“It is impossible to regard him without apprehension.”

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Charles Sumner ended May of 1856 in a poor state. His head wound became infected, but after his doctors let the pus drain Sumner improved. Then he took a further plunge, likely courtesy of various complications from the wound and the infection. His extended convalescence threw suspicion on him from points South. Surely the Senator played for sympathy; no one suffered so badly from a few light blows which he had coming. The dismissal of Sumner’s original doctor, Cornelius Boyle, added fuel to that speculation. On the other side of the partisan divide Republicans believed that Boyle soft-pedaled Sumner’s diagnosis on purpose, citing his personal friendship with Preston Brooks.

With hindsight, we know that Sumner did continue suffering. He remained bed-ridden as the Washington summer closed in. He escaped the city for Francis P. Blair’s home at Silver Spring, Maryland. The distance and shade, he and his doctors reasoned, would help. It only did so much and Sumner suffered another relapse. On June 23 he wrote a friend

For nearly four weeks I lay twenty-two hours out of the twenty-four on my back; and I am still very feeble, but able to totter a mile round the garden, and hoping daily for strength, which comes slowly.

William H. Seward (R-NY)

On the twenty-fifth, Sumner came back into Washington City to testify before the grand jury. For three days he worked at some correspondence and entertained many visitors. That took a great deal out of Sumner, who promptly retired to Blair’s again. William Henry Seward called on him there and reported

He is much changed for the worse. His elasticity and vigor are gone. He walks, and in every way moves, like a man who has not altogether recovered from a paralysis, or like a man whose sight is dimmed, and his limbs stiffened with age. His conversation, however, was like that of his season of better health. It turned altogether on what the Senate were doing, and the course of conduct, and debate therein. When he spoke of his health, he said he thought he was getting better now; but his vivacity of spirit and his impatience for study are gone. It is impossible to regard him without apprehension.

In that conversation, Sumner said he would like to get back and give another big speech before the session of Congress ended. Seward advised Sumner that if he insisted upon that, it would be his last speech “in this world.”

While this went on, the legal case against Brooks proceeded. Sumner wrote to Phillip Barton Key, the US Attorney handling case, that he couldn’t come to court because

I have suffered a relapse, by which I am enfeebled, and also admonished against exertion. Being out of town, I have not had an opportunity of consulting my attending physician; but a skillful medical friend, who has visited me here, earnestly insists that I cannot attend Court for some time without peril to my health.

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

Key must not have got the hint, because he wrote again and Sumner had to answer a second time explaining that he wanted “nothing to do, directly or indirectly” with the prosecution. The Senator thought he had done enough by coming in and testifying for the grand jury. He needed to tend to his recovery.

Without Sumner, the Brooks trial went on. For assaulting a Senator on the floor of the United States Senate, he received a fine of $300.

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The Senate Committee’s Verdict

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

Henry Wilson got his action, of a sort. He demanded that the Senate do something about Preston Brooks caning Charles Sumner. At first no one rose to take up his suggestion that they form an investigatory committee, but then William Seward introduced a resolution to that effect. After a minor amendment, the Senate approved. The committee went to work sometime thereafter, delivering its report on May 28, six days after the attack.

The committee, unsurprisingly, agreed that Brooks had caned Sumner in response to words Sumner spoke on the floor of the Senate. They opted not to comment on “the various circumstances which preceded and attended this affair.” Instead, they reported looking into precedent. They had to scour the journals of the House of Representatives, as the Senate had no previous occasion to weigh in on such an event. The record held “an assault upon a member for words spoken in debate to be a violation of the privileges of the House.”

James Mason

So Brooks warranted some kind of disciplinary action. There the Senators found a difficulty. His attack upon Sumner “was a breach of the privileges of the Senate” yet “not within the jurisdiction of the Senate, and can only be punished by the House of Representatives, of which Mr. Brooks is a member.”

To support that conclusion, the committee referred to British precedent that made the houses of Parliament equals and independent of one another “in every respect.” As independent equals, neither house could exert authority over the other. Thomas Jefferson agreed in his parliamentary manual, holding that in such occasions the offended chamber should complain to the other or redress. As a member of the House, only the House could judge and punish Brooks.

The Senate might have gotten right on that, at least for the sake of maintaining the forms. The matter came almost to a vote, but then James Mason objected again. He noted

the honorable Senator from South Carolina, [Mr. Butler,] who may feel, and probably does feel, an interest in this matter, is not in his seat. he has not been in the Senate to-day, I believe; I have not seen him. I think it would be better, therefore, to allow it to lie over. I do not know that he has any opinions in relation to it which he desires to express. I merely make the suggestion.

“Several senators” objected to delaying things, at which point Mason gave it up and the Senate agreed to the resolution.

The Senators might have found a way to try and punish Brooks if they wished to; politicians get creative about these things. A committee entirely unfavorable to Sumner, as the Senate elected, would probably not have exerted itself too much to find a solution. Yet on consideration, the problem does strike at the heart of bicameralism. The Constitution establishes two chambers of Congress, each with its own privileges. Those include the power to discipline their own members through use of each chamber’s rules. If the Senate could summon a congressman and punish his misconduct, then it sat as judge over the House.

One might reasonable counter with the argument that Brooks did not commit his crime in the House, but rather on the floor of the Senate. By entering the room, he entered their jurisdiction and had to abide by their rules. If Senate rules could regulate the behavior spectators in the gallery, as they did and do, then they clearly didn’t reach just Senators and those employed by the chamber as aides and officers. A Congressman might easily fall under them.

The committee found otherwise, but by referring the matter to the House and its antislavery coalition majority the Senators also knew the likely result. In relying on constitutional propriety to wash their own hands of Brooks, they probably expected that the House would find some way to handle him.

The Senate’s Committee

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

The day after Preston Brooks broke his cane over Charles Sumner’s head and left the Senator covered in his own blood, Henry Wilson got up and demanded that the Senate take “prompt and decisive action.” They had to do something, lest another Brooks come along. If Senators, in the chamber itself and for things they said in debate, faced mortal danger then democracy could not long endure. The afternoon previous, while Sumner lay blooded in his bed, the GOP caucus met and discussed strategy. They thought it best not to make a party issue of the attack and that the Massachusetts delegation ought not lead an investigation. Thus Wilson looked to the Senate in general for a solution, rising for the first substantive business on May 23, 1856. He concluded:

Senators, I have called your attention to this transaction. I submit no motion. I leave it to older Senators, whose character-whose position in this body, and before the country, eminently fit them for the task of devising measures to redress the wrongs of a member of this body, and to vindicate the honor and dignity of the Senate.

In other words, Wilson understood -or his Republican colleagues understood and convinced him- that if the GOP took a prominent role in this then it would look like a partisan affair. Proslavery men could charge that Republicans wanted revenge on Sumner’s behalf, not justice or fair inquiry. By deferring to elder Senators, Wilson sought to depoliticize the chamber’s response. Senators should view themselves as Senators and Americans first, acting with a view to the sacred prerogatives and safeguarding democracy.

Such a considered plea, complete with deference to the elder men of the Senate, drew out from every Senator in the chamber an eloquent silence. No one would stand up for Sumner. The presiding officer waited a decent amount of time and then began to move on.

Senator William H. Seward (R-NY)

William Seward cut him off mid-sentence and offered a resolution. Neither the Congressional Globe nor Sumner’s biographer give any insight on whether Seward delayed for effect, out of his own doubts, or in hopes that someone, anyone, else would step forward. No one did, so he submitted a resolution:

That a committee of five members be appointed by the President [of the Senate] to inquire into the circumstances attending the assault committed on the person of the Hon. Charles Sumner, a member of the Senate, and in the Senate chamber yesterday; and that the said committee be instructed to report a statement of the facts, together with their opinion thereon, to the Senate.

That required unanimous consent. James Mason of Virginia rose to object, though he said he didn’t do so on the general principle of things. He merely preferred that Seward revise his resolution so that the Senate would elect the committee. Seward accepted and the Senate assented and the election took place at once. Lewis Cass, Phillip Allen, Augustus Caesar Dodge, Henry Geyer, and James Pearce won the spots, with Seward coming in sixth. Henry Wilson received one vote, probably his own. The committee included no Republicans, but did include Cass despite Sumner going after him in The Crime Against KansasGeyer and Pearce both hailed from slave states, Missouri and Maryland respectively, and Dodge had a career as a friend to popular sovereignty.

Lewis Cass (D-MI)

Cass objected. He asked Senators before the vote not to support him and very much did not want to chair the committee, as “the task would impose too much labor, and I am old.” The presiding officer informed Cass that committees chose their own chairmen, which he must have known, and then further that since he had the fewest votes in the Senate they would probably not choose him anyway. Cass griped once more about being elected and let the matter drop.

Wilson would have some kind of action, but nothing about the composition of the committee could have encouraged him to expect satisfaction.

“If he did not apologize, to punish him” Caning Charles Sumner, Part 1

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

We left Charles Sumner on May 20, 1856. He finished his Crime Against Kansas speech, then heard the immediate responses and gave his response to the responses. The Senate called it a day. During Sumner’s second round of speaking, Henry Wilson got word that people might attack his fellow Bay State senator. He went about assembling a small bodyguard to walk Sumner home, but Sumner blew them off. Wilson neglected to explain that he knew of danger when he asked Sumner to wait up, for reasons he doesn’t go into. He may have thought it too obvious to state or expected that a social request from a colleague would suffice. Instead Sumner ducked out a side door and left his bodyguards aspirant behind. It took them a while to realize he had truly gone. By then Sumner had overtaken William Seward, who wanted to share an omnibus with him. They had dinner plans, but Sumner needed to get to the printer and check the proofs for his speech, planned for release as a pamphlet.

Sumner took two days for his speech, beginning on Monday, the nineteenth. Spectators packed the galleries that day, including members of the House. Preston Brooks, one of the latter and a relative of Andrew Butler’s, attended at least the first day. He might also have watched the second, though it seems that he didn’t hear the entire speech straight from Sumner’s lips. Brooks, never a proslavery firebrand but as ardent in his loathing of antislavery men as any white South Carolinian, decided that Sumner insulted South Carolina and Butler so Sumner had to pay the price.

Brooks himself doesn’t offer much information about what he did between hearing Sumner and the caning that made him famous, but his encounters with a Virginian congressman, Henry Edmundson give an idea. Testifying later to the House committee tasked with investigating the affair, Edmundson said that he didn’t know anything of Brooks’ intentions except from congressional gossip on the twentieth. The next morning, the twenty-first, Edumndson saw Brooks loitering about on the steps into the Capitol.

I accosted him, saying, “You are going the wrong way for the discharge of your duties.” He [Brooks] asked me to walk with him. I did so. He then told me Mr. Sumner had been very insulting to his State, and that he had determined to punish him unless he made an ample apology.

The two sat down and talked for a while. Brooks wanted Edmundson “to take no part” in any difficulty, save to serve as a witness, unless if Sumner came along with friends. Edmundson could probably see where this all would go -a southern man of the era wouldn’t have required detailed explanations of such things- but asked just what Brooks expected to do anyway. Brooks

replied it was to call upon Mr. Sumner for the insulting language used towards his State; and if he did not apologize, to punish him.

Brooks sounded off about how southern men needed to stop putting up with “this coarse abuse used by the Abolitionists.” Brooks felt that to represent South Carolina properly, he couldn’t suffer such words in silence. He dwelled on Sumner’s premeditated rhetoric, as Douglas had, and the two sat together until twelve thirty. Like with his bodyguards, Sumner eluded them.

“I think there will be an assault upon him”

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

The Crime Against Kansas: Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10,11, 12, 13, 14, 15Full text

Douglas Answers, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

With Douglas’ response answered, Sumner moved to dismiss James Mason. The Virginian “said nothing of argument, and, therefore, there is nothing for response.” He chided Mason for confusing “hard words,” “frowns,” and “scowls” for reasoned debate. He insisted that he had done nothing to earn such behavior, calling it “plantation manners,” and let the matter drop. They exchanged final barbs over plantation manners and, according to The New York Daily Tribune

Mr. MASON was understood to say-the Senator is certainly non compos mentis.

The Tribune, and antislavery papers in general, praised Sumner to the heavens for his Kansas speech. Some of his friendly colleagues in the Senate had advised against insulting senators and states in private, or objected to the tone, but the main opposition came from the usual quarters. Few Democrats liked an attack on the Democracy and its proslavery policy. Nor did Southerners happily suffer attacks upon slavery of any sort. Angry talk filled the streets of Washington.

Sumner may have underestimated the wrath he provoked. He later testified that he had no inkling of his danger

Never, directly or indirectly; nor had I the most remote suspicion of any attack, nor was I in any way prepared for an attack. I had no arms of means of defence of any kind. I was, in fact, entirely defenceless at the time, except so far as my natural strength went. In other words, I had no arms either about my person or in my desk. Nor did I ever wear arms in my life. I have always lived in a civilized community where wearing arms has not been considered necessary.

Henry Wilson

Sumner’s colleagues didn’t feel so confident of his safety. Henry Wilson, Massachusetts’ other senator, testified later that John Bingham, of the House, came up to him as the Senate adjourned and said:

“You had better go down with Mr. Sumner; I think there will be an assault upon him.”

Wilson didn’t buy it at first, but Bingham insisted that he “heard remarks made, from which I think an assault will be made.” That changed Wilson’s mind and he asked walked over and asked Sumner to hold on

I am going home with you to-day-several of us are going home with you.

With a quick “None of that, Wilson,” Sumner declined. Wilson tried to get Anson Burlingame and Schuyler Colfax to join him in escort duty all the same, but Sumner left by a side door rather than wait. The would-be bodyguards thought he might come back and hung around  for a little while before realizing the senator had well and truly left. Sumner may have taken things more seriously, but Wilson admitted that he gave his colleague no reason to believe they worried about Sumner’s safety. He probably thought they just wanted to talk.

Sumner “shot off just as I should any other day.” On his way out, he ran into William Seward. They had dinner plans so Seward suggested that they share the omnibus, essentially a horse-drawn taxi. Sumner begged off on the grounds that he needed to get to the printing office and look over proofs for The Crime Against Kansas in pamphlet form.

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.

Threats, Dogs, and Whips

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Charles Sumner damned Stephen Douglas as a Northern man with Southern principles, a doughface, for his Kansas-Nebraska Act. Douglas hit back, noting how Sumner had gone in all of a year from castigating the Compromise of 1850 to praising it as restoring the peace that Kansas-Nebraska would undo. The Massachusetts Senator had such purity of principle that he supported an old proslavery hand like Martin Van Buren for president in 1848. But Sumner’s oratory left a mark. Even a senator from North Carolina congratulated Sumner on everything about it save choosing the wrong side. The Masachusetts papers lit up with praise for Sumner again.

The satisfaction reached even into Bay State Whiggery. The Massachusetts Whigs supported the Compromise of 1850 with held noses, taking the lump on Daniel Webster’s word that they had to do it to save the nation. With the South bent on new conquests, Godlike Daniel safely in the ground, and land that Massachusetts farmers might want to move off to at stake, the situation changed. They turned on their man in the Senate, Edward Everett, when he came out against the bill in a late and feeble manner. Kidney stones took him off the floor for a vote and his former supporters mocked him for it. Adoring letters poured in for Sumner from old allies and former Everett men alike. Delighted, Sumner read them aloud to the Sewards. Inspired, he even entered into spontaneous debate for a while.

Anthony Burns

The Kansas-Nebraska Act became law all the same. When the Anthony Burns affair erupted at almost the same moment, proslavery men blamed Sumner for inciting riot in Boston with his speeches in Washington. Sumner received threats on his safety, which prompted a future governor of Connecticut to offer his services as a bodyguard. Less reassuringly, a correspondent informed the Senator that if he died he would become a martyr to freedom.

Sumner, a large man, responded to the threats on his life by ensuring they reached the attention of the newspapers and otherwise ignored them. He walked about Washington, never a friendly place for outspoken antislavery men, unarmed and unaccompanied. He looked forward to stepping up his rhetorical attacks on slavery, but his new colleague from Massachusetts -Everett resigned courtesy of those kidney stones- got the jump on him with a new petition for repealing the Fugitive Slave Law. He promptly withered under a counterattack built around the fact that some of the signers participated in Burns’ rescue. Sumner stepped in to defend him.

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

As Sumner finished up his latest condemnation of the law, Andrew Butler came into the Senate chamber. He listened to his friend and the proverbial steam shot from his ears. Denouncing Sumner’s speech as one not becoming the Senate, he demanded to know if Massachusetts would render over a single fugitive if the Congress repealed the law. The state had a constitutional obligation, so would it do its duty? Trial or no, whatever process instituted, would Massachusetts deliver a person into slavery or would all that folderol just obscure a flat refusal to abide by the Constitution?

Sumner answered, “Is thy servant a dog, that he should do this thing?” Then the fireworks really started. Sumner profaned his oath to support and defend the Constitution. He had gone mad. The Senate should expel him. Sumner fought back, castigating his critics as men of “plantation manners” who treated the Senate itself like answered to their whips. The vicious debate spawned serious talk of expelling Sumner as a perjurer and traitor, but the matter dropped when the adherents learned they lacked the necessary majority.

 

“A soulless, eyeless monster-horrid, unshapely, and vast” Sumner vs. Douglas

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

We have followed Charles’ Sumner’s career in the Senate all the way to the fall of 1853. At the end of it all, his coalition lost their majorities in Massachusetts. They blamed Sumner’s refusal to campaign for the party. Under their increasing criticism Sumner took out his frustrations on a friend of his, Francis Lieber. It must have seemed likely he would serve only the one term, or less. The elections trimmed the Free Soil Senate caucus by half, leaving only Sumner and Salmon Chase in the chamber. He had no committee assignments. People suspected he would resign rather than spend four years in futile opposition to the Pierce Administration.

The new Congress met for the first time in December of 1853. Augustus Caesar Dodge submitted a bill for the organization of the Nebraska Territory, west of Missouri. Stephen Douglas had big plans for that land: a Pacific Railroad, reunification of the Democracy, and four years in the White House just to start. Come January, he sought out David Rice Atchison to see what the Senator from Missouri would need in order to allow a new territory so near to Missouri’s plantation country. Atchison wanted repeal of the Missouri Compromise.

Sumner smelled a rat in all the quiet negotiating Douglas got up to and put his head together with Salmon P. Chase and Joshua Giddings. Giddings wrote the original draft of the Appeal of the Independent Democrats, which Chase revised and Sumner gave some rhetorical embroidery. He and Chase asked Douglas to delay his bill a week so they could get their message out, claiming that they wanted to study the territorial issue more. The Appeal hit the newspapers that day, after Douglas agreed to the pause, and the Little Giant girded for battle.

Salmon P. Chase

Sumner tried to argue he arraigned the act, not its author. The Appeal might call Douglas an accomplished architect of ruin, but nothing personal. He went on to call the act “a soulless, eyeless monster-horrid, unshapely, and vast.” For some reason, Douglas didn’t buy that. The Appeal focused his attacks on Chase and Sumner, who thus inherited leadership of the anti-Nebraska side. Neither conservative Whigs nor established antislavery men took a major part. William Seward, the horrid antislavery radical of 1850, delivered only a single speech against the act.

Stephen Douglas

Chase took the initial lead, while Sumner embarked on one of his lengthy planning sessions. He didn’t speak until late February, by which point other Senators had answered Douglas at length and thoroughly. As he had against the Fugitive Slave Act, Sumner progressed over well-trod ground. He arraigned Douglas and the bill’s other Northern supporters, saying slavery

loosens and destroys the character of Northern men, even at a distance-like the black magnetic mountain in an Arabian story, under whose irresistible attraction the iron bolts, which held together the strong timbers of a stately ship, were drawn out, till the whole thing fell apart, and became a disjointed wreck.

You could do the math yourself, but Sumner spelled it out all the same: Slavery drew the iron principles right out of Stephen Douglas and company, creating “that human anomaly-a Northern man with Southern principles.” Applause rained down from the Senate gallery.

 

God and Honor: Sumner’s Freedom National Speech, Part 19

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18; full speech

We left Charles Sumner offering a solution to the fugitive slave problem: let the states do whatever. That included rendering over no slaves at all as well as granting them all the due process that a white man would expect, up to and including a jury trial. Few Northern juries would eagerly send someone back into slavery, given the general popularity of efforts to aid fugitives and extreme unpopularity of the Fugitive Slave Act. Even people who otherwise found antislavery politics tedious could struggle with sending a person standing before them back to whipping and unrequited toil.

That all brought Charles Sumner to his actual close, seventy-five pages in. There, as with the rest of his long conclusion, he returned to a theme he had developed before:

The Slave Act violates the Constitution and shocks the Public Conscience. With modesty and yet with firmness let me add, sir, it offends against the Divine Law. No such enactment can be entitled to support. As the throne of God is above every earthly throne, so are his laws and statutes above all the laws and statutes of man. To question these, is to question God himself.

Senator William H. Seward (Whig-NY)

The faithful always find the Almighty on their side, whichever side they have. Sumner would have the Senate know that those in the chamber who voted for the Fugitive Slave Act sinned as much against revealed religion as civic. He appealed, as William Seward had a few years before, to a Higher Law. Men could err, but the divine never did. Fallen men could not presume their laws comported with those of God, or they would “presumptuously and impiously” put themselves on his level. But where one man could sin, another might not. Thus men must question one another. No one would dispute that if Congress ordered a murder, but instead one would take recourse to one’s own conscience.

Much of this gospel of self-doubt and conscience must have fallen on death ears. Since the Revolution, perhaps before, the North’s culture had developed in ways that stressed individual judgment and conscience in ways different from that of the South. In the slave states, the old ways of honor that put reputation and community regard above all remained strong. A Southern man mastered others, whether black, women, or children. He had license to conduct himself largely as he willed, so long as he remained within the community’s broad guidelines. If he thought them wrong, he must comply anyway lest he suffer disgrace. A Southern man might take an interest in religion, and should make proper pious demonstrations, but no odium attached to him if he took his wife to church on Sunday and declined to attend himself. He may have had as much conscience as anyone else, but making it his sole guiding light would have flown in the face of his upbringing. By contrast, men like Sumner felt somewhat more at liberty to dissent from their community and chart their own courses. They felt more controlled by guilt than shame, more disciplined by themselves than others.

One can take this comparison too far. Northerners once acted much as Southerners did and they had not shaken the old ways entirely. Northern politicians did not shy away from the language of honor and disgrace. Nor did they all adopt a pious, inward-looking attitude. Likewise Southerners could find their customary ways deficient and adopt ideas that seemed more fitting to modern conceptions of Christianity and good conduct. Honor and conscience may occupy different ends of a spectrum, but do share one.

 

Senator Sumner Goes to Washington

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Henry Adams, the fourth generation of his family to appear in this blog, brought the good news to Charles Sumner twice: Massachusetts chose him as its new senator. Sumner, with no previous experience in office and a stormy career as a spokesman and activist for prison reform and against war and slavery, had reason to doubt his abilities. Winning appeared relatively easy. Governing, if Sumner had any opportunity to at all, would prove harder. Washington and its politicians had displeased a much less radical Sumner on his one prior visit and he had come to public life only with some reluctance and the encouragement of John Quincy Adams.

Barely elected at all, after great struggle, and by a coalition damned by members of both national parties, Sumner lacked the wind at his back that a newly-elected man might hope for. Nor could he dream of putting his stamp on the nation while he remained a member of a tiny minority. His rhetoric, the one area where he might reasonably expect to excel, would now face opposition from skilled proslavery debaters. To employ it to any use, Sumner would have to master the Senate’s arcane rules and traditions or risk making a fool of himself.

Sumner’s embarrassments began as soon as he presented his credentials. By Senate tradition, the senior senator for one’s state presented a newcomer to the chamber. Sumner’s Massachusetts peer chose to oversleep rather than risk the wrath of Daniel Webster, leaving him to hunt down Lewis Cass and beg an introduction. Instead of the customary phrasing where a Senator begged leave to present a colleague, Cass informed the others only that

I have been requested to present the credentials of Charles Sumner, a Senator elect from the State of Massachusetts.

John Hale

Thomas Hart Benton, just defeated for re-election courtesy of David Rice Atchison, had a more sympathetic but just as disheartening welcome for Sumner. He told the new senator that all the great men had gone and taken the great issues of the day with them. Settling down into the desk previously occupied by Jefferson Davis, Sumner could look across a chamber with few allies. New Hampshire’s John Hale seemed like a shady character despite their shared party. He got on better with Salmon P. Chase. Sumner feared William Seward, who he otherwise liked, would always put Whiggery above antislavery. Hamilton Fish, Seward’s New York colleague, lamented Winthrop’s lost seat but went out of his way to make Sumner welcome.

Sumner found unlikely friends among the chamber’s Southern contingent. They knew many Yankees made antislavery speeches back home, but what went on back home didn’t necessarily translate to personal relationships in Washington. Soon Massachusetts antislavery extremist claimed Pierre Soulé as his best friend. He likewise befriended Andrew Pickens Butler, who sat next to him. Seeing in Sumner a man who knew his classics, Butler relied on him to check the quotations he planned to use in speeches. In these situations, and otherwise socially, Sumner declined to raise his antislavery opinions and instead talked or history and far-off happenings.

Soon Sumner settled, if not entirely comfortably, into the regular spin of Washington society. With everyone far from home, the political class formed their own small world with an unending cycle of dinners and other social occasions where they entertained each other in small groups for a large portion of the week. A single week of his first month saw Sumner hosted by Millard Fillmore, the French Minister, and Francis Blair. His party might earn him political isolation, and a few men rubbed Sumner wrong or took a dislike to him, but he didn’t suffer much from personal ostracism.