“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.

The Dying Whigs

Millard Fillmore

Millard Fillmore

The Second Party System rested on slavery staying at the margins of politics. As long as it did, both the Democrats and the Whigs could enjoy support in both sections and avoid the natural contradictions between a free and democratic government that permitted slavery. While the early 1850s did not see slavery completely eclipse all other issues, both parties drifted in similar directions. To draw on an example that will return later, argument in the early part of the decade did not involve whether to have internal improvements, but rather where to locate the largest internal improvement project the nation had ever contemplated: a transcontinental railroad. Differences remained, but many of them did not run so hot as they had in past decades. The Mexican War and ensuing fallout pushed slavery into the limelight in a more sustained way than ever before and the backlash did not push it all the way back into the political wilderness.

That presented a serious problem for the Whigs, who did not have quite the same party loyalty machinery that the Democrats had with which to manage internal divisions. The passing of the Armistice showed that Whigs could not even muster a coalition to support their own solutions to national issues. The prominent role of Stephen Douglas’s Democrats in making the Clay Measures into law sent a signal South that they could best trust the security of slavery to the Democracy. Up North, antislavery Whigs could have read that same signal with delight, but for the role their party had in prosecuting the most noxious part of the Armistice, the Fugitive Slave Law.

Who would the Whigs run for president, then? The Southern wing of the party wanted a second Fillmore administration thanks to his support of that most radical act of Congress in the nation’s history to date. The Northern Whigs hated Fillmore for the same reason. Fillmore’s home state of New York held many of his most dedicated foes, led by none other than William Seward.

Winfield Scott

Winfield Scott, Old Fuss and Feathers

Seward adopted the winning formula of the two previous Whig victories: find a winning general and nominate him. It worked for William Henry Harrison. It worked for Zachary Taylor. In both cases, the Whig nominee won and then died in office, which left Whig much less to Northern Whig liking in the White House. But 100% of Whig administrations still amounted to only two elections and thus hardly anything to draw a conclusion from. A general at least offered the potential to run a war hero who could distract from policy questions that divided the party and they couldn’t all die in office.

The general on hand for Seward’s faction again led armies to victory in a war that most Whigs hated. In the place of Zachary Taylor, victor of Buena Vista, they put Winfield Scott, who marched through the Halls of Montezuma. Like Taylor, Scott hailed from the South. But unlike Taylor, Scott did not own slaves. The Southern Whigs had seen Seward play this game before, picking a soldier that, they imagined, he groomed and wooed away from his natural Southern inclinations toward Yankee antislavery agitation.

The Whigs did not have an easy time of it when they convened in Baltimore. Southerners forced through a platform that endorsed the Armistice and its finality, forever closing the book on slavery and rubbing salt into the wounds inflicted by the Fugitive Slave Law. No Southern Whig voted against the platform. On the nomination itself, New England broke away to support Daniel Webster, but later came around to Scott. After fifty-three ballots, Scott finally received the nomination. His support came 95% from the North. Fillmore’s came 85% from the South.

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens

For Whigs like Alexander Stephens, the Scott nomination did not go down easy. They had just told the nation that Union rested on the Armistice, especially the Fugitive Slave Law. Now their own party rejected the man who did the most to ensure it? Stephens, Toombs, and seven other Southern congressmen refused to support Scott. They led a wave of defections. The Whigs did not immediately turn Democrat, but they stayed home on election day in droves. The Deep South delivered less than 37% of its popular vote to the Whigs, down from 50% just four years earlier. They did better, but still lost, in the Upper South and Border States. Of the entire South, Scott carried only Kentucky and Tennessee.

Outside the presidential race, the Whigs won no governorship in any of the future Confederate states. They retained control of the legislature only in Tennessee. Of the sixty-five congressional races they contested, they won only fourteen. The entire Southern Whig contingent in the House shrank in short order to twenty-two.

Surveying the wreckage in Deep South Georgia, Stephens pronounced Whiggery dead.

The Burned Over District and the Jerry Rescue

Not every fugitive slave rescue could involve a pitched battle like what happened at Christiana, surely to the relief of all involved. Nobody wanted to get shot, even if they accepted the risk in certain circumstances. Most fugitives captured ended up back in slavery with the cooperation or silent indifference of the white North, or by the simple expedient of the slave catchers seizing their quarry and bolting South without risking the proper channels. We should not take the inspiring, if also deeply troubling, stories of the more dramatic rescues as evidence of a unified North committed to ending slavery. One would have trouble finding that even fairly late in the war.

The Burned Over District (Wikimedia Commons)

The Burned Over District (Wikimedia Commons)

In Upstate New York, the Burned Over District got its name from the waves of religious revivalism that swept over it in the few decades before the Civil War. The area gave birth to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the Adventist family of denominations. But the revivalists did not limit themselves to matters spiritual. The District helped make abolition from a movement largely focused on persuading slaveholders and limited to small discussion groups into a popular, if still very much minority, affair. Something similar, if on a smaller scale, happened with women’s rights. The area also gave us temperance, which we took far too long to give back.

All of those public meetings, sermons, lectures, platforms, and papers translated into real action too. The Burned Over District gave birth to the nation’s first antislavery party, the tiny Liberty Party. Its small share of the New York vote might have swung the election of 1844 from Henry Clay to James K. Polk, as Clay and his Whigs even then had a somewhat more moderate position on slavery than the Democrats did. One can thus presume that at least some Liberty votes came at the expense of Clay, who lost New York by a margin of 5100 votes. The Liberty Party delivered 15,800 votes for its own James G. Birney. Had Clay won in 1844, the entire course of the following decades might have run very differently. Or it might not have, since Clay would face many of the same pressures Polk did.

At any rate, the Liberty Party had its state convention in Syracuse, a major station on the Underground Railroad, in 1851. Secretary of State Daniel Webster warned the party, and Syracuse in general, that the government would enforce the Fugitive Slave Act even under their noses and on October 1, as they convened in a local church slave catchers took William McHenry, a cooper who escaped slavery in Missouri. In Syracuse, he went by the name Jerry.

His captors told Jerry that they wanted him for theft, put him in irons, and then told him the truth. Jerry then put up a fight, but did only as well as someone in chains could expect. Word reached the Liberty Party in their church. The wife of the commissioner who would hear the case may have tipped them off. Hundreds of Liberty Party faithful and other abolitionists stormed the jail, under the leadership of prominent abolitionists Gerrit Smith and Samuel J. May and with Seward’s Higher Law as their ideological backbone. They took Jerry out and saw him off to Canada.

The grand jury indicted twenty-four people, half white and half black, for their roles in the Jerry Rescue. In a step back from the charges after the Battle of Christiana, which had yet to reach trial, they faced only accusations of rioting instead of also treason. Nine of the black defendants remained safe in Canada. Of the remainder who stood trial, only one black man received a conviction. He died during the course of appeals.

This and the previous rescues sound wonderful to most modern people, but imagine what they looked like in the South. The Georgia Platform came out in December of 1850, telling the nation that only the Fugitive Slave Act’s zealous enforcement by the North held the South to the Union. Now they saw mobs of Northerners ready to in effect overthrow the Union by jury nullification, by base violence, and in fact by treason, to subvert that very act’s enforcement. The minds of the long dead do not sit on a shelf where we can peer into them to know their every reaction, but it must have resembled the way Northerners looked on a later South using the same tools to subvert civil rights laws.

The Unionism of Cobb, Stephens, and Toombs rested on a plank to which the North eagerly applied a saw. How long could it last? Every rescue further armed their fire-eating opposites.

The Georgia Platform

America after the compromise. (via Wikipedia) Southern Unionists would turn fire-eater.

America after the compromise and forever, or Southern Unionists would turn fire-eater. (via Wikipedia)

The first blow to South Carolina Governor Seabrook’s conspiracy to break the Union came in the form of Texas’ private choice to take federal cash for its western claims, but the first public blow came from elections for Georgia’s state convention. Howell Cobb, Alexander Stephens, and Robert Toombs successfully convinced the voters to send 240 Unionist delegates to that convention of 264, a total of 90.91%.

Such an overwhelming Unionist win might look like a profound repudiation of secession. On December 10, 1850, the convention adopted the Georgia Platform which resolved that:

if the thirteen original parties to the contract, bordering the Atlantic in a narrow belt, while their separate interests were in embryo their peculiar tendencies scarcely developed, their revolutionary trials and triumphs, still green in memory, found Union impossible without Compromise, the thirty-one of this day, may well yield somewhat, in the conflict of opinion and policy, to preserve that Union which has extended the sway of republican government over a vast wilderness to another ocean, and proportionally advanced their civilization and national greatness.

Compromise and Union, as one would expect from the election. Georgia maintained its attachment to the principle that the Congress had no power to regulate slavery in the territories, but would trade purity of principle for a fair deal. Looking at the final measures, the convention saw

the rejection of propositions to exclude slavery from the Mexican territories and to abolish it in the District of Columbia, and whilst she does not wholly approve, will abide by it as a permanent adjustment of this sectional controversy.

Emphasis mine. Compromise rarely leaves everyone entirely happy, but Georgia resolved to live with the new status quo. They could have slavery with Union, provided the finality of the Armistice. Georgia could give a little to get a little. But

the State of Georgia in the judgment of this Convention, will and ought to resist even (as a last resort,) to a disruption of every tie which binds her to the Union, any action of Congress upon the subject of slavery in the District of Columbia, or in any places subject to the jurisdiction of Congress incompatible with the safety, domestic tranquility, the rights and honor of the slave-holding States, or any refusal to admit as a State any territory hereafter, applying, because of the existence of slavery therein, or any act prohibiting the introduction of slaves into the territories of New Mexico and Utah, or any act repealing or materially modifying the laws now in force for the recovery of fugitive slaves.

Georgia proclaimed for Union, but only subject to the Armistice’s finality, only subject to the preservation of slavery in Washington, only subject to the continued admission of slave states, only subject to the preservation of slavery within the slave states, only subject to New Mexico and Utah remaining open to slavery, and only subject to the new Fugitive Slave Act’s inviolacy.

Those conditions reiterate the Armistice terms, but at the very least also lay markers against nigh any future source of sectional strife even should it come on grounds unrelated to the final settlement. More ominously, Georgia pledged itself to disunion if, on some future date, it did not receive satisfaction. The convention laid one marker above all others in the platform’s final resolution:

That it is the deliberate opinion of this Convention, that upon the faithful execution of the Fugitive Slave Bill by the proper authorities depends the preservation of our much loved Union.

All the other conditions could go hang if Congress and the North did not keep their promise on the measure most odious to the North. Should they fail to do so, the Unionists promised Georgia would rise up and break the Union.

Imagining Historical Southerners Complexly

Thanks to author John Green for the phrase to which this post owes its title. He also teaches US history (and has taught World History and English Lit) over on Youtube where he also finds time to vlog one half of the vlogbrothers.

Union prevailed. The fire-eaters’ conspiracy failed. The Armistice of 1850 became the final settlement thanks to the tireless work of Southern Unionists who commanded the support of most of the region’s whites when the votes came in. However ill-omened, the compromise worked. So how did the nation come to new sectional controversies that ultimately culminated in the fire-eaters getting their way in the Secession Winter of 1860-1?

To understand that, we must also understand that Southern Unionists, like people everywhere, had diverse political interests, ideological imperatives, and loyalties. When those align, they appear united and indivisible. We need know no more about Cobb, Stephens, and Toombs than that they opposed secession when things came down to the wire. They had the chance to strike for disunion and chose Union instead, but their lives do not reduce to Union Uber Alles.

Reality, with characteristic lack of consideration, gives us complexities instead of simplicity. Men like the three Georgians did not lack loyalty to slavery. Nor did they have a paramount loyalty to the Union which trumped loyalty to slavery. Rather so long as the two did not conflict, they need not choose between them. The Georgian trio could live with the Armistice, despite any fears, and so saw no conflict between it and their loyalty to slavery. Disunion or Union, to them neither state threatened slavery and so they saw no need to secede. They could have slavery as they liked within or without the Union, so why dispense with the Union in the name of slavery?

The Confederate Cabinet in 1861. Vice-President Stephens sits in the front row, third from left. Toombs sits at far right.

The Confederate Cabinet in 1861. Vice-President Stephens sits in the front row, third from left. Secretary of State Toombs sits at far right.

Despite everyone’s protestations of finality, times can change. If the same men saw no future for slavery within the Union, their two loyalties came into conflict and they must choose. Between the formation of the Confederacy and its appointment of Jefferson Davis as provisional president, Howell Cobb served as its de facto head of state. He resigned to join the Confederate military. Alexander Stephens served as Davis’s Vice-President. Toombs served the Confederacy as a Secretary of State and a general.

We can make too much of the political class, equating them perfectly with the people they represent. But they people they represented did choose them for their roles and their actions do illustrate the broad dynamics at work in historical situations. Though secession proved a broad, popular movement in 1860-1, it never commanded the hearts of every single Southerner. Nor did it occupy them all to the same degree or in the same ways. They had loyalty to their section and to slavery as a means of racial control, but even when undertaking disunion they did not cease to hold more broadly American affections as well.

These men, and the men they represented, still had American bonds of affection. Mystic chords of memory still stretched from every battlefield and patriot’s grave. But they also, just as their Northern counterparts did, had other bonds of affection and other mystic chords of memory that attached to their sections, to their states, and to their social and economic systems.

Looking South, one could imagine when Seabrook’s secession conspiracy fell before the Georgian trio and the voters, collapsing into delay, in action, and electoral defeat, that across the South most white people cleaved the Union first, section and slavery second. But allowing them human complexity reveals they cleaved to Union in a certain way and subject to certain conditions. They told the North as much. That story tomorrow.