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.

 

 

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“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.

“Cut to the bone-cut under, as it were, and very ragged” Caning Charles Sumner, Part 14

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

The Caning: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13

The House report on the caning

We left Charles Sumner with John Slidell, who pulled back from him when they both came to a doorway. Slidell explained his apparent indifference as actual indifference a while after. Sumner had more immediate concerns. He lay on a sofa in the Senate anteroom, where Dr. Cornelius Boyle found him

bleeding very copiously, and with a great deal of blood upon his clothes. The blood went all over my shirt in dressing his wounds. His friends thought I ought not to dress his wounds there, but take him to his residence. I differed, and stated my reason, that if I dressed his wounds at once and at that place, they would heal by first intentions; and that if I did not, suppuration might take place.

Nineteenth century doctors believed many things we no longer do about the body, but concern for infection remains current. Best practices for sanitation, unfortunately for their patients, have come a long ways since. You could tell an accomplished surgeon of the era by his apron, turned black and stiff with dried blood. That doesn’t make them malevolent, though many doctors did resist adopting more modern methods that we know produce better outcomes. They did their best by the knowledge they had.

Boyle took stock of Sumner’s condition, discovering

There were marks of three wounds on the scalp, but only two that I dressed. One was a very slight wound, that required no special attention. One was two and a quarter inches long, cut to the bone-cut under, as it were, and very ragged. […] The other is not quite two inches long

I can’t imagine Sumner’s head must have felt. We know how profusely they bled, but it sounds like a flap of his scalp was just torn up. The committee pressed for the literally gory details and Boyle confirmed that both wounds “cut to the bone”.

I have the probe now in my pocket, from which the blood has not been washed [Instrument produced.] One was a cut to the depth of nearly an inch. It is only an eighth of an inch to the scale, but it was a cut in and down.

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

The two cuts fell on the left side of the back of the head, apparently dealt when Sumner was still bent down or as he tried to flee, and “in front, about two inches from the median line.” Additionally, Sumner suffered bruising and less serious cuts. Boyle remarked that

There was one slight mark on the back of his head, but not severe enough to require dressing […] There were marks on the hands also, and a red mark down the face near the temple

It sounds like Sumner managed to block or deflect at least a few of Brooks’ thirty licks. It might well have saved his life. Boyle testified that a strike to the temple could have gone right through into the brain, or cut the artery there. Either could have killed. Brooks instead hit the thickest part of the skull. That in mind, Boyle said that “Such blows would not ordinarily produce death.”

“I did not think it necessary to express my sympathy” John Slidell Explains Himself, Part 2

John Slidell

The Caning: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13

The House report on the caning

After his caning, Charles Sumner saw Senator John Slidell of Louisiana just once. Slidell saw Sumner twice. At the time of the attack, he sat in a room adjacent to the Senate speaking to Stephen Douglas and a few other men. A messenger rushed in with news that someone had laid into Sumner, which Slidell shrugged off as none of his business. A few minutes later, another person came through and told them that it had ended, Preston Brooks did the attacking, and Sumner suffered serious injury. That stirred Slidell to move. He came into the Senate to see Sumner bloodied on the floor, surrounded by others and in no state to mark a man who kept clear of his immediate surrounds. Slidell left the Senate after getting an account of what happened. He and Sumner met again in the doorway to a reception area, where Slidell declined to offer help and just got out of his way.

As he explained to the Senate a week later:

I am not particularly fond of scenes of any sort. I have no associations or relations of any kind with Mr. Sumner; I have not spoken to him for two years. I did not think it necessary to express my sympathy, or make any advances towards him. If I had continued, I should have crossed his path, and interrupted his progress to a sofa; he was evidently faint and weak. I very naturally turned in another direction; and instead of passing through the ante-room, entered the Senate chamber

Slidell gave a remarkable and complex account of himself in those few words. He admitted that he didn’t care for Sumner, had nothing to do with him, and didn’t view the news of his attack as something worth so much as interrupting a conversation over. Even once he has the full story and could see Sumner’s injuries, he exudes indifference. At the same time, his second encounter with Sumner brings a strictly practical explanation. They met in a doorway and he didn’t want to slow Sumner’s path to the couch. Sumner’s two word account of Slidell, that he retreated, implies that Slidell exhibited pure indifference to his plight. The Louisianan objected on the grounds that he had nothing but indifference toward Sumner, but for a slightly different reason. He and Sumner blocked the door for each other. Slidell made sure that the Senate understood that he didn’t care before explaining his retreat as a simple impasse of the kind everyone has. It wouldn’t do for people, Senators or otherwise, to think he exhibited any deference to a gravely wounded colleague.

The Senator concluded with a few additional notes:

whatever may have been his [Sumner’s] intentions, or the intentions of those who have prompted this course of examination, it is calculated to deceive the public and make a false impression on popular opinion. I believe that to be the object.

Just what false impression Slidell had in mind for the House Committee, he made clear a few sentences later. He understood their work, and Sumner’s testimony, as part of a plot to implicate himself and other proslavery men in Brooks’ attack. He had not conspired with the South Carolinian, thank you. Nor would he suffer the House to think he had and air their wild claims to the nation unanswered. The House report made no such claims.

“Without any particular emotion” John Slidell Explains Himself, Part 1

John Slidell

The Caning: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13

The House report on the caning

We left Charles Sumner moving into the Senate lobby, covered in his own blood and supported by Edwin Morgan. There they came upon John Slidell (D-LA), who Sumner later testified “retreated” rather than offer aid, ask about his health, or even express idle dismay at a fellow senator’s state. Slidell didn’t care for how Sumner reported that at all, so he got up on the Senate on May 27 to offer an explanation for himself.

After the Senate adjourned on the day of the caning, Slidell went out into the antechamber. He saw Stephen Douglas in conversation with a few others, all sitting together. Slidell asked if he could join them and they obliged. A few minutes went by, during which Slidell believed them alone in the room, then a messenger of the Senate rushed in “rushed in, apparently in great trepidation” and told them that someone had commenced beating Senator Sumner.

We heard this remark without any particular emotion; for my own part, I confess I felt none. I am not disposed to participate in broils of any kind. I remained very quietly in my seat; the other gentlemen did the same; we did not move.

Word came a few minute after that Brooks, his name entering into it for the first time, left Sumner “very badly beaten” and the fight had ended. This changed things for Slidell. He previously thought the fight an incidental one. Now he “felt a little more interest” but remained disinclined to involve himself. He started for the Senate chamber with a mind to reaching his desk

A crowd surrounded the second chair on the other side of the lobby, and I was told that Mr. Sumner was there extended in a state of insensibility, prostrate on the floor. I did not endeavor to approach him; I did not see him; I suppose there were twenty or thirty persons around him.

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

All the witnesses assume a frustrating familiarity with the layout of the Senate and surrounding rooms, but Slidell offers more help than most. He places the lobby within the Senate chamber, but different from the anteroom he and Douglas occupied. From the lobby, you could still follow floor proceedings. It appears that Slidell first saw Sumner before he moved far and Sumner missed him. Slidell asked and got a brief explanation of what happened and went back to the anteroom to resume his conversation.

Slidell crossed paths with Sumner “in the door-way of the reception-room, leaning on two persons whom I did not recognize. His face was covered with blood.”

“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.

“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.

“The noisome, squat, and nameless animal” Sumner Answers Douglas

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

Having dispensed with Lewis Cass’ response to him, Charles Sumner moved on to his main target. Stephen Douglas said many things about the Massachusetts Senator that Sumner cared to answer. In the course of doing so, he even went into the Congressional Globe to quote old debates. Where Sumner had a historical argument with Cass, at least in the main, he had a principled and personal one with Douglas, who he called “a common scold.”  He told the Senate that he would shrug off the personal baggage and let the Little Giant have the last word, except that Douglas

has crowned the audacity of this debate by venturing in rise here and calumniate me. He has said that I came here, took an oath to support the Constitution, and yet determined not to support a particular clause in that Constitution.

Sumner gave that “the flattest denial.” Andrew Butler tried that argument too, claiming that Sumner declared against the Constitution by saying he would not render over a fugitive slave. Sumner had made that avowal and wouldn’t deny it, but argued as he had before

that as I understand the Constitution, this clause does not impose upon me, as a senator or citizen, any obligation to take part, directly or indirectly, in the surrender of a fugitive slave.

That sounds like a point that a bad stereotype of a lawyer would make, a distinction without difference used to hide a multitude of sins. In reading Sumner’s defense again, I realized that he has the right of it. The Fugitive Slave Act that James Mason wrote and the Congress passed in late 1850 did that work and Southerners wanted a similar provision in the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act. They didn’t get it then, but the decades made their dreams come true. Sumner protested the very obligation that made the law so odious in the North. Many who thought little either way about slavery or who loathed antislavery politics still had qualms about seeing an innocent person hunted down and hauled back from their communities. Antislavery whites may have enjoyed their greatest popularity, at least before the middle 1850s, when they aided fugitives in escaping.

Stephen Douglas

The individual obligation vs. Constitutional duty point remains a technical one, but it has substance to it. Mason, who drafted the law, could not have missed that no obligation to ordinary people in the North existed before he wrote one into the statute books. If he believed otherwise, he could have saved some ink and much effort. A state might have some obligation to render fugitives up, but not a random person on the street. As Sumner held a United States Senate seat, he did not count as part of his state’s government. Thus, the Fugitive Slave Clause did not apply to him, even if the Fugitive Slave Act did.

Sumner then complained of Douglas’ personal insults, which must have struck the Senate as a bit rich. He further lectured Douglas on how he should remain

above the intemperance of youth, and from character to be above the gusts of vulgarity. […] let him remember hereafter that the bowie-knife and the bludgeon are not the proper emblems of senatorial debate.

He went on in that vein for a long paragraph, finally working himself up to “no person with the upright form of a man can be allowed-” And there Sumner stopped. Douglas told him “Say it.”

no person with the upright form of a man can be allowed, without violation of all decency, to switch out from his tongue the perpetual stench of offensive personality. Sir, that is not a proper weapon of debate, at least, on this floor. The noisome, squat, and nameless animal, to which I now refer, is not a proper model for an American Senator.

“Exhausting all the epithets in the English language” Douglas Answers Sumner, Part 4

Stephen Douglas

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

Stephen Douglas felt insulted, on account of all the insults Charles Sumner threw his way. He inveighed against Sumner as a hypocrite, a man who claimed to follow and defend the Constitution but refused to cooperate in surrendering fugitive slaves. He damned Sumner as a vulgarian. He laid into the senator all the more so for doing this all in a calculating, practiced way. Sumner wrote his insults down, memorized them, and practiced their delivery. Most senators wrote their speeches in advance and might have had a dry run or two, but more commonly they read their speeches to the chamber. Sumner went the extra mile and performed his.

Douglas took all that personally, but he also spoke up for the aggrieved Andrew Butler. Butler came under Sumner’s withering attack for his proslavery politics, fair enough, but also for his stroke-induced speech impediment. Sumner lacked the courtesy to deliver that insult to Butler’s face, instead speaking while he was away from the Senate. When Douglas came to that point, James Mason interjected. The author of the Fugitive Slave Act insisted that Sumner took advantage of the absence. The craven would never have mocked Butler’s disability to his face.

Douglas thought otherwise:

I think the speech was written and practiced, and the gestures fixed; and, if that part had been stricken out, the Senator would not have known how to repeat the speech.

The Senate laughed, but considering how much Sumner memorized, he may have had the right of it. Long orations develop a momentum all their own. Skipping around or over some content might have thrown Sumner badly off. Also Sumner seems like the kind of person who would have insulted Butler to his face if the occasion required it. He could charm people, but Sumner had convictions not easily shaken by social convention.

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Douglas went on, telling the Senate that everyone there loved Andrew Butler. No one would stand up for Sumner’s insulting of their old friend. Douglas averred that they all felt the same outrage on his behalf. But Butler would come back and give his own answer, so Douglas left it to him. When that happened, the Little Giant knew

The Senator from Massachusetts will go to him, whisper a secret apology in his ear, and ask him to accept that as satisfaction for a public outrage on his character. I know how the Senator from Massachusetts is in the habit of doing those things. I have had some experience of his skill in this respect.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Maybe Douglas did and Sumner had made up with him in private before, but it sounds unlike him. Douglas decided to construe Sumner’s Latin as vulgar without any textual basis, so he didn’t consider himself above inventing things on the point. Then he pronounced himself offended on behalf of David Rice Atchison, “a gentleman and an honest man.” In that tirade,

exhausting all the epithets in the English language, the Senator went off to the Latin, to see if he could not find more of them there

Sumner neglected many words as familiar to him as to us, but within the bounds of nineteenth century etiquette and Senatorial standards, he did go far. Between mocking Butler’s disability and implying sexual impropriety with slaves, Sumner went straight to the gutter.