“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.


Who Does Charles Sumner Think He Is? Douglas Answers Sumner, Part 3

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

Furious at Charles Sumner’s Kansas speech, Stephen Douglas accused him of gutter Latin and rehearsing the speech in the dark with a black boy holding a candle so Sumner could practice his gestures. Sumner planned his every insult and drilled himself for their best delivery. The theatrics outraged, but Douglas had more than wounded pride to indict Sumner on. The Senator claimed that many of his proslavery fellows engaged in a “swindle” and crime in opening Kansas to slavery and sought to compound it by blessing the proslavery territorial government with statehood. Three-quarters of the Senate, by Douglas’ count, stood accused of “direliction of duty”.

Sumner should talk about dereliction of duty. Douglas reminded the Senate that the Massachusetts Senator came into the Senate chamber and

put his hand upon the Holy Bible, in the presence of this body, and appealed to Almighty God to witness that he would be faithful to the Constitution

After that, Sumner pledged he would not enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. Douglas deemed that a declaration that Sumner would not abide by his oath of office at all. If he could not swear to his oath of office, how could he consider himself fit for the job? And how dare he arraign Senators who had? Yet

still he comes here and arraigns us for crime, and talks about “audacity!” Did mortal man ever witness such audacity in an avowed criminal? He comes here with a pledge to defy the Constitution of his country, and the wrath of god, by not obeying his oath, and then talks about audacity

Douglas demurred from a detailed discussion of Kansas matters, on which he had already opined. He dismissed them with the insistence that the American government had not fallen “so weak, so corrupt, so unjust” as to deserve a revolution against it. All that talk pointed to disunion, which Douglas would not brook. The insults clearly stung and outraged him, but the time had come to reach the matters of substantive contention between them:

You challenge me to this great issue, which you say you have made up between the Negro worshipers and the “slave power,” as you call it. What you call the slave power is simply observance of the Constitution of the country, as our fathers made it. Let us have that fair issue between the parties, and let us discuss that, instead of dealing in denunciation against one another here.

That genuinely put people like Sumner in a difficult position. The Constitution really did give slavery unusual protection and endorsement. It created a duty to yield up fugitive slaves, right there in black and white. It gave slaveholding states extra representatives. It promised to them twenty years of unlimited slave imports. A patriotic politician in the nineteenth century could not inveigh against the Constitution and expect to win or keep office. The standard answer involved inventing an antislavery founding generation who wrote their principles into the Constitution, though they apparently chose to do so in a deeply perverse manner. That doesn’t mean that none of them really believed they had the founders on their side, as everyone does, but it left them with a set of awkward and not entirely convincing arguments that a quick and informed mind -and Douglas had both- could easily pick apart.

“Is his object to provoke some of us?” Douglas Answers Sumner, Part 2

Stephen Douglas

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

Stephen Douglas began his answer to Charles Sumner with a condemnation of the other senator’s vulgar insults. He claimed that Sumner’s Latin hailed from the gutter, culled from the classics that decent people left well alone. I don’t know if Douglas had any Latin to complain or not, but his argument sounds like the work of a man more annoyed by classical allusions than interested in their content. He loathed Sumner’s invective for its own sake and, not in the least, because it targeted Douglas and his coalition. Accused of fraud, swindling, crime, and infamy “at least a hundred times over,” Douglas resented it and wondered just what Sumner expected to get from such a speech.

Is his object to provoke some of us to kick him as we would a dog in the street, that he may get sympathy upon the just chastisement? What is the object of these denunciations against the body which we are members?

That sound soon look prescient. Douglas, in effect, accused Sumner of trolling the Senate. He spoke to get a big reaction, which he could take home in a play for sympathy. Sumner obviously intended for his speech to help his political prospects in Massachusetts, but little in his life to date suggests he opposed slavery for cynical political gains. If Sumner vented his genuine feelings, and those of many other antislavery Americans, then they would naturally incline to support him regardless. Likewise Sumner’s foes would accuse him of insincerity or fanaticism in service of his career, at the expense of the Union.

Douglas, speaking spontaneously, also damned Sumner on related grounds. Everyone knew senators could get angry and say things they might regret in the heat of debate. You gave them a pass on such things because everyone has those moments. Sometimes senators goaded one another into outrages. Sometimes they got together and laughed about it later.

But, sir, it happens to be well known, it has been the subject of conversation for weeks, that the Senator from Massachusetts had his speech written, printed, committed to memory, practiced every night before the glass with a Negro boy to hold the candle and watch the gestures, and annoying the borders in the adjoining room until they were forced to quit the house!

The boy probably existed in Douglas’ mind alone, but every senator wrote major addresses in advance. Sumner had a stronger than usual reputation for preparing and memorizing his work, which held true for this speech as for his previous. All of that made Sumner’s accusations premeditated, practiced and honed to a razor’s edge in calm deliberation. Charles Sumner didn’t pop off to the Senate in a moment of pique; he planned it down to the gesture. He even had the temerity to rehearse the speech with other senators, another common practice that carried with it the implication someone might have told him to tone things down and Sumner refused.


“Those obscene, vulgar terms” Douglas Answers Sumner, Part 1

Stephen Douglas

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

After Lewis Cass finished taking Charles Sumner to task for misrepresenting the history of Michigan, Stephen Douglas had his turn. Sumner and Douglas never got on well and the senator from Illinois indulged in a slow burn for the two days Sumner spoke. He opened with a promise to the Senate that he wouldn’t render a detailed reply to The Crime Against Kansas. He wouldn’t say anything at all

but for the personalities in which he [Sumner] has indulged, evincing a depth of malignity that issued from every sentence, making it a matter of self respect with me to repel the assaults which have been made.

Douglas dismissed Sumner’s arguments as old news, a common and usually true complaint of him. Sumner excelled in rhetorical craftsmanship, not ideological innovation. Douglas had dealt with all that, twice over, just in the past year. Instead he compared Sumner’s speech to a quilt, made of “all the old calico dresses of various colors that have been in the house from the days of their grandmothers.” At the end of the day, everyone looked duly impressed with the new work, which had not a stitch of new work in it. Gentle Readers, if any of you know a quilter then you know they would have some words with Douglas about that.

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Which brought Douglas to one of Sumner’s favorite rhetorical flourishes, which he often included against the advice of friends who warned him that readers would check out:

We have had another dish of the classics served up-classic allusions, each one only distinguished for its lasciviousness and obscenity, each one drawn from those portions of the classics which all decent professors in respectable colleges cause to be suppressed, as unfit for decent young men to read. I cannot repeat the words. I should be condemned as unworthy of entering decent society, if I repeated those obscene, vulgar terms which have been used at least a hundred times in that speech. It seems that his studies of the classics have all been in those haunts where ladies cannot go, and where gentlemen never read Latin.

You might read that and think Sumner went to the things that makes classics infamous and delightful to modern readers: the open talk of sex, particularly the sort not much approved of by nineteenth century moralists. To the best of my knowledge, and I don’t think I would miss a hundred uses, Sumner didn’t go there. He might have gotten an adult content warning for reference to the harlot of slavery, that unchaste mistress of Andrew Butler, but so far as I can tell Sumner didn’t get that idea from his Latin. It might have come by way of Don Quixote, but then Douglas’ reference to Latin doesn’t make sense. I suspect Douglas, burning with anger, didn’t care about the details. Sumner used a lot of Latin to dress up what he deemed a vile speech, so Sumner’s Latin could go straight to hell.


Cass Answers Sumner

Lewis Cass (D-MI)

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

On May 20, 1856, Charles Sumner finished his Crime Against Kansas speech and sat down. For all the hours he spoke, no one interjected to call him to order. He inveighed against slavery, against South Carolina, against his fellow senators, and ultimately against the Northern Democracy for serving as slavery’s eager lapdogs. He preceded his last volley of insults by citing the precedent of Michigan to argue that Kansas’ free state government deserved admission to the Union. Through all of it, Sumner’s invective struck at the notion of popular sovereignty first advanced by Lewis Cass and later adopted by Stephen Douglas to legislate slavery into Kansas. Cass, as a member of the Jackson Cabinet when Michigan’s statehood came before the nation, as a northern Democrat, and as Michigan’s former territorial governor and present senator, not to mention President Pro Tempore of the chamber, had a few things to say about all that. He rose to give the first answer to Sumner:

I have listened with equal regret and surprise to the speech of the honorable Senator from Massachusetts. Such a speech-the most un-American and unpatriotic that ever grate don the ears of the members of this high body-as I hope never to hear again here or elsewhere.

Yet Cass rose not to take this out on Sumner, however much he deserved “the highest censure and disapprobation.” Instead, he wanted to check Sumner’s history, which the Massachusetts senator “has so misunderstood and misapplied.” Sumner claimed for the people a right “to form conventions with a view to obstruct the authorized laws of the country.” Cass would have none of that, denying such a right to “any portion of the American people.” Conventions Americans might form, but not to array themselves against the established laws. To do that, “unless they succeed” put one right over into “rebellion.”

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Here Cass makes what must read as a strange proposition today, but in nineteenth century America the right of revolution had a high cachet. You could rebel and make heroes of yourselves in the doing, as the founders did, fair enough. Had the founders failed, they might have ended on the end of a rope. The right of revolution appears always in retrospect, granted to history’s winners. So far, Kansas had not overthrown the territorial government or the United States. Thus Cass felt no obligation to yield to the demands of an illegal assembly of rebels.

But back to history. Michigan, sixty thousand whites strong, asked admission to the Union. Its constitutional convention, however, originated in an act of the legislature. The people in some vague, abstract sense, had nothing to do with it. The Wolverine State did things properly, thank you. The only difficulty came when Michigan claimed its boundary as set by Congress, rather than the one set by Ohio. Ohioans surveyed their northern boundary and helped themselves to Toledo. The tensions came close to a proper battle, with militias called out on both sides. Cass recalled how the Jackson administration feared a war. To defuse things, Congress agreed to admission contingent on a convention of Michiganders signing off on Ohio’s version of the boundary. They refused.

Senator William H. Seward (R-NY)

William Seward pressed: Just how did that first convention come together? Cass thought the governor and legislature did the work. Then coloring outside the lines ensued:

By a spontaneous act of the people, a second convention was called-not to oppose the laws, like the Kansas convention-not to establish another government-not to get up and oppose acts of Congress, or of the Territorial Legislature-not to make a revolution, but to escape from a civil war, to get out of a difficulty merely by saying that the people of the State were willing to accept the proposition of Congress.

They did so unanimously and everyone went home happy, hint hint. If Michigan could suffer a wrong -and Cass admitted the state did, as it had every right to insist on the original border- then Kansas could take a lump or two as well.

“This last appeal,” The Crime Against Kansas, Part 15

Charles Sumner (Republican-MA)

Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14Full text

Charles Sumner told the Senate that they could deny Kansas’ free state movement its statehood only by bastardizing Michigan’s. Both states had wildcat constitutions and state governments that presented themselves to Congress and asked admission to the Union. If Michigan could come in to general approval, pending the revision of some boundary disputes, when why not Kansas? Nobody held it against Michigan that the state colored outside the lines a little bit, so any reasonable person could see that admitting the Topeka government as Kansas would come and go to no great harm. By contrast, denying it cast doubt on the wisdom of admitting the Wolverine State.

Sumner moved on to argue from principle as well as precedent:

the fundamental principle of American institutions, so embodied in the Declaration of Independence, by which Government is recognized as deriving its just powers only from the consent of the governed, who may alter or abolish it when it becomes destructive of their rights.

Stephen Douglas

The territorial government of Kansas prosecuted an organized campaign of destruction to the rights of antislavery whites, to say nothing of the rights of black Americans. It lacked the consent of the governed, who attended the free state polls regularly but largely ignored the government’s elections. By the American creed, Kansans had every right to cast it off and make their own. Nowhere in the Declaration of recent history could Sumner find an American precedent for choosing the other path, to endorse tyranny over whites as a principle for the foundation of government. He could find one only by looking abroad, or across the Senate floor at Stephen Douglas.

Douglas and the other proslavery men in the Senate stood, Sumner argued, on the ground of the Holy Alliance,

which declares that “useful and necessary changes in legislation and in the administration of States ought only to emanate from the free will and the intelligent and well-weighed conviction of those whom God has rendered responsible for power.”

Sumner put this principle against the Declaration “and bid them grapple!” With the propositions carried forth by Seward’s bill for free Kansas and Douglas’ for the proslavery government, they needed too the grapple on the floor of the Senate. In an era that took political contention as a source of popular entertainment, some constituency probably existed which would delight in seeing Seward and Douglas literally throwing each other around.

William H. Seward in 1851

From that metaphor, Sumner moved on to his summation. He repeated his insults against Butler, “incoherent phrases, discharged the loose expectoration of his speech,” and lines about South Carolina’s “shameful imbecility from Slavery”. Then Douglas came in for a review, adding “the superior intensity of his nature.” Sumner checked in with James Mason over the Fugitive Slave Act before finishing:

The contest, which, beginning in Kansas, has reached us will soon be transferred from Congress to a broader state, where every citizen will be not only spectator, but acting; and to their judgment I confidently appeal.

In other words, vote Republican in 1856 and this problem will get sorted

In just regard for free labor in that Territory, which is sought to blast by unwelcome association with the slave, whom it is proposed to task and sell there; in stern condemnation of the Crime which has been consummated on that beautiful soil; in rescue of fellow-citizens, now subjugated to a tyrannical Usurpation; in dutiful respect for the early Fathers, whose inspirations are now ignobly thwarted,; in the name of the Constitution, which has been outraged-of laws trampled down-of Justice banished-of Humanity degraded-of Peace destroyed-of Freedom crushed to earth; and in the name of the Heavenly Father, whose service is perfect Freedom, I make this last appeal.