Saturday, April 04, 2015

Charles Sumner, caned but not beaten

     On May 19, 1856, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, a member of the Free Soil Party, gave a lengthy speech on the Senate floor against slavery. It was lengthy and overdue. He called out Democratic Senators Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina for their support of expanding slavery into Kansas, Nebraska and other points west. The Free Soil Party believed the United States should only add states that are free, hence the free soil moniker.
     Democratic Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina caned Senator Sumner three days later, which disabled Sumner for three years. But Congressman Brooks was the one who did not survive the next year.
     Brooks was a coward who snuck up on Senator Sumner, bashed him with his cane, sending the victim reeling off his chair, and then continued beating the defenseless man. Then Brooks quit and left the chamber, to cheers. They call senators lions. They were all cowardly lions that day.
     Except Senator Sumner. He opposed slavery, which was not a very popular. Oh sure, Whigs and other northerners clucked their tongues at it, but like abortion today, they accepted an unacceptable and immoral practice. They came down harder on its critics than they did slavery.
     Sumner's speech was brilliant. Brooks said he was addressing a smear on a relative, Senator Butler. Sumner simply said: "The Senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight, with sentiments of honor and courage. Of course he has chosen a mistress  to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely  to him ; though polluted in the sight of the  world, is chaste in his sight — I mean the harlot, Slavery. For her, his tongue is always  profuse in words. Let her be impeached in character, or any proposition made to shut her out from the extension of her wantonness, and no extravagance of manner or hardihood of assertion is then too great for this Senator."
     Brooks said he was fighting to restore his uncle's honor. But that is done with a duel, not an aggravated assault. That no one came to Sumner's aid or retaliation shows how evil slavery was, for even those who spoke against it never took action -- at least not in the United States Senate. More than a century later, Pulitzer-winning historian David Donald seemed to blame the victim.
     "Distrusted by friends and allies, and reciprocating their distrust, a man of 'ostentatious culture', 'unvarnished egotism', and 'a specimen of prolonged and morbid juvenility,' Sumner combined a passionate conviction in his own moral purity with a command of 19th century rhetorical flourishes and a remarkable talent for rationalization. Stumbling into politics largely by accident, elevated to the United States Senate largely by chance, willing to indulge in Jacksonian demagoguery for the sake of political expediency, Sumner became a bitter and potent agitator of sectional conflict. Carving out a reputation as the South's most hated foe and the Negro's bravest friend, he inflamed sectional differences, advanced his personal fortunes, and helped bring about national tragedy," Donald wrote.
     His assailant, Preston Brooks, resigned from Congress in July, was re-elected in August, and died at 37 before he could serve that term. Sumner lived for another 18 years, all of it in the U.S. Senate. He saw a Civil War won, and Republicans chose him to introduce the 13th Amendment that ended slavery once and for all.
     He also was the head of the Senate Relations Committee, and succeeded in recognizing the government of Haiti after its slave revolt six decades earlier. Senators from slave states had blocked such recognition since 1804.
     Sumner opposed a tribute to Roger Taney in 1865, saying, "I speak what cannot be denied when I declare that the opinion of the Chief Justice in the case of Dred Scott was more thoroughly abominable than anything of the kind in the history of courts. Judicial baseness reached its lowest point on that occasion. You have not forgotten that terrible decision where a most unrighteous judgment was sustained by a falsification of history. Of course, the Constitution of the United States and every principle of Liberty was falsified, but historical truth was falsified also."
     Later, though, he opposed Reconstruction efforts saying the Republicans elected by black votes were corrupt carpet-baggers who were an impediment to normalization and the progress of black people. He called for amnesty for confederates. But Sumner also sought reparations from the British because the nation continued to trade with the slave states during the rebellion.
     During President Andrew Johnson's impeachment trial, Senator Sumner said, "This is one of the last great battles with slavery. Driven from the legislative chambers, driven from the field of war, this monstrous power has found a refuge in the executive mansion, where, in utter disregard of the Constitution and laws, it seeks to exercise its ancient, far-reaching sway. All this is very plain. Nobody can question it. Andrew Johnson is the impersonation of the tyrannical slave power. In him, it lives again. He is the lineal successor of John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis; and he gathers about him the same supporters."
     After President Andrew Johnson survived his first impeachment by one vote, Senator Sumner wanted to try him again on another set of charges.
     However, Sumner was more than an abolitionist and integrationist. He was well-versed in world politics. In 1867, he spoke for three hours in favor of Seward's Folly -- the annexation of Alaska, in part to stop any expansion by the British.
     However, he opposed and stopped the annexation of what is now the Dominican Republic. That put him on the outs with President Grant. In 1872, Sumner supported Horace Greeley in his ill-fated attempt to stop the re-election of President Grant.
     Sumner was born on Irving Street in Boston on January 6, 1811. His father not only was an abolitionist but a backer of integrated schools. The future senator studied law at Harvard as his father had and became a scholar as he lectured, edited court records, and wrote pieces for journals. His election to the Senate at 40 in 1851 probably saved his finances. But his election by the Massachusetts legislature to the United States Senate probably saved the nation's soul. How do decent men allow a caning like that? But then again, "decent men" allowed the regular horse-whipping of slaves.
     He was a good man. An honest man. A man who withstood the devil's cane.

1 comment:

  1. The island of Hispaniolo has the Dominican Republic on the eastern part and Haiti on the western part.
    If the Dominican Republic had become part of the United States, how many Haitians do you think would scramble to cross the border? Heck, would there be anyone left in Haiti?