The Journey to Kansas, Part 1

John Brown

John Brown and North Elba: parts 1, 234

According to Stephen Oates’ biography, John Brown felt conflicting urges to go ahead with his plan to relocate to North Elba and to go with his sons to Kansas. He had a prior commitment to New York and most of his family already lived there, but Kansas did beckon. He asked advice from friends and gave the black community in the Adirondacks potentially the deciding vote. By November of 1854, Brown had settled on the point. He would stick with his first plan.

That same month, Owen, Salmon, and Frederick Brown drove their herd of eleven cows and three horses into Illinois for the winter. Come spring, 1855, they continued on and staked claims near Osawatomie. That put them some thirty miles south of Lawrence and near to where Samuel Adair set up his homestead.

While Owen, Salmon, and Frederick moved their stock and wintered over, Jason and Brown’s namesake son sold their Ohio farms and readied themselves to follow. Not burdened by herds, they expected to travel across Missouri by riverboat. Brown himself kept on making arrangements and trying to scrape together the money to remove permanently from Ohio to North Elba. By February, he hoped that he could quit the state sometime in the next month and also

I got quite an encouraging word about Kansas from Mr. Adair the other day. He had before then given quite a gloomy picture of things. He and family were all well.

On the same day, February 13, he wrote another letter where he declared his interest in Kansas as considerably beyond the abstract:

Since I last saws you I have undertaken to direct the operations of a Surveying; & exploring party to be employed in Kansas for a considerable length of time, perhaps for some Two or Three years.

Contrary to his first biographer, James Redpath, Oates found evidence that Brown intended to do more than survey a bit. He would look into land speculation and business opportunities. If any of those appeared promising, and Brown tended to find most business opportunities promising, then he could relocate his whole family to Kansas. John Brown would go to Kansas, at least for a few years and maybe for good, sometime in the summer or fall of 1855.

The other Browns had already gotten underway. Jason and Ellen, with their son Austin; and John Jr, Wealthy, and their son John Brown III went by boat as planned. They loaded up on supplies in St. Louis: “two small tents, a plough, and some smaller farming-tools, and a hand-mill for grinding corn.” In April they got going aboard the New Lucy,

which too late we found crowded with passengers, mostly men from the South bound for Kansas. That they were from the South was plainly indicated by their language and dress; while their drinking, profanity, and display of revolvers and bowie-knives -openly worn as an essential part of their make-up- clearly showed the class to which they belonged, and their mission was to aid in establishing slavery in Kansas.

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“They should have a right to vote” John Brown and North Elba, Part 4

John Brown

A small personal note, Gentle Readers: I’ve just had my second appearance on the AskHistorians Podcast, talking about Charles Sumner. If you think all of this would be better without having to read my prose or just want my soothing words to delight you, it’s available here, via Youtube, or on Spotify. As before, I promise to use my fame mostly responsibly.

Parts 1, 23

John Brown vented himself to Frederick Douglass about the Kansas-Nebraska Act in a letter. He asked that Douglas refine his prose and make it available to the general public; someone had to talk good sense into white Americans. Douglas obliged by printing the letter in his paper. There Brown’s words joined the tide of outrage against repealing the Missouri Compromise. He could read the indignation of others from Horace Greeley’s paper, to which Brown subscribed, and probably hear it on most streets in the North at least for a while. Everyone understood that the future of Kansas now hung in the balance. Proslavery and antislavery whites would collide there and to the victor might go the nation.

Brown must not have enjoyed the news any better for expressing himself in the papers, but his many debts from the wool business preoccupied him. His surviving letters from the time don’t mention Kansas further. Instead he laments the drought, which claimed the crops he hoped would clear his obligations. Brown hadn’t suffered as badly as some of his neighbors, and suspected they might help themselves to his fruit crop, but the Kansas fever did not strike him at first.

Instead, Brown’s grown sons Owen, Salmon, Frederick, Jason, and John, Jr. decided they should go. They read Emigrant Aid Company material that depicted Kansas as especially verdant and promising. With Ohio in a drought, they must have seen little sense in sticking around. If the kids went, might Brown not go too? Junior asked him and Brown wrote back on August 21, 1854:

If you or any of my family are disposed to go to Kansas or Nebraska, with a view to help defeat Satan and his legions in that direction, I have not a word to say; but I feel committed to operate in another part of the field. If I were not so committed, I would be on my way this fall.

In other words, Brown still dreamed of the Adirondacks and the black colony Gerrit Smith set up there. An in-law of Brown’s, Samuel Adair, already aimed to go so the Brown boys would have a friendly face on the frontier. He had made promises to Smith and to the black community. He felt at home and at peace in North Elba. John Brown couldn’t turn away.

Frederick Douglass

On November 2, 1854, he wrote to his children that expected the elder boys to strike for Kansas. He felt “still pretty much determined to go back to North Elba.” But even by this point, Brown had his doubts. It appears that he wrote to Smith and Frederick Douglass for advice, as he says

Gerrit Smith wishes me to go back to North Elba; from Douglass and Dr. McCune Smith I have not yet heard.

Here Stephen Oates cites a letter in the Brown papers I dearly wish I had access to. As Oakes tells it, brown felt “hard pressed” to relocate to Kansas

as more likely to benefit the colored people on the whole than to return with them to N. Elba.

In his consultations, Brown did something remarkable for a nineteenth century American white man yet again: he asked his family in New York to consult with North Elba’s black community. Brown said

As I volunteered in their services; they should have a right to vote, as to course I should take.

Caught in a genuine dilemma, unsure of what he should do, John Brown believed that his black neighbors should have perhaps the controlling say in the further course of his life. He, in his own words, gave them a vote. Without it, he doesn’t sound at all inclined to give up on his commitment to them.

“Malignant spirits” John Brown and North Elba, Part 3

John Brown

Parts 1, 2

We left off looking at the resolutions that John Brown wrote for his League of Gileadites, wherein he laid out his plan for fighting slave catchers and remarkably declared that he considered black Americans his people just as much as he did whites. The League would take any who came and provide arms to those who couldn’t afford them. The young and infirm would serve as lookouts and messengers. From there the resolutions moved on to administration matters.

Brown got forty-four people to sign on as Gileadites, though it seems they never carried out his advice. Slave catchers never arrived in Springfield to give them cause and local law enforcement declined to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act anyway. His rhetoric made the league into an exceptional example of planned resistance to the law, part of the general northern revulsion toward it that elsewhere resulted in violent fugitive rescues.

A few days after the meeting, Brown wrote to his wife up at North Elba on the same subject. He knew that former slaves lived in the community, some of whom had stolen themselves. Brown told Mary that the relief of fugitives had occupied his mind in Ohio. They suffered “sleepless nights on account of either themselves or their wives and children.” He believed that the Gileadite meeting boosted their spirits, then he underlined in private for his wife what he said in public in the League’s resolutions:

I want all my family to imagine themselves in the same dreadful condition.

Few nineteenth century whites in the United States would bid one another to do any such thing. White abolitionists can come close to it, but their appeals tend to focus more on pity than empathy as such.

John Brown spent the next few years trying to repair his finances from the ruin of his wool business. That involved many trips, and court appearances. Brown fared poorly at the bar, traveling and losing most of his cases everywhere from Boston to Ohio. He finally settled down back in Springfield with empty pockets and ill with malaria. The rest of the family -Mary bore Brown’s nineteenth child in this time- didn’t do much better. The new baby didn’t make it, dying of whooping cough. That made nine children who didn’t survive to date.

Frederick Douglass

But North Elba called. Brown arranged for an in-law to build him a house there. He finally dissolved his wool partnership and aimed to quit Ohio as soon as he could afford it. To manage that, Brown rented three farms and hoped for an adequate payday come harvest. He remained on them when the Kansas-Nebraska Act appeared in the Senate. Brown wrote Frederick Douglass shortly thereafter:

What punishment ever inflicted by man or even threatened by God, can be too severe for those whose influence is a thousand times more malignant than the atmosphere of the deadly Upas-for those who hate the right and Most High.

Brown damned the legislators who voted for proslavery laws “malignant spirits” and “fiends clothed in human form.” He extended the description to everyone who enforced the laws and argued in their favor. Proslavery divines insulted the Almighty directly. What had become of the country, for such people to go on in impunity? He asked Douglass to revise his arguments into suitable form and bring them to public attention.

John Brown’s People: John Brown and the League of Gileadites, Part 2

John Brown

On January 15, 1851, John Brown explained his plan for the League of Gileadites to members of Springfield’s black community. They would band together to fight any slave catchers who came for one of their own. They should prepare and arm themselves and stand ready for swift action. He also offered helpful advice about blowing up proslavery men in court to cause a distraction.

The League of Gileadites affair counted as a public meeting, so Brown had the customary set of resolutions prepared. In this case they read like organization bylaws as much as sense of the group declarations. The first names the group. The second declared

All business of this Branch be conducted with the utmost quiet and good order; that we individually provide ourselves with suitable implements without delay; and that we will sufficiently aid those who do not possess the means, if any such are disposed to join us.

In other words, members needed to arm themselves. If anyone wanted to join and couldn’t afford a gun, they should take up a collection. All enrolled would report themselves to a committee “of one or more discreet, influential men”. The resolutions specifically admitted people “whether male or female, whether old or young.”

That posed obvious an obvious problem: What would the Gileadites do with non-combatants who signed up? Nineteenth century more shrank from the idea of women involving themselves in violent matters. Children and the aged could not defend themselves. On the other hand, people of every age and sex faced the horrors of slavery. Brown thought they could serve a vital role in the organization:

to give instant notice to all other members of any attack upon the rights of our people, first informing all able-bodied men of this League or Branch, and next, all well known friends of the colored people; and that this information be confined to such alone, that there may be as little excitement as possible and no noise in the doing.

John Brown’s biographers do not generally praise him as a prose stylist, but he wrote something unusual here and appears to have meant it: our people. Obviously, Brown sees himself as a Gileadite at least ex officio. He probably wrote the resolutions with himself in mind as the chief officer of the group so a form of inclusion makes sense, but few Northern whites would describe black Americans as substantially their own people. Southerners did so to signify both legal ownership and pretend to a familial connection. Brown opposed the former to the utmost. To do that and then declare blacks a part of his extended family deserves recognition as a remarkable statement of solidarity.

 

“Give one or more of your enemies a hoist” John Brown and the League of Gileadites, Part 1

John Brown

As John Brown brooded over the collapse of his wool business and the staggering debts he faced, the national politics concerned slavery more than usual. The end of 1850 brought the great compromise of that year and with it the Fugitive Slave Act. Emboldened slave catchers forged northwards and white northerners who had little previous cause to see themselves as connected to slavery now found themselves obligated to give them aid. He imagined the running dogs of the Slave Power coming into his home at Springfield, Ohio, or North Elba for that matter, to collect his black friends back to bondage.

Taking inspiration from the Book of Judges, and aware of his sleepless neighbors, Brown decided to do something. On January 15, 1851, he convened a meeting and presented his plan for the League of Gileadites. If the slave catchers came, they would fight back together. He reminded his black audience of the example of the Amistad case to argue that they had more white allies than they knew:

Colored people have ten times the number of fast friends among the whites than they suppose, and would have ten times the number they now have were they but half as much in earnest to secure their dearest rights as they are to ape the follies and extravagances of their white neighbors, and to indulge in idle show, in ease, and in luxury.

Like many who fought for racial justice, Brown found it in him to blame the victims. Black leaders could do it just as well, often arguing on the same grounds as Brown did. If black Americans just worked twice as hard and became suitably respectable, prejudice would wane. Some radicals among them also preached revolt against white enslavers.

Brown joined them in the argument, advising that a vigilant group of able-bodied and always armed men should stand ready for the slave catchers. They must keep their plans and organization secret “with the understanding that all traitors must die” and act at once when called upon. No half measures, no delay save to secure a comfortable majority against the enemy, just an armed rescue and come what may.

He did advise secret rescues when possible, to have the advantage of surprise, but ultimately Brown expected that the slave catchers might fight back. On that occasion, they could expect division among white opinion and much local sympathy for their cause. In the case of retaliation, rescuers should take shelter with their families in the homes of prominent white friends. Brown did not advise asking first, but rather that his Gileadites force the choice upon them and hope their consciences or their shame would do the work.

If things came to a trial, then Gileadites should have means to disrupt it:

You may make a tumult int he court-room where a trial is going on, by burning gunpowder freely in paper packages, if you cannot think of any better way to create a momentary alarm, and might possibly give one or more of your enemies a hoist.

In other words, one could disrupt a fugitive rendition by blowing up a slave catcher. From that point, he moved on to suggest lassoing the same men as a good idea. Above all, the Gileadites must stand together “while a drop of blood remains” and face execution without betraying any secrets.

John Brown’s Conviction

John Brown

Gentle Readers, as you might have guessed the blog got a bit ahead of my reading. I didn’t notice in time so I ended up reading a book on black slaveholders in South Carolina rather than getting the necessary biographies to best understand John Brown. Redpath’s hagiography makes a fair start at that, but we must read it as essentially an antislavery campaign document. His protestations aside, he published at a time when white Southerners damned the Republican Party as a collection of John Browns. The Republicans denied this and condemned Brown’s ill-fated campaign against Harper’s Ferry.

Redpath’s book takes a different approach by vindicating Brown against his critics. Still, he had the clear cooperation of Brown’s family and friends as well as living in Kansas himself at the same time Brown did so we can’t just dismiss it entirely. I now have better sources to supplement him with: David S. Reynolds’ John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights and Stephen Oates’ To Purge This Land With Blood: A Biography of John Brown. Reynolds bills his book as a cultural biography, as much about John Brown’s world as Brown himself. Oates’ wrote a conventional life. Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. Both authors also have more distance from Brown and less commitment to making him into a saint or a madman than his contemporaries or past biographers.

Redpath gave us John Brown’s ideological reason to go to Kansas: to fight slavery. He also acknowledged in passing that Brown intended to help his sons and others who had preceded him out of both a general benevolence and from his genuine frontier expertise. These bear a closer look.

John Brown lived on the frontier of white settlement for much of his life. He grew up mostly in Ohio, in close company with Native Americans. His family had an unusually positive and close relationship with them. Reynolds points to this as evidence that Brown grew up free of any racial prejudice, raised by his father to treat all people just the same. Many incidents in Brown’s life argue for something like that. He raised his children to act as he did and he both aided fugitive slaves and appears to have socially mixed with non-whites in ways quite unusual for a nineteenth century American. I doubt he completely lacked prejudice, but in a pervasively and openly racist society that does count for something.

Reynolds also makes the point that Brown always considered himself a servant of the community. He had his famous hard, uncompromising side, but he also spent his time on the frontier building institutions and aiding his neighbors. In John Brown, they had the kind of man who would insist that the sheriff arrest and hold a man who committed a crime even when the sheriff wanted to grant leniency. They also had the kind of man who knew that the loss of labor and income would harm the accused’s family and provided for them out of his own quite modest means for the duration of his imprisonment. He built schools and hired teachers. He served as volunteer postmaster. The same uncompromising attitude toward his cause also applied to his duties.

We remember John Brown as a man who failed at everything he did. His business dealings bear that out. For example, Brown worked for as a time as a wool factor. He took in wool on consignment from farms back home, graded it, and put it for sale in the east. Brown had a good eye for wool and priced accordingly, with the worst stuff sold at below market rates and the best above. This resulted in buyers scooping up his low quality stock for less than it could go for and leaving his high end product in the warehouse. He would not budge from the prices he stated unless absolutely forced to, which meant he took a bath on most everything. His repeated errors seem to stem from a basic unwillingness to bend that served him well elsewhere. When Brown thought he had a duty to do something and do it right, he did not move.

Never tell John Brown the odds

John Brown

John Brown went to Kansas to fight and he didn’t like it one bit that the antislavery leadership denied him his chance. No fool, he understood the double talk in the Wakarusa peace settlement. Charles Robinson and James Lane could say they conceded nothing, but the same language permitted others to argue that they had. This made them fundamentally duplicitous in Brown’s mind and he regretted thereafter that he abandoned his plan to go draw some proslavery blood on his own. Redpath, writing with a few years’ hindsight, add that the treaty and the Free State party’s official line

only served to postpone the inevitable conflict then rapidly approaching, and to demoralize the spirit of the Free State party. It occasioned, he thought, the death of many Northern men, whom, encouraged by this compromising action, the marauders, on their return, murdered in cold blood or in desultory warfare.

Brown may have seen it that way at the time. We can look ahead and agree with him that murders and strife came, though connecting them with the Free State party’s disinclination to hazard large-scale violence would take more doing. John Brown didn’t go around eating bugs and raving like the cartoon madman of popular memory, but he also lacked any formal military experience -in his earlier life he paid fines rather than take part in the militia- and seems largely uninterested in the practicalities of battle. He knew he needed weapons and where to use them. When to strike or how seem not to have troubled Brown too much.

Redpath tells that Brown didn’t care to hear the odds.

‘What are five to one?’ said he, ‘When our men would be fighting for their wives, their children, their homes, and their liberties against a party, one half of whom were mercenary vagabonds, who enlisted for a mere frolic, lured on by the whiskey and the bacon, and a large portion of the others had gone under the compulsion of opinion and proscription, because they feared being denounced as abolitionists if they refused?’

Maybe. People with something to fight for may fight harder, but that doesn’t ensure victory. It also neglects how many of those men Brown thought seduced by whiskey and bacon could claim just the same motives. If Kansas fell to freedom, then it may fatally undermine slavery in Missouri. In Southern thought, that would almost certainly lead to a genocidal race war. They, as white men, expected to win that fight in the end. They also knew that in such a war, their own homes and families might not survive to the end.

 

Back to Lawrence

The rules for guests at the Free State Hotel, May 10, 1856

We left Lawrence behind on the back in May of 1856. A proslavery posse rampaged through the town, burning homes, destroying printing presses, and razing the Free State Hotel. They did all of this on a quest, officially, to apprehend free state leadership for whom Samuel Lecompte’s grand jury issued warrants and then to arrest people who participated in the shooting of Samuel Jones, or who rescued Jacob Branson from his custody, or just to destroy the hated antislavery party in their headquarters. Every reason pointed worked equally well as pretense, though the indiscriminate and opportunistic nature of the attack suggests that most of the mob preferred the last. Their officers struggled to restrain them from general pillage.

After all that fell out, Governor Wilson Shannon finally stirred himself. He behaved suspiciously all through the lead up to the attack on Lawrence, indicating that he might have expected and hoped things went badly for the antislavery town. Shannon could have furnished Israel Donaldson with a posse drawn from Colonel Sumner’s command. (I know of no relation between the E.V. Sumner who led the First Cavalry from Fort Leavenworth and Charles Sumner.) Everyone on the ground seems to agree that the military would provide more disciplined, reliable service. Either Shannon didn’t offer the cavalry to Donaldson -he shies away from saying that he did- or Donaldson refused him. When explaining himself later on, Shannon would surely have mentioned such an exculpatory refusal. As it happened, he dispatched them only once he knew that Lawrence had felt proslavery wrath.

Wilson Shannon

Shannon explained his action now as aimed at preventing all-out war in Kansas, which he believed would soon lead to a general civil war. By placing companies at Lecompton, Topeka, and Lawrence he would get them between the combatants. Shannon would also greatly appreciate it if the military would disperse and disarm the free state militias, which he continued to believe constituted the real problem for his territory. The Governor need not explain that all to Franklin Pierce, who agreed with him, but the president had complained of not receiving adequate updates on the situation and Shannon needed to look good for the boss.

Across the political divide, Kansas antislavery party had appearances in mind too. Donaldson had come to Lawrence with a federal posse, under his authority as a US Marshal and serving warrants from a federal court. Attacking him would have meant rebellion against the United States, something which they had to avoid the appearance of to both keep the heavy hand of Washington from descending on them and maintain public sympathy in the North. Furthermore, with debts still owed for all their military action in the Wakarusa War and the inconvenient season -the busy spring rather than the more idle winter- they lacked the means and men on hand to make a real fight of it.

They adopted a strategy of nonresistance out of those circumstances. Many antislavery men griped at that course, deeming their leaders cowards. With lives, family, property, and futures in Kansas all at stake sitting out the fight was a tall order. Even in the best of times, nonviolence while under violent threat requires a great deal of personal conviction and discipline. We can too easily forget now that the nonviolent Civil Rights movement engaged in direct action with the expectation that activists would be attacked, beaten, and even killed. Simple dignity and decency didn’t move white Americans in their favor; horror at their suffering on the television every night did.

 

To “firmly and boldly oppose and overthrow any and every set scheme”

The New York Herald reports on the indignation meeting

New Yorkers did not think highly of Preston Brooks’ violent escapade against Charles Sumner’s skull on the floor of the United States Senate. By breaking a cane over Sumner’s head, the South Carolinian attacked the fabric of republican self-government. White men of the North took that as their birthright whatever they thought of the party now claiming republicanism in their name and declaring slavery’s threat to it. In caning the Republican, Brooks also caned the Republic. Furthermore, they could not dismiss the caning as a private affair. Yankees might brawl on occasion, or more often; heated politics didn’t necessarily bother them. That the South appeared united in endorsing Brooks’ conduct elevated the dispute to a higher and ominous plane. They couldn’t dismiss him as a bad apple in light of all that. When Brooks caned the Republic, the whole white South joined in.

Ramping up on that theme, the New Yorkers spoke then for their whole section:

We rejoice to believe and to say that the general community of the free States, by their public men and their public press (with a few base exceptions to prove the honorable rule), and through all the channels of public opinion and public influence do thoroughly denounce, and by word and act will firmly and boldly oppose and overthrow any and every set scheme, system, or principle which avows or upholds violence as a means or mode of affecting political action, or restraining personal freedom, or enforcing servile inequalities among the statesmen or common citizens of this country; that in public questions, where each citizen is the keeper of the rights of his fellow citizens, and each generation holds a solemn trust for its posterity, next to the commission of injustices and violence there is no greater crime against the commonwealth than their permission, with power to prevent them, and their sufferance with a spirit that can feel them.

This said a great deal. Yankees would no longer stand by, complicit, in systems that endorsed violence to suppress political action or restrain personal freedom, whether among statesmen or ordinary white men. The white South practiced just such a system, enforcing censorship of its mails to keep out antislavery material and through the use of violence and intimidation to rout any antislavery whites who happened to live in the slave states. Neither system worked perfectly, and both saw prosecution most aggressively in moments of perceived threat to slavery, but free white men suffered under them all the same.

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

For many antislavery whites, those sins against freedom counted as much for despotism as any offense against blacks. For most, they counted much more. The antislavery movement had its greatest successes not in defending the lives, safety, or freedom of black Americans, but in advocating for white men. Republicans wanted to spread free labor across the West, in lieu of slavery. The free laborers they had in mind had white skin. When black laborers threatened to join them, even as free men, westerners saw fit to pass laws against their presence.

Still, one must take notice. The New Yorkers assembled at the Tabernacle that day came together in the North’s most proslavery city and represented a cross-section of the city’s politics. Antislavery radicals could produce resolutions like this at the drop of a hat. It took a truly extraordinary and unprecedented event to bring in the city’s conservatives. For once, the white community unified against a proslavery attack. If it could happen in New York, it could happen far more easily elsewhere.

Complicity, Honor, and the Choice of Weapons

The New York Herald reports on the indignation meeting

New York’s public indignation meeting, packed wall to wall with angry men, opened up with denunciation of Preston Brooks’ attack on Charles Sumner. In attacking a sitting Senator, in the Senate, and for words said there, the South Carolinian attacked more than one man. He assaulted the entire fabric of constitutional governance. He attacked the republic itself and every self-governing white man who considered himself a right and proper citizen of it. If such a thing went unanswered, the United States could not long endure. Their resolutions continued:

to urge the casual violence of an individual to the disgrace and injury of the community in which he lives, and of the social institutions of that community, is ungenerous and unjust, until it appears that such community approves the act and applauds the actor; but when such concurrence of public sentiment and public action with the particular and personal transaction are manifested on authentic evidence, the private outrage is swallowed up in the public infamy, and the question involved is enlarged to an immense magnitude and importance.

In other words, the people of New York didn’t immediately take this as an assault upon the North at large by the South; they had some sense of proportion. In order to implicate the sections in general, the South would need to show some kind of general approval of Brooks’ course. This could remain a deeply troubling, but isolated incident.

Lawrence Keitt (D-SC)

Then again:

we have witnessed with unmixed astonishment and the deepest regret, the clear, bold exulting espousal of the outrage and justification and honor of its perpetrator, exhibited by Senators and representatives of the Slave States without distinction of party, in their public places, and by the public press without distinction of party in the same portion of our country, and that upon the present state of the evidence, we are forced most unwillingly to the sad conclusion that the general community of the slave States is in complicity, in feeling and principle, with the system of intimidation and violence for the suppression of freedom of speech and of the press, of which the assault on Senator Sumner is the most signal, but not the singular, instance.

I’ve not yet looked at the Southern papers, but the meeting clearly knew of Keitt’s and Edmundson’s involvement; they had an eyewitness on the speaker’s stage that night in the person of Edwin Morgan. He could probably point to Robert Toombs as the guilty senator. Neither of those quite reaches beyond partisan lines, but the South’s two party system had fallen into steep decline by this point. Either way, the endorsement of Southern political leaders all by itself counted for something. One couldn’t dismiss their chosen representatives to the national Congress as irrelevant nobodies. The logic of representative democracy required taking them as proxies for their constituents.

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

They also spoke to a deeper truth about how the sections diverged over the nineteenth century by raising the notion of honor. Cultural developments had loosened the bounds of traditional codes of honor in the North. Once, those codes happily endorsed resenting slights and washing them away with violence. Those times had largely ended north of Maryland, with codes of conduct based on public shame supplanted by those stressing private guilt and self-control.

Traces of the old ways remained, of course, but nothing like they thrived in the South. To white Southern eyes, Brooks repaid Sumner for a grievous slight and acted strictly correctly in doing so. Not to endorse him would have been the greater shame for many. Thought had gone into the assault, after all. Brooks spent a few days carefully looking over the speech and considering options. He did not challenge Sumner because Sumner would never accept a duel. That made him no gentleman to Brooks, if he could ever have qualified anyway, so attacking him fairly and on even terms might even disgrace Brooks. As something less than manly, less than white, Sumner warranted striking like an inferior. The South Carolinian’s first choice of weapon, cowhide, speaks to that. Southerners literally whipped slaves with cowhide, so striking a white man in that way would disgrace him more than anything else. Brooks feared Sumner might get hold of the cowhide, so he opted for the cane also occasionally used to discipline slaves. Pragmatism dictated a slight deviation from perfect symbolism.