Sunday, January 16, 2011

Secession: The Winter of Sumner's Discontent

With all the talk these days about securing the halls of Congress so that our elected representatives may be better protected from the general public, the question remains: what if the inmates take to assaulting each other? Could happen. It has happened, most famously just prior to the Civil War, when tensions between North and South were escalating almost day by day.

Meet Charles Sumner, U.S. Senator from Massachusetts.

Here was a man who, after graduating from Harvard in 1830 at age nineteen, went home with stacks of books to study some more because he did not think that Harvard had really taught him anything useful. By age 30, Sumner had completed law school, practiced some, lectured some at Harvard Law School, published a lot, and spent three years traveling in Europe. He returned a man in search of a mission.

A staunch believer in human perfectibility, Sumner supported local initiatives to reform schools and prisons. He was also a pacifist, the kind of guy who could get up in front of a large July 4th gathering in Boston and give a lengthy speech denouncing American expansionism and militarism. "There can be no war," he asserted solemnly, "that is not dishonorable." Then he went on to criticize U.S. Army training exercises as "farcical and humiliating" and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point as a "seminary of idleness and vice"--all this with veterans and uniformed officers sitting in the front row! Way to make friends, Chas.

Acquaintances at the time described Sumner as earnest, straightforward, and humorless, "almost impervious to a joke." Sumner made no apologies for his seriousness of purpose. Anyone looking for a joke in any of his speeches, he advised, "might as well look for a joke in the book of Revelations." Hardly a ladies' man, Sumner remained a bachelor until well into his 50s. After finally getting married, he separated from his wife a year later. Sumner's best companion, clearly, was his own inner voice.

His outer voice was not bad, either. Standing well over six feet, with a sturdy frame exquisitely tailored, Sumner spoke with great effect, sometimes for hours at a time. His speeches, recited from memory, incorporated an impressive array of borrowed verses, Latin quotations, and statistics. Cut from the John Quincy Adams cloth of moral rectitude, he was more an ideologue in the Senate than a colleague, given to total conviction rather than tepid compromise. Sumner believed that you could no more be a little bit right than a little bit pregnant. Either you were or you weren't. And if you were not right, he would let you and the world know.

No political party could contain such a man, and Sumner felt in no way bound by party platforms. "The slave of principles," as he referred to himself, "I call no party master." In his first foray into statewide politics, he found himself aligned with the Whig Party. But it was not long before he peeled off with a faction of "Conscience Whigs" to protest the willingness of "Cotton Whigs" (among them Massachusetts merchants and manufacturers) to make concessions to the slave South. The nomination of Zachary Taylor for U.S. President was seen by Sumner as the result of an unholy alliance of Southwestern and Northeastern politicians, of "cotton-planters" and "cotton-spinners," of "the lords of the lash and the lords of the loom" (love that alliteration). Sumner and others, including John Quincy's son Charles Francis Adams, immediately bolted the Whig Party altogether to start their own.

The U.S. had entered a period of shifting allegiances, tremors in the political landscape warning of the national cataclysm to come. Parties came and went. Sumner was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1851 (in the Massachusetts legislature) by a coalition of Democrats and Free-Soilers, but by 1854 was gravitating toward the emerging Republican Party because of its resolve to ban the spread of slavery to the western territories. He had become one of the nation's most recognizable and, in Northern quarters, most celebrated voices against the institution of slavery.

To Southern ears, however, Sumner's voice was like nails on a chalkboard. Part of it was his holier-than-thou attitude, part the relentless invective with which he showered his opponents. On May 19, 1856, Sumner rose on the Senate floor to launch a monumental diatribe entitled "The Crime Against Kansas," the printed version of which ran well over 100 pages. He started on the 19th, but did not finish the oration until the following day; it was that long. Sumner argued passionately that the Kansas territory should be admitted as a free state, where slavery would be prohibited.

Then he got personal. Of the chief sponsors of the bill to ratify a pro-slavery constitution for Kansas, Sumner berated all three, including South Carolina's Andrew Butler, who was not even present for the debate. The elderly Butler, according to Sumner, "touches nothing which he does not disfigure--with error, sometimes of principle, sometimes of fact. He shows an incapacity of accuracy." Not only that, said Sumner, he drools--a cruel reference to Butler's stroke impairment. Another of the embattled Three, Stephen Douglas of Illinois, who was there, thought that Sumner had gone over the line. "That damn fool," he muttered during the speech, "will get himself killed by some other damn fool."

Butler's nephew, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks, decided that the insult called for retaliation. He entered a near-empty Senate chamber after adjournment on May 22 and found Sumner sitting at his desk, busily attending to paperwork. Brooks complained to Sumner about the libelous speech, then rapped him on the shoulders with the lighter end of his tapered walking stick. It was at that point that some kind of chemical must have been released in Brooks's brain. Beating a defenseless abolitionist felt kinda good.

Before Sumner could stand up, Brooks started raining blows onto Sumner's head, as hard as he could. What had been intended as a measured masterly whipping was turning into a full-blown assault. Sumner finally got to his feet, but only after ripping the bolted desk from the floor with his legs. With blood streaming down his face and over his eyes, Sumner staggered down the aisle, but could not escape his attacker's reach. Brooks broke his cane, but still kept whacking. When the few Senators left in the chamber came to intervene, it looked like a hockey game might break out. But calmer heads prevailed. When it was all done, the cane lay shattered in pieces on the floor, and Sumner lay unconscious.

Brooks was an instant hero in the South, as newspapers applauded his action. The Richmond Enquirer considered it "good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequences" and favored making it a daily ritual: "These vulgar abolitionists in the Senate... must be lashed into submission." Suggestions were made that Brooks use something heavier next time (a baseball bat, maybe?). Fragments of the now-sacred cane were fetching a nice price on eBay.

Northerners, meanwhile, were outraged. Sumner was treated almost as a martyr, and his re-election to the Senate later that year became a lead-pipe cinch. A New Yorker wryly observed that Sumner "is made by this act, senator for life." In fact, it took three years for Sumner to recover sufficiently to resume his duties, the initial injuries less burdensome than the post-traumatic stress syndrome that followed.

Sumner found upon his return to Washington in December 1859 that things had changed--and not to his greater satisfaction. The Republican Party, in a tactical shift prior to the 1860 elections, softened its rhetoric on human rights and began focusing instead on economic issues (tariffs, land grants, and railroad charters) that might attract moderate voters. Party leaders nudged Sumner to keep a low profile during the campaign season, fearful that any antislavery agitation would strengthen the standing in the South of the Democratic presidential candidate Stephen Douglas.

Sumner held his tongue and was rewarded with the election of the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln. During the winter of 1860-61 the nation, alas, appeared headed for rupture. Before Lincoln could even be inaugurated, seven states in the Deep South resolved to secede from the Union. Moderate Republicans in Congress worked anxiously with Democrats to fashion a compromise that might keep the Upper South from following suit. Such a compromise would allow the extension of slavery to territories south of the 36°30' parallel. Sumner would have none of it. In one of a series of letters to the Massachusetts governor, Sumner pleaded, "Pray keep Massachusetts sound and firm--FIRM--FIRM--against every word or step of concession."

Sumner had a plan for averting civil war, but all depended on the new President's listening to him.

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