite the packed Tabernacle. The crowd arrived on time, but not the committee and speakers. I don’t know what caused the hold up, but they arrived with a set of resolutions for the multitude to endorse. Those resolutions condemned Preston Brooks’ caning Charles Sumner as an attack upon democratic government, and consequently an attack upon the North in general. Furthermore, as the Southern press and politicians united in endorsing Brooks’ assault they had to understand the caning as retroactively the work of the entire white South. That united the leading men even of a proslavery city like New York. They continued

from no other motive and from no other impute we are called upon to a distinct and unequivocal expression of our feelings and opinions on this important event, in our deep, unchanged and unalterable attachment to the federal constitution and federal Union, we should find abundant reasons for the most earnest solicitude and the most decided action to arouse reflecting, disinterested, and patriotic citizens, in all parts of the country, to a manful and united determination to frown upon and extinguish the first indications of violence and terror as agencies in our political system.

In other words, the people on the speaker’s platform and in the audience understood themselves as often political adversaries. By diverging from their usual alignments they could look like men trying to ride a wave for selfish purposes. The resolutions denied that, casting the caning emphatically as an American matter, not merely one of party sentiment. They had their disagreements, but they staked out a norm that no one should conduct politics as Brooks and his many southern admirers had.

At this point, one might expect a course of action to appear in the resolutions. The meeting articulated the problem and their understanding of it; a remedy forms a next logical step. Here they pulled back just a little,

we respectfully await the action of the House of Representatives in the premises, but we announce, we believe, the universal sentiment of our citizens, as demanding the immediate and unconditional expulsion of Mr. Brooks from their body, as a necessary vindication of their own character.

The meeting did not presume to dictate the House’s course; it merely expressed the universal belief that the House take a certain course of action and kick Preston Brooks out. This double talk can’t have fooled anyone, but given that the resolutions focused so closely on the sanctity of government and the prerogatives of men holding public office, specifically Sumner, an outright order would have been a jarring departure from theme. Customarily, public meetings didn’t dictate to Congress in so many terms. They requested or recommended actions as expressions of their members in the form of petitions, not ultimatums.

The resolutions closed with an order they could make, because it applied only to them. The newspapers should publish the resolutions and send them to New York’s delegation in Congress, where those men should lay them before the House and Senate for proper consideration.

To “firmly and boldly oppose and overthrow any and every set scheme”

The New York Herald reports on the indignation meeting

New Yorkers did not think highly of Preston Brooks’ violent escapade against Charles Sumner’s skull on the floor of the United States Senate. By breaking a cane over Sumner’s head, the South Carolinian attacked the fabric of republican self-government. White men of the North took that as their birthright whatever they thought of the party now claiming republicanism in their name and declaring slavery’s threat to it. In caning the Republican, Brooks also caned the Republic. Furthermore, they could not dismiss the caning as a private affair. Yankees might brawl on occasion, or more often; heated politics didn’t necessarily bother them. That the South appeared united in endorsing Brooks’ conduct elevated the dispute to a higher and ominous plane. They couldn’t dismiss him as a bad apple in light of all that. When Brooks caned the Republic, the whole white South joined in.

Ramping up on that theme, the New Yorkers spoke then for their whole section:

We rejoice to believe and to say that the general community of the free States, by their public men and their public press (with a few base exceptions to prove the honorable rule), and through all the channels of public opinion and public influence do thoroughly denounce, and by word and act will firmly and boldly oppose and overthrow any and every set scheme, system, or principle which avows or upholds violence as a means or mode of affecting political action, or restraining personal freedom, or enforcing servile inequalities among the statesmen or common citizens of this country; that in public questions, where each citizen is the keeper of the rights of his fellow citizens, and each generation holds a solemn trust for its posterity, next to the commission of injustices and violence there is no greater crime against the commonwealth than their permission, with power to prevent them, and their sufferance with a spirit that can feel them.

This said a great deal. Yankees would no longer stand by, complicit, in systems that endorsed violence to suppress political action or restrain personal freedom, whether among statesmen or ordinary white men. The white South practiced just such a system, enforcing censorship of its mails to keep out antislavery material and through the use of violence and intimidation to rout any antislavery whites who happened to live in the slave states. Neither system worked perfectly, and both saw prosecution most aggressively in moments of perceived threat to slavery, but free white men suffered under them all the same.

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

For many antislavery whites, those sins against freedom counted as much for despotism as any offense against blacks. For most, they counted much more. The antislavery movement had its greatest successes not in defending the lives, safety, or freedom of black Americans, but in advocating for white men. Republicans wanted to spread free labor across the West, in lieu of slavery. The free laborers they had in mind had white skin. When black laborers threatened to join them, even as free men, westerners saw fit to pass laws against their presence.

Still, one must take notice. The New Yorkers assembled at the Tabernacle that day came together in the North’s most proslavery city and represented a cross-section of the city’s politics. Antislavery radicals could produce resolutions like this at the drop of a hat. It took a truly extraordinary and unprecedented event to bring in the city’s conservatives. For once, the white community unified against a proslavery attack. If it could happen in New York, it could happen far more easily elsewhere.

Complicity, Honor, and the Choice of Weapons

The New York Herald reports on the indignation meeting

New York’s public indignation meeting, packed wall to wall with angry men, opened up with denunciation of Preston Brooks’ attack on Charles Sumner. In attacking a sitting Senator, in the Senate, and for words said there, the South Carolinian attacked more than one man. He assaulted the entire fabric of constitutional governance. He attacked the republic itself and every self-governing white man who considered himself a right and proper citizen of it. If such a thing went unanswered, the United States could not long endure. Their resolutions continued:

to urge the casual violence of an individual to the disgrace and injury of the community in which he lives, and of the social institutions of that community, is ungenerous and unjust, until it appears that such community approves the act and applauds the actor; but when such concurrence of public sentiment and public action with the particular and personal transaction are manifested on authentic evidence, the private outrage is swallowed up in the public infamy, and the question involved is enlarged to an immense magnitude and importance.

In other words, the people of New York didn’t immediately take this as an assault upon the North at large by the South; they had some sense of proportion. In order to implicate the sections in general, the South would need to show some kind of general approval of Brooks’ course. This could remain a deeply troubling, but isolated incident.

Lawrence Keitt (D-SC)

Then again:

we have witnessed with unmixed astonishment and the deepest regret, the clear, bold exulting espousal of the outrage and justification and honor of its perpetrator, exhibited by Senators and representatives of the Slave States without distinction of party, in their public places, and by the public press without distinction of party in the same portion of our country, and that upon the present state of the evidence, we are forced most unwillingly to the sad conclusion that the general community of the slave States is in complicity, in feeling and principle, with the system of intimidation and violence for the suppression of freedom of speech and of the press, of which the assault on Senator Sumner is the most signal, but not the singular, instance.

I’ve not yet looked at the Southern papers, but the meeting clearly knew of Keitt’s and Edmundson’s involvement; they had an eyewitness on the speaker’s stage that night in the person of Edwin Morgan. He could probably point to Robert Toombs as the guilty senator. Neither of those quite reaches beyond partisan lines, but the South’s two party system had fallen into steep decline by this point. Either way, the endorsement of Southern political leaders all by itself counted for something. One couldn’t dismiss their chosen representatives to the national Congress as irrelevant nobodies. The logic of representative democracy required taking them as proxies for their constituents.

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

They also spoke to a deeper truth about how the sections diverged over the nineteenth century by raising the notion of honor. Cultural developments had loosened the bounds of traditional codes of honor in the North. Once, those codes happily endorsed resenting slights and washing them away with violence. Those times had largely ended north of Maryland, with codes of conduct based on public shame supplanted by those stressing private guilt and self-control.

Traces of the old ways remained, of course, but nothing like they thrived in the South. To white Southern eyes, Brooks repaid Sumner for a grievous slight and acted strictly correctly in doing so. Not to endorse him would have been the greater shame for many. Thought had gone into the assault, after all. Brooks spent a few days carefully looking over the speech and considering options. He did not challenge Sumner because Sumner would never accept a duel. That made him no gentleman to Brooks, if he could ever have qualified anyway, so attacking him fairly and on even terms might even disgrace Brooks. As something less than manly, less than white, Sumner warranted striking like an inferior. The South Carolinian’s first choice of weapon, cowhide, speaks to that. Southerners literally whipped slaves with cowhide, so striking a white man in that way would disgrace him more than anything else. Brooks feared Sumner might get hold of the cowhide, so he opted for the cane also occasionally used to discipline slaves. Pragmatism dictated a slight deviation from perfect symbolism.