Southerners Weigh in on Brooks

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

In following the aftermath of Charles Sumner’s caning by Preston Brooks, we have largely focused on northerners. As those posts went up, I searched for Southern defenses of Brooks. Andrew Butler made a speech on his behalf, but as a directly interested party he makes a poor substitute for a sectional response. His kinsman caned Sumner on his behalf. Robert Toombs’ after the fact approval and John Slidell’s obvious indifference speak better to a sectional attitude.

To them we could add James Mason. Preston Brooks’ constituents planned to throw him a celebratory dinner to express “their complete indorsement of his Congressional course”. The authors didn’t necessarily mean for politicians to accept their invitations. Rather they wrote to get back a public letter on a subject. Mason obliged, his letter appearing in the fifth volume of Sumner’s Works:

He [Brooks] has shown himself alike able and prompt to sustain the rights and interests of his constituents in debate and by vote, or to vindicate in a different mode, and under circumstances of painful duty, the honor of his friend. I would gladly, therefore, unite with you were it in my power, in the testimonial proposed by his generous constituents

For the same occasion, Brooks’ supporter back home invited the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis. He wrote back

It would give me much pleasure, on any occasion, to meet you, fellow-citizens of the Fourth District of South Carolina; and the gratification would be materially heightened by the opportunity to witness their approbation of a Representative whom I hold in such high regard and esteem. […] I have only to express to you my sympathy with the feeling which prompts the sons of Carolina to welcome the return of a brother who has been the subject of vilification, misrepresentation, and persecution, because he resented a libellous assault upon the reputation of their mother.

Clearly, Brooks had many Senatorial friends and admirers. They include some of the most powerful men in the nation, who could easily have ignored invitations from his constituents or responded without speaking to the substance of their invitation. The editorial notes in Sumner’s Works waste no time pointing out that Toombs, Slidell, Mason, and of course Davis spent the first half of the 1860s in the Confederate government.

The editors also found a less Southern man, geographically if not politically, to say a few kind words for Brooks. Then running for president, James Buchanan attended a college graduation in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. One of the students gave an anti-Brooks speech to enthusiastic applause. The student sat down next to Buchanan, who corrected him loudly enough for the whole room to hear:

My young friend, you look upon the dark side of the picture. Mr. Sumner’s speech was the most vulgar tirade of abuse ever delivered in a deliberative body.

James Buchanan

The student protested. Surely the Old Public Functionary didn’t approve of what happened? Buchanan answered:

Mr. Brooks was inconsiderate, but that Senator Butler was a mild man.

The next President of the United States didn’t go all the way out and say Sumner had it coming, but he tried. Dismissing a dangerous attack on a sitting Senator as “inconsiderate” and expressing his sympathy for Butler spoke volumes. It also fit neatly with Buchanan’s long career of being thoroughly inclined to do a solid for any proslavery man who happened along.



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.

Henry Wilson on the Caning

Henry Wilson (R-MA)

The Caning, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10, 11, 1213, 14, 15

The House report on the caning

We left Charles Sumner in bed, astonished that anything like his travail could happen. A sitting United States Senator, on the floor of the Senate, violently beaten over the head with a cane. His attacker kept on after the cane broke, until physically restrained by a congressman. Others occupied the Senate chamber for that one frightful minute and few of them made any move to intervene on his behalf, save for John Crittenden (who insisted that Preston Brooks not kill Sumner) and Sumner’s political allies. Robert Toombs came closer, but later told the Senate that he approved of the caning. Maybe he wanted a better view. Stephen Douglas claimed that he thought about it, then realized someone might mistake him for a man who wanted to pile on. Lawrence Keitt intervened on Brooks’ behalf, warning away those who tried to stop it all. The nineteenth century Congress saw more rough behavior than we might expect, including at least one pistol drawn in the Senate previous to this, but no one that I know of had made contact until now. Certainly none had gone so far as Brooks.

The next day, Sumner did not come to the Senate. His junior colleague from Massachusetts, Henry Wilson, stood before the body and marked his absence. He reminded the Senate of the past day’s events briefly, stressing how Sumner’s position left him “utterly incapable of protecting or defending himself.” Brooks struck before Sumner “had time to utter a single word in reply” and left the Senator “blind and almost unconscious.” After that first blow, Brooks kept on until Sumner “was beaten upon the floor of the Senate, exhausted, unconscious, and covered with his own blood.” They would not see Sumner that day, but they must grapple with what the attack meant:

to assail a member of the Senate out of this Chamber, “for words spoken in debate,” is a grave offense, not only against the rights of the Senator, but the constitutional privileges of this House. But, sir, to come into this Chamber and assault a member in his seat until he falls exhausted and senseless on this floor, is an offense requiring the prompt and decisive action of the Senate.

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

Wilson made two important distinctions here. Sumner suffered attack “for words spoken in debate,” not for some personal misconduct or petty slight. The chamber should not understand him just as a man who got caned, but happened to have a seat among them. Rather, Sumner suffered for the execution of his duties as a Senator. Brooks, in effect, caned a Senator for Senator-ing. His attack struck Sumner physically, but all of them in principle. If the right to unhindered debate, guaranteed in the Constitution, meant anything then Brooks had grievously transgressed it.

Furthermore, Brooks made his attack in the Senate. Had he attacked Sumner elsewhere, the point would still obtain. Doing it in the chamber itself called into question whether any Senator, or at least any antislavery Senator, could actually speak freely without fear for his life. Invective flowed freely in the Senate, with colleagues on opposite sides of an issue sometimes congratulating one another on well-turned insults. Now that normal mode of doing business, where the Senators might indict one another viciously but did so with an assurance that they also did so with personal impunity, had gone. More than just threatening to silence antislavery voices, Brooks’ attack might have opened the door for other direct assaults that might drive antislavery men from the chamber entirely.



“I could not believe that a thing like this was possible.” Caning Charles Sumner, 15

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

The Caning, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14

The House report on the caning

We left Charles Sumner with two scalp wounds which went to the bone and various other cuts and bruises. Dr. Cornelius Boyle, summoned to the Capitol, stitched him up in the Senate antechamber in hopes that swift treatment would prevent infection. David Donald claims that Henry Wilson returned to the Senate, hearing of the attack, and escorted Sumner home. Wilson’s own testimony doesn’t mention that, nor does his statement to the Senate the day after. I haven’t found any confirmation in Donald’s citations. The House Report has a James Bluffington, of the House, arrive in the antechamber in time to see Sumner’s wounds stitched up and see him home. Bluffington

went home with Mr. Sumner, and saw his head dressed. I got him a clean shirt, and helped to put it on. The doctor ordered all from the room except myself and said that such was the condition of Mr. Sumner it was absolutely necessary that he should be kept quiet, for he could not tell the extent of the injuries at that time.

Bluffington’s account puts the doctor with them, so Wilson might also have come along and not warranted a mention because he didn’t do much at the boarding house. Or Donald may have confused the two men, as Bluffington occupies essentially the role he casts Wilson in as Sumner’s escort. Wilson ends his own testimony with recognizing Brooks and the two men exchanging nods as the Senator left the chamber, before the attack. If he had a larger role, it stands to reason it would have come up.

Sumner seems to have regained more command of his faculties around an hour after reaching the boarding house. Recollections from years later, after Sumner’s death, have him “lying on his bed” and remarking

I could not believe that a thing like this was possible.

Henry Wilson (R-MA)

One must suspect such accounts of hagiography. Sumner had become a kind of national hero and it would flatter his memory, as the recollections do, to portray him as completely above recriminations. For him to transcend his caning makes him a greater hero still. Some of that probably plays into it, but Sumner brushed off serious warnings of danger to himself only days before the caning and his statement fits neatly with that.

Sumner did not grow up in a political culture where slights required violent answers, but rather one that stressed self-mastery. He spent his early life in a relatively respectable Massachusetts family surrounded by people of similar mind. Henry Wilson, who grew up in more modest circumstances, lacked that luxury and might have acquired a keener sense for when physical danger loomed. For his own part, Sumner had engaged in strong antislavery rhetoric before and people feared for his safety. He dismissed those fears and an attack had never come. Everything in his past experience suggested that one would not this time. Brooks proved Wilson right, but we only know that after the fact.

“Soaked with blood” Caning Charles Sumner, Part 13

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10, 11, 12

The House report on the caning

Everything vanished into a haze of pain and confusion for Charles Sumner when Preston Brooks started raining down blows from his gutta-percha cane. The Senator had no memory from the first blow until “several minutes” later, when he found himself on the floor. Edmund Morgan kept him from falling hard on it, but couldn’t stop his descent entirely. Ambrose Murray held Preston Brooks back. John Crittenden, Robert Toombs, and Stephen Douglas stood nearby. Crittenden took Brooks’ cane from him.

They stood over a Sumner

lying down, resting partly upon one of the desks that had been turned over, seeming very much stunned, and covered with blood.

That blood soaked into Morgan’s “coat and shirt-sleeves” to saturation. A week later, Morgan informed an outraged crowd of five thousand in New York City that when he caught Sumner, he beheld a man

laid senseless as a corpse for several minutes his head bleeding copiously from the frightful wounds and the blood saturating his clothes.

Sumner himself reported being “unaware of the blood on my clothes” until he returned to his room. There he discovered

The shirt around the neck and collar was soaked with blood. The waistcoat had many marks of blood upon it; also the trowsers. The broadcloth coat was covered with blood on the shoulders so thickly that the blood had soaked through the cloth even through the padding, and appeared on the inside; there was a great deal of blood on the back of the coat and its sides.

Morgan further told the New York meeting of bystander senators, “complacently looking on, without the least intention of assisting.” The crowd demanded naming and shaming, so Morgan obliged with Toombs, to groans, and Douglas, to cries of “Shame.” By this point Morgan must have known Sumner’s testimony and we can’t take his account of Toombs and Douglas standing by as entirely independent, but he likely had a closer vantage to Sumner’s than anybody in the chamber and both Senators place themselves in the room at the time.

John Slidell

When those several minutes passed and Sumner regained consciousness. He asked for his hat, which set off a brief search, and that someone see to the documents on his desk. Then, with Morgan’s help, Sumner staggered into the anteroom of the Senate. Douglas and others occupied that room just before the caning began, including Louisiana Senator John Slidell, who Sumner noticed. Sumner said that Slidell “retreated.”

Sumner doesn’t give a clue to his state of mind with regard to Slidell in his terse reference, but Slidell could read between the lines. Faced with a fellow senator just brutalized and bloodied, erect only with the support of another man, the Louisianan gave the whole affair a big shrug and went on with his day. That kind of indifference looks like approval. Morgan and company may have had Sumner physically in hand, but Slidell could have said something. It would have cost him nothing to express sympathy or inquire after Sumner’s health. Simple human decency might prompt at least formulaic phrases for anyone so clearly hurt. Slidell stood silent.



“Uttering groans of distress” Caning Charles Sumner, Part 12

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10, 11

The House report on the caning

We left Charles Sumner on the floor of the United States Senate, slumped down and covered with his own blood. Ambrose Murray literally pulled Preston Brooks off him, but Sumner’s assailant kept trying for another go at the Senator despite his broken cane and the congressman holding him back. He finally stopped after John Crittenden insisted he not kill Sumner. Until that point, Brooks may not have realized his assault had gone so far as to imperil a healthy man’s life. In the moment, he may also not have cared. Transported by rage and panic, people often do things they would later regret.

The caning cost exacted a minor physical toll on Brooks, beyond the simple exertion of it. Senator Alfred Iverson (D-GA), stood near to Toombs and Keitt by the Vice-President’s chair in the Senate chamber when everything took place. He saw much of what everyone else did, but also testified

I also saw Mr. Brooks standing near; that he was hurt over his eye, and asked him how it happened? He said it was from the recoil of his stick.

This points further to Brooks losing control in the moment; he can’t have meant to lay into his own skull. Given that he used a cane of some length, probably Brooks’ forehead caught a flying piece when it shattered rather than bounced it off Sumner’s head and onto his own.

While they discussed Brooks’ head, Sumner

was lying down, and uttering groans of distress, but was soon taken up and carried through the area into the ante-room of the Senate

Ambrose Murray found Sumner

reeling around against the seats, backwards and forwards, and after I pulled Mr. Brooks back, Mr. Sumner fell over. […] He was not standing erect at any time after I saw him. He seemed to be reeling around against the desk.

In other words, Sumner stood hunched over and near to collapse. He finally did so after Murray stepped in.

Edwin Morgan

Edwin Morgan, who had come in with Murray,

caught Mr. Sumner in the act of falling, so that my being there at the moment saved him from falling as heavily upon the floor as he would otherwise have done.

Sumner stood over six feet tall; it would take some doing to catch him in a fall.

The committee asked after Sumner’s consciousness at the moment:

I have no idea from his appearance, as I recollect it, that he was conscious, and I thought of it immediately afterwards, and do not think he was at all conscious of anything. I judged so, among other things, from the fact that he made no effort to defend himself in any way-not even to defend his head from the blows which were being laid on, and which he naturally would have done had he been conscious

That matches Sumner’s own account exactly. From the first blow, he couldn’t see and didn’t understand what had happened. Sumner’s memory ends with its landing and begins again as he

found myself ten feet forward, in front of my desk, lying on the floor of the Senate, with my bleeding head supported on the knee of a gentleman, whom I soon recognized, by voice and countenance, as Mr. Morgan of New York. Other persons there were about me offering me friendly assistance; but I did not recognize any of them. Others there were at a distance, looking on and offering no assistance, of whom I recognized only Mr. Douglas, of Illinois, Mr. Toombs, of Georgia, and I thought also my assailant, standing between them.

Stephen Douglas

Gentle Readers, I have lost consciousness myself. It didn’t happen under circumstances as dire as Sumner’s, but I must tell you that it doesn’t feel at all like going to sleep and waking back up. Instead you come back and have nothing in your mind to account for your changed situation. It feels from the inside like the world skipped a few moments, though in fact your brain did.

Clarity can return quickly and we can say with some confidence that Toombs at least stood in the general area at the time. Douglas had left the Senate for a nearby room, but came back at the sound of the caning. He later claimed that he almost stepped in, then realized that his charging forward at Sumner would look like an ally coming to Brooks’ aid and stayed back. That would likewise put him in the right general area to feature in Sumner’s apt portrait.

“Very much stunned, and covered with blood” Caning Charles Sumner, Part 11

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10

The House report on the caning

Preston Brooks shattered his cane over Charles Sumner’s head and kept hitting him with what remained of it. Sumner slumped down on the floor. Brooks kept on until a Congressman Ambrose Murray “seized” him. According to Murray, no one had moved forward to interfere, except John Crittenden (Whig-KY), who called out for the attack to cease. Murray


immediately stepped up behind Mr. Brooks and caught him by the body and the right arm, drew him back, and turned him around from Mr. Sumner.

Brooks used his right arm in the striking, so Murray sold himself a bit short. He stepped in and grabbed Sumner’s assailant almost by the cane, then dragged him away and spun him around from the Senator. He put Brook’s left hand around Sumner’s coat collar, holding him up for further strikes, until that moment.

With Brooks no longer pounding on his skull, Sumner lay down against one of the desks “very much stunned, and covered with blood.” About then, as matters concluded, John Crittenden reached the scene. He told the House committee that he merely expressed his “disapprobation of such violence in the Senate chamber.” Brooks recalled more:

Mr. Crittenden took hold of me and said something like “don’t kill him,” I replied that I had no wish to injure him seriously, but only to flogg him.

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

Brooks may have meant it. His claim that he intended only a pro forma strike doesn’t read as credible. He probably meant to hit Sumner solidly, but perhaps only once or twice. Then Sumner began to move and Brooks lost control of himself. In the red haze of the moment, it might not have occurred to him that beating a man over the head so hard and often could end in death. Brooks had the temper enough to cane Sumner in the first place, but also enough control to put it off for days, check over the printed copy of Sumner’s speech, and wait for a woman to vacate the gallery. He didn’t charge into the Senate chamber that day foaming at the mouth.

Around the time that Crittenden spoke to Brooks, who seems to have still been struggling against Murray, Lawrence Keitt arrived. He circled about, demanding that Brooks be released. Senator Toombs, who had been with Keitt before the first blow fell, shouted to him not to strike. He said nothing to Brooks and later admitting to approving of the affair.

John Crittenden

Crittenden proved as good as his disapprobation. He took the piece of cane that remained from Brooks’ hand and the South Carolinian “very gently yielded” it. His words seem to have prompted the end of Brooks’ struggle against Murray as well as surrender of the cane. That Crittenden put his hand on the cane before Brooks agreed to give it up suggests a moment of decision and, perhaps, realization.

“Broke the stick” Caning Charles Sumner, Part 10

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9

The House report on the caning

Preston Brooks took Charles Sumner’s insults against slavery, South Carolina, and his relation Andrew Butler hard. He would no longer stand for abolitionists or antislavery men, not that Brooks cared for the difference, throwing around slanders as Sumner did. The South Carolinian determined that he must confront Sumner for the sake of honor, demanding an apology that would shame Sumner. Expecting that Sumner would refuse, and refuse a duel, Brooks would then have full justification to strike him as one did a slave and have satisfaction that way. He cared enough about the proprieties to discuss them at least with Lawrence Keitt (D-SC), Henry Edmundson (D-VA), and James Orr (D-SC). None of these congressmen tried to dissuade Brooks. Edmundson even gave him practical advice on how to best attack Sumner by pointing out that chasing him through the Capitol would leave Brooks winded and tired in front of a man considerably larger than himself.

Instead, Brooks sat and rested up within the Senate chamber two days after Sumner concluded his speech. Once the last woman left the gallery, he sprang into action. He caught Sumner seated at his desk, franking copies of the offending speech. Brooks made a brief statement, no more than two sentences, and either finished with his first blow or landed it immediately after. Twenty-nine more strikes of the gutta-percha cane with the golden head. Brooks held it by that end.

Lawrence Keitt came to the Senate that day, expecting to see the fireworks. Henry Edmundson did too, though he seems to have lost interest when Brooks did not immediately lay on and believed Brooks would not act in the immediate future. He departed to chat up a Senator about the proprieties of an attack within the Senate chamber. He remained to that point because Keitt refused his invitation to go off together. Whether Brooks and Keitt arranged it before hand and had an understanding, or Keitt took it on himself, it seems that the other South Carolinian fancied himself Brooks’ backup. As soon as the blows began, Keitt rose his own cane above his head and charged forward, warning off any who came near as he circled the fray.

Robert Toombs

Brooks kept up, possibly panicking when Sumner tried to rise. The larger man tried to block the cane as he did so, but became trapped beneath his desk until he pulled it from the floor and staggered forward. Senator Robert Toombs saw the conclusion of the caning, from about when the desk came out of the floor onward. The furniture put more distance between Brooks and Sumner

and seemed to give Mr. Brooks better play with his stick, and the next lick after that occurrence was a more effective one, broke the stick, and lessened the resistance of Mr. Sumner

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

One might expect things to stop there. Sumner, pained, confused, staggering, ceased to put up much of a fight at all. Brooks literally broke his cane across the Senator’s skull. What more did it take?

Mr. Brooks continued his blows rapidly with the part of the stick he held in his hand, until Mr. Sumner sank to the floor in rather a sitting posture. He then ceased, and some of the bystanders, having by this time reached the parties, took Mr. Brooks by the arm and led him a few paces away from Mr. Sumner.

“Let them alone! let them alone!” Caning Charles Sumner, Part 9

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678

We left Charles Sumner struck momentarily blind by Preston Brooks’ cane. Until that point the nearsighted Sumner had his face buried in copies of The Crime Against Kansas. What Brooks intended, or claimed to intent, as a light blow or two turned into a frenzy as Sumner raised his arms and tried to defend himself. According to Sumner, he acted on instinct

With head already bent down, I rose from my seat, wrenching up my desk, which was screwed to the floor, and then pressed forward, while my assailant continued his blows. I have no other consciousness until I found myself ten feet forward, in front of my desk, lying on the floor of the Senate, with my bleeding head supported on the knees of a gentleman, whom I soon recognized by voice and countenance, as Mr. Morgan, of New York. Other persons there were about me offering me friendly assistance; but I did not recognize any of them. Others were there at a distance, looking on and offering no assistance, of whom I recognized only Mr. Douglas, of Illinois, Mr. Toombs, of Georgia, and I thought also my assailant, standing between them.

Brooks’ entire assault lasted only a minute or two, long enough that people in the room didn’t realize it had happened until it had almost finished. Howell Cobb of the committee pressed Sumner on precise details: Did Brooks strike while speaking, or immediately after? Sumner quoted his statement back to them. Cobb pressed further, repeating himself. As a hostile interrogator, he might have intended to catch Sumner in a contradiction. Sumner may also have shown some confusion in the moment. He had just suffered trauma to his brain a few days before and Cobb asked him to closely revisit the event. Sumner stuck to his story: Brooks spoke a sentence or so. It sounded like he had another lined up, but then the caning started and Sumner recalled nothing else.

Lawrence Keitt (D-SC)

When the blows fell, Lawrence Keitt stood in the Senate chamber. Willis Gorman put him by the Vice-President’s chair. According to Gorman, Keitt moved on the affray when he and Robert Toombs did, a cane of his own in hand and lifted above his head. Gorman thought Keitt meant to strike someone. The committee naturally asked who Keitt intended his cane for. Gorman demurred:

I do not know, nor could I tell; evidently no one could tell, unless he had known the circumstances. Mr. Toombs said, “Don’t strike!” and addressed himself to Mr. Keitt. Mr Keitt then put down his cane and did not advance any further.

Gorman, who estimated Sumner suffered only a few blows, didn’t know with confidence that Keitt had any designs on Sumner. He moved toward the fight, fair enough, but may have held his cane up to keep it clear of the desks. Apparently Gorman didn’t think anything of it until Toombs told Keitt to keep his cane to himself.

Toombs told it this way:

I saw Mr. Keitt when I got up near the combatants with Governor Gorman; I went up immediately. By the time Mr. Keitt had got to the aisle the blows had ceased. Mr. Keitt was there with, I think, a stick in his hands. He made some observation; I do not recollect what it was. He was standing in the aisle, and some words passed from him; I think they were addressed to Mr. Crittenden.

Toombs left out talking Keitt down until the committee asked about it. Then he noted that Keitt “seemed to be excited.” With regard to Keitt’s cane:

I do not know whether it was raised or not. I had the impression that he was going to use it, or rather I was afraid that he might use it.

James Simonton, a reporter for the New York Times had the full story of Keitt’s approach and involvement:

Mr. Keitt rushed in, running around Mr. Sumner and Mr. Brooks with his cane raised, crying “Let them alone! let them alone!” threatening myself and others who rushed in to interfere.

Whatever Toombs and Gorman thought, Keitt waved his cane over his head and circled the fight to warn off anyone who came to Sumner’s rescue. If it came to that, Lawrence Keitt would make sure that Preston Brooks murdered a sitting United States Senator on the floor of the Senate.

The Ambiguity of Popular Sovereignty, Part Two

Robert Toombs

Robert Toombs (D-GA) 

Proslavery men supported Stephen Douglas’ Kansas-Nebraska Act for various reasons. For many, it had mainly ideological appeal. The Missouri Compromise set the precedent that Congress could restrict slavery. That implied at least two things that slavery deserved restriction because of its immorality and that the national government had a role in regulating it. Any proslavery man could find reason enough to want that sort of precedent repealed. As the 1850s wore on, older and even more universally accepted precedents would see challenges in the South. Enslaving Kansas, even if just on paper, would at a proslavery state government to send proslavery senators to Washington, offsetting California’s freedom.

Even if that didn’t pan out and barely enslaved Kansas ended up another region full of secretly abolitionist Southern quislings, having it would shore up slavery in its Missouri hinterland and help keep that state from turning into another almost Northern hotbed of gradual emancipation. The Border South had chancy enough loyalty even before, but if Missouri went the way of Delaware or Maryland, the natural logic of events would make the non-cotton states adjacent to them into a new Border South in time even as it turned the most Northern Southern states into the most Southern Northern states. The Cotton Kingdom could endure, for now, the Delaware, Maryland, and even Kentucky they had. But could it really survive of those states became new Pennsylvanias and Ohios? Not without expansion to replace the states it lost. Cuba, Nicaragua, or more of Mexico could offset the losses, but all rested on the gamble of filibustering. The United States already owned Kansas, fair and square.


Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Douglas’ bill repealed the Missouri Compromise and specified that:

said Territory, or any portion of the same, shall be received into the Union with or without slavery, as their Constitution may prescribe at the time of their admission

Did that mean slavery came in by default? Or did it mean that the territorial government could include of exclude it? The law allowed the latter option at the moment of the constitutional convention, but could the territory permit or bar slavery before then? If so, when? The territorial legislature explicitly gained the power to make laws for the territory. Did that include writing a slave code?

Georgia’s Robert Toombs, who we last met helping put down the fire-eater secession conspiracy in his state, then a Representative and now one of Georgia’s senators, read the bill as permitting a slavery decision only at the constitutional convention. Influential Southern newspapers disagreed. The power of legislation had to include writing a slave code, since it included virtually every other kind of law except a set of standard exceptions largely relating to land sale and Indian treaties. The listed exceptions included nothing on slavery. The constitutional convention, then, could simply ratify and reiterate territorial laws made previously.

Douglas could hide in that ambiguity, but antislavery men saw it as breaking a sacred pledge and, fairly literally, selling the future of the white yeoman farmer down the river. Permitting the territory to decide, after all, meant it could decide for slavery. Down South, just the opposite fear held: that the legislature could decide for freedom. Southerners differed on whether they would best secure slavery with a swift decision made by a flood of immigrants from Missouri who wanted to set themselves up as planters like their neighbors or whether they would do best to wait and have men of property and connections establish new plantations and entrench their interests. But rich men would be less likely to risk their fortunes than men on the make, which again turned the question back to whether or not Kansas could and would support hemp cultivation like Missouri did. Rich men had reason to wait and see, but that very delay could mean that free soil came over from Iowa and further abroad to steal their victory away.