Yesterday we heard what ordinary Southerners, in the persons of Preston Brooks’ constituents, and Southern Senators thought of his caning Charles Sumner. For good measure, honorary Southerner James Buchanan chimed in. However, one might expect the Washingtonian sectional elite and the people who elected Brooks to go all-in for him. For that matter, any time James Buchanan fails to shamelessly do slavery’s bidding we should probably assume he made a mistake and regretted it intensely. To get a better sense of the general reaction, we should look more broadly.
South Carolina, as one must expect, responded with delight. According to a letter in Sumner’s Works,
the Charlestonians have subscribed ten cents each and bought a splendid cane, with the words ‘Hit him again‘ engraved on the head; and if Mr. Sumner troubles South Carolina or Mr. Brooks again, he will get something engraved on his head which will be very apt to make him a grave subject.
Nineteenth century Americans of both sections loved their public meetings. Just as in the North, they convened to express themselves on the issue. The men of Martin’s Depot, South Carolina, resolved that
if Northern fanatics will persist in meddling with our private institutions, we deem it expedient that Southern members should reply to them by the use of gutta-percha.
Brooks’ own constituents got into the act with a resolution to give him a cane of their own, inscribed “Use knock-down arguments” on the grounds that nothing else would work on “a perverted mind and degenerate race.”
Of course one must also expect proslavery radicalism from South Carolina. Virginia, like every other state in the Union, had a less radical reputation on such things. The Richmond Enquirer gives the example of the University of Virginia:
Some very eloquent speeches were delivered, all of which fully approved the course of Mr Brooks, and the resolution was passed to purchase for Mr. Brooks a splendid cane. The cane is to have a heavy gold head, which will be suitably inscribed, and also bear upon it a device of the human head, badly cracked and broken.
The Richmond Examiner declared that
the precedent of Brooks vs. Sumner will become a respected authority at Washington. It will be a ‘leading case,’ as it clearly defines the distinction between the liberty of speech as guarantied to the respectable American Senator and that scandalous abuse of it by such men as Charles Sumner.
The Examiner spoke to a broader truth. White Southerners fundamentally did not believe that antislavery speech was acceptable. They spent decades fighting against it in their own borders, both by censoring the mails and extralegal vigilance against suspected dissenters. Their demands sometimes reached into the North, as when Calhoun demanded censorship even of Yankee mails. He didn’t get that, but calls to do something about antislavery groups remained a staple of Southern grievance.
The Enquirer agreed on the point the next week, saying
Sumner and Sumner’s friends must be punished and silenced. Government which cannot suppress such crimes as theirs has failed of its purpose. Either such wretches must be hung or put in the penitentiary, or the South should prepare at once to quit the Union.
A few days later, the same paper called for giving Sumner thirty-nine licks a day and suggested
There is the blackguard Wilson, an ignorant Natick cobbler, swaggering in excess of muscle, and absolutely dying for a beating. Will not somebody take him in hand? Hale is another huge, red-faced, sweating scoundrel, whom some gentleman should kick and cuff until he abates something of his impudent talk.
Wilson, of course, had a challenge from Brooks. John Hale served as a villain for proslavery men for near to a decade by this point. Now that someone had broken the ice by breaking a cane, Southerners lined up cheering for sequels like studio executives with a runaway summer blockbuster on their hands.