The Apology Absurd: The Crime Against Kansas, Part 9

Charles Sumner (Republican-MA)

Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8Full text

Charles Sumner did not have a high opinion of the defenses that Stephen Douglas and others had for all the injustice and mayhem that had taken place in Kansas. The seizure of the territorial government by force, threats, and massive voter fraud by Missourians entirely disqualified it as a legitimate organization to his mind. But Douglas, Andrew Butler, and other senators defended them all the same. It thus fell to Sumner to pick their defenses apart. First he dismissed the Apology Tyrannical, which held that once governor Andrew Reeder recognized the election results they had to stand. Then he cast aside the Apology Imbecile, where the proslavery senators averred that -whatever happened in Kansas- the Congress and Presidency had no power to intervene.

That brought Sumner to what he called the Apology Absurd

which is indeed, in the nature of a pretext. It is alleged that a small printed pamphlet, containing the “Constitution and Ritual of the Grand Encampment and Regiments of the Kansas Legion,” was taken from the person of one George F. Warren, who attempted to avoid detection by chewing it.

Samuel Newitt Wood

Gentle Readers, I wish I could tell you more of this story. A spot check revealed other references, but only to the bare fact of Warren chowing down. You may remember the Constitution and Ritual from past posts. The Kansas Legion, aka the Kansas Regulators, organized as a paramilitary force to defend antislavery Kansans and occasionally burn down proslavery homesteads. Jacob Branson and Samuel Wood served in it. The Free State leadership denied knowledge or approval, officially. Maybe that passed scrutiny in Washington and among people sympathetic to the cause, but their connection appears more like an open secret in Kansas.

Sumner’s foes argued that the Legion justified harsh measures on the part of proslavery men. They had something like a terrorist organization about and it required dealing with. That position makes perfect sense for a proslavery Missourian or Kansas who equates opposing slavery with incitement to race war. They had to do what they did to save the community from ruin, essentially in self-defense.

To answer that, Sumner first dismissed the Legion as a “poor mummery of a secret society, which existed only on paper.” If it did exist, though, it proposed only to enlist antislavery men to defend the Constitution of the United States. How could any patriotic American object to such a goal?

Secret societies, with their extravagant oaths, are justly offensive; but who can find, in this mistaken machinery, any excuse for the denial of all rights to the people of Kansas? This whole “cock and bull story” never really happened to begin with, but if it did then so what? Sumner dismissed the Apology Absurd with “the derision which triviality and absurdity justly receive.”

 

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The Apology Imbecile: The Crime Against Kansas, Part 8

Charles Sumner (Republican-MA)

Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7Full text

Charles Sumner explained to the Senate what he meant by the Apology Tyrannical: the insistence that whatever happened in Kansas elections, they stood because Andrew Reeder signed off on them. Reeder made a mistake, but since those elections lacked all reasonable legitimacy due to the massive fraud and intimidation campaign that attended them, ratifying his error would only compound it. Even Reeder accepted that now.

This brought Sumner to the Apology Imbecile,

which is founded on the alleged want of power in the President to arrest the Crime. It is openly asserted, that, under the existing laws of the United States, the Chief Magistrate has no authority to interfere in Kansas for this purpose.

Pierce made that claim himself when push came to shove. Sumner began by noting that this defended the state of affairs in Kansas with no more than a shrug. Stuff happens; what can you do? This “ostentatious imbecility” appeared in no other situation. Impotent Pierce had little trouble dispatching a naval vessel to punish “the cannibals of the Fejee islands” for offenses against Americans. Whatever the Fijians did paled before the enormities worked by Americans upon Americans and Franklin Pierce would not have to reach around the world to set things right. He needed only to stand against Slavery.

For that matter, Sumner noted that the Senate received regular news of filibustering efforts set to sail from New York. Given the time and location, Sumner probably means John Quitman’s Cuban junta. The United States had no difficulty stepping in to preserve American neutrality and its honor among nations, so why would it have such trouble policing affairs within its own limit? Even the Slave Power didn’t mind too much when filibustering got shut down.

The pattern could escape no one:

where the Slave Power is indifferent, the President will see that the laws are faithfully executed; but, in other cases, where the interests of Slavery are at stake, he is controlled absolutely by this tyranny, ready at all times to do, or not to do, precisely as it dictates. Therefore it is, that Kansas is left a prey to the Propagandists of Slavery, while the whole Treasury, the Army and Navy of the United States, are lavished to hunt a single slave through the streets of Boston.

Sumner went on to remind the Senate of the enslaved man he had in mind, Anthony Burns. He quoted to the chamber correspondence between the Marshal in charge of Burns’ rendition, including Pierce’s two-sentence order to use the Army and Navy to carry him back to slavery and a note from his personal secretary checking up on the situation the next day. And now people from the President on down, said he could do nothing for the mere territory Kansas over which Washington held unlimited power, despite his easy ability to reach into the heart of Boston with the armed might of the nation to seize a single man. If Pierce honestly believed a word of that, Sumner found him guilty of “not merely imbecility, but idiocy.”

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.

Four Weird Sisters Dancing Apologies: The Crime Against Kansas, Part 6

Charles Sumner (Republican-MA)

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

Sumner went on at great length about the troubles Kansas suffered: invasions from Missouri, the theft of elections, violence and intimidation of all kinds. Proslavery men had turned the land into a war zone, or near enough, and reduced antislavery people in Kansas to subjects of a foreign power. They called that popular sovereignty. But the Bleeding Kansas category on this blog goes into great detail about how all that played out and we don’t need to review it all.

With the crime against Kansas firmly in mind, fifteen pages in, Sumner turned to the defenses of it. Here he makes a valuable point:

The great Crimes of history have never been without Apologies. The massacre of St. Bartholomew, which you now instinctively condemn, was, at the time, applauded in high quarters, and even commemorated by a Papal medal, which may still be procured at Rome

Sumner means apology in the classical sense as an excuse or defense, rather than begging pardon. He referenced the French Wars of Religion here. On St. Bartholomew’s day, France’s Catholics indulged in a wave of targeted violence and murder against their Protestant neighbors. We don’t remember these struggles as much today, but they informed nineteenth century America’s association of Catholicism with tyranny. In an overwhelmingly and self-consciously Protestant nation, this history had special resonance.

He also had a broader point. We like to think that any historical horror drew widespread condemnation. What we imagine as indefensible, we project back into the past. More often than not, we have it backwards. People do not wake up and decide to play the villain, but rather do things they believe right, good, and just. If you asked the Missourians, they would tell you that they protected their families from a slave revolt, defended their own property, safeguarded the virtue of “their” women, and preserved honor and decency in the face of a rich corporation full of religious fanatics bent on enforcing their will on the world. In short, they sought to protect their community of little guys from the great and powerful. To put it like that makes them sound more than halfway right, like people we ought to view with sympathy in a country with a longstanding fondness for underdogs. We might even see some of ourselves in them, which doesn’t make for the most comfortable time given they fought for slavery. 

Sumner classed apologies for “the Assassins and Thugs of Missouri” as

four in number, and four-fold in character. The first is the Apology tyrannical; the second, the Apology imbecile; the third, the Apology absurd; and the fourth the Apology infamous. This is all. Tyranny, imbecility, absurdity, and infamy, all unite to dance like the weird sisters about this Crime. [Emphasis original.]

“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.

“I mean the harlot, Slavery” The Crime Against Kansas, Part 3

Charles Sumner (Republican-MA)

Prologue, Parts 1, 2Full text

We left Charles Sumner at the verge of the most famous part of his Crime Against Kansas. He set down the preliminaries, took a trip through Antiquity and Norse myth, and came back up with a plan for the oration. Before he got into the meat of it, though, he had to say a few words about the men who brought such ruin to Kansas. Likening Stephen Douglas, architect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler. Butler lived in the F Street Mess with David Rice Atchison and friends back in the heady days when they told the Little Giant he needed to give them a big slavery win or give up on organizing the territory west of Missouri. He also became Sumner’s friend when the two came to sit beside one another.

Sumner likened the pair to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza -he took a copy of Don Quixote out of the Library of Congress to get the details right- and set them out together in pursuit of the same cause. Butler played the lead role:

The Senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight, with sentiments of honor and courage. Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight-I mean the harlot, Slavery.

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Sumner meant to cast Butler as a fool and more than hint at sexual depravity. One doesn’t go to harlotry for a reference otherwise and such accusations were common in the farther left antislavery circles. Slavery turned the entire South into one great brothel, where white men young and old ran wild with lust. They might seize an enslaved woman by force or coerce her by threats, spoken and otherwise, but they would have their way. Southerners themselves occasionally complained of it, but if the man in the big house or a son or relative wanted to demonstrate their virility few objected too loudly. Enslavers bought black women specifically to rape often enough to sustain a steady trade in “fancy” slaves, but even those who bought them for other reasons could claim it as a fringe benefit. Like a depressing multitude of men in most places and eras, they argued that men could not contain their sexual urges. In the South, black women provided a convenient way to express them without sullying the “purity” of white women or raising the ire of their male relations.

Andrew Butler always had a good word for slavery and always rushed to its defense. To impugn bondage drew his wrath like nothing else, Sumner averred. If the nation would not serve slavery its due commerce in marriages sundered and the sale of “little children at the auction-block” then the nation must fall and Butler would leave the charge out of the Union: “Heroic knight! Exalted Senator! A second Moses come for a second exodus!”

 

“A madness for slavery” The Crime Against Kansas, Part 2

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Prologue, Part 1Full text

We left Charles Sumner warning the Senate that events in Kansas threatened to draw the country into civil war. To avert that calamity, freedom must prevail in the nation’s most troubled territory. Everyone in the Senate could see that coming, given Sumner’s extensive record and the subject at hand. But you couldn’t fill three hours by stating the obvious. Nobody, at Washington or back in Massachusetts, would have sat up and took notice for the mere news that Sumner opposed slavery. To understand “the crime” which Sumner called on the Senate “to judge,” one had to go to its source and from which it continued to issue:

In its perpetration was needed a spirit of vaulting ambition which would hesitate at nothing; a hardihood of purpose which was insensible to the judgment of mankind; a madness for slavery which should disregard the Constitution, the laws, and all the great examples of our history; also a consciousness of power such as comes from the habit of power

Stephen Douglas

Sumner went on to describe this as a vast political movement rather than the perfidy of one man or a small cabal. He meant the Slave Power entire as his enemy, but one can’t read this and not immediately think of Stephen Douglas as the man in the spotlight. He managed the Kansas-Nebraska bill to its passage. He defended it and the proslavery government erected on force and fraud. If Sumner saw the Slave Power in general as “the criminal” in all its “heartless, grasping, and tyrannical” ways, then Douglas served as its criminal mastermind.

The Senator continued with a digression into Norse mythology, then came up for air with a summary of his intentions. Sumner would first explain the crime against Kansas “in its origin and extent,” then proceed to the excuses made for it before finishing off with “the TRUE REMEDY.” (Original emphasis.) Not that he wanted to rush right in, mind:

before entering upon the argument, I must say something of a general character, particularly in response to what has fallen from Senators who have raised themselves to eminence on this floor in championship of human wrongs; I mean the Senator from South Carolina, [Mr. Butler.] and the Senator from Illinois, [Mr. Douglas.] who, though unlike as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, yet, like this couple, sally forth together in the same cause.

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

In other words, Sumner aimed tear into Butler and Douglas thoroughly. He does so for the better part of two pages in the pamphlet edition. Here come all the famous lines of the speech, with Sumner’s invective at its finest. Most, though not all, historians believe that in those pages Sumner wrote the next four years of his life: an attack, a lengthy convalescence, and lingering trauma that made him a martyr to the antislavery cause. A minority believe that all which transpired would have happened much the same without the personal insults. We can’t know, but either way they bear a close examination.

“Are you against sacrilege?” The Crime Against Kansas, Part 1

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Prologue, Full text

On May 19, 1856, at one in the afternoon, Charles Sumner took the floor in the United States Senate and began most famous speech, The Crime Against Kansas. After some oratorical throat-clearing, he launched into a discussion of Kansas’ geography “that spacious mediterranean country” so recently settled by whites that had now grown more populous than classical Athens or medieval London. Then he lost himself in Roman history for two paragraphs before returning to “an age of light” and the subject at hand.

All the famous injustices remembered from Antiquity had nothing on

the wrongs of Kansas, where the very shrines of popular institutions, more sacred than any heathen altar, have been desecrated; where the ballot-box, more precious than any work, in ivory or marble, from the cunning hand of art, has been plundered, and where the cry, “I am an American citizen,” has been interposed in vain against outrage of every kind, even upon life itself. Are you against sacrilege? I present it for your execration. Are you against robbery? I hold it up to your scorn. Are you for the protection of American citizens? I show you how their dearest rights have been cloven down, while a tyrannical usurpation has sought to install itself on their very necks.

That made for ample horrors in itself, but Sumner declared that the motivation for this “wickedness” “immeasurably aggravated” it. Lust for power, while often leading to horrors, had nothing on slavery’s “rape of a virgin territory”. The forced union of virgin Kansas and profane slavery arose from “depraved longing” to make another slave state. While the whole world condemned it, Americans set forth to force slavery onto their own.

That “enormity, vast beyond comparison” still only told part of the story. “Imagination” could not contain what it grew to in the context of the American Union:

for this purpose are hazarded the horrors of intestine [?] feud, not only in this distant territory, but everywhere throughout the country. Already the muster has begun. The strife is no longer local, but national. Even now, while I speak, portents hang on all the arches of the horizon, threatening to darken the broad land, which already yawns with the mutterings of civil war.

I don’t know if Sumner had up to the day information from Kansas on the preparations of I.B. Donaldson’s army-sized posse, but word of its summoning had more than a week to reach Washington before he spoke. He may have had it in mind here, but could as easily have meant Buford’s expedition or the siege of Lawrence back in December. News clearly took less than a month to get back to the east and might, depending on the telegraph, take only a day; Franklin Pierce sometimes got word from the territory within days. Probably Sumner knew or had good reason to suspect that Donaldson would soon march, but he doesn’t specify.

The Crime Against Kansas, Prologue

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Charles Sumner saw the way out of his political difficulties in the direction his conscience pointed and where he had proven talents: a big antislavery speech. He had previously inveighed against the Fugitive Slave Act, but the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and more than a year of increasing troubles in the nation’s newest territory gave him good cause to change subjects. Letters full of proslavery horrors filled his correspondence. Of course the Democrats in the Senate got the other side of the story and in an era before live news feeds and swift long distance travel, no one could much tell beyond the Kansas-Missouri border which side lied more often. Neither the Herald of Freedom nor the Squatter Sovereign would shy away from inventing suitable news or slanting real stories to serve the cause.

Kansas debates opened up with Stephen Douglas making an impassioned attack on the free state movement. They only made trouble for the law-abiding citizens of the territory, who ought to have their legal government recognized at once. Never a fan of Douglas, Sumner found his aggressive tone nearly intolerable. William Seward answered him with a proposal that the Topeka government be admitted to the Union at once. Things went downhill from there, but more and more northerners lined up against Douglas and his allies as the debate went on.

Sumner stayed out of it, instead sitting down for one of his research sessions. He took a copy of Don Quixote out of the Library of Congress to make sure he got his insults right and busied himself with histories of Georgia and the Carolinas to check his facts. He wrote more than a hundred pages, gilded with quotations from Antiquity, the British parliament, and past American debates. Then Sumner memorized the whole thing, so he wouldn’t have to check his notes as he spoke. He did a dry run with Seward and then deemed himself ready.

At one in the afternoon on May 19, as Marshal Donaldson’s proslavery army gathered at Lecompton and dreamed of razing Lawrence for good, Charles Sumner gained the floor in the United States Senate. He would hold it (PDF) for three hours:

Mr. President: You are now called to redress a great transgression. Seldom in the history of nations has such a question been presented. Tariffs, army bills, navy bills, land bills, are important, and justly occupy your care; but these all belong to the course of ordinary legislation. As means and instruments only, they are necessarily subordinate to the conservation of government itself. Grant them or deny them, in greater or less degree, and you will inflict no shock. The machinery of government will continue to move. The State will not cease to exist. Far otherwise is it with the eminent question now before you, involving, as it does, liberty in a broad territory, and also involving the peace of the whole country with our good name in history for evermore.