by Michael Liss
History is fractal. Zoom out, and you see grand themes, mass movements, stirring oratory, and profound ideas. Zoom in, and it is countless individual acts and choices, smaller moments that often seem to be just footnotes, but are, on closer inspection, immensely revealing.
On May 22, 1856, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks entered the Senate Chamber, strode purposefully over to the desk of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, and beat him senseless with a gold-headed, gutta-percha walking stick. So forceful, and so numerous were his blows, that Brooks shattered his weapon. And so much the damage done to his victim, both physical and psychological, that Sumner was unable to resume his Senatorial duties for nearly three years.
Matter of honor for Brooks. Sumner had just delivered a two-day jeremiad, “The Crime Against Kansas,” which was laced with insults against Brooks’ home state and his kin, South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler. As for the need for 30 swings of the cane on a bloodied, helpless victim, anyone who understood the profound passion of offended dignity of the Southern Gentleman could explain it. Who, of Brooks’ stature, wouldn’t have acted the same way when faced with the same provocation?
Brooks’ choice of a weapon said as much as his words. It was not an accident, not something grabbed in impulse. In the Southern Code, you dueled with an equal, but thrashed an inferior. Sumner, for all his refined manners, Harvard education, and the classical allusions in his speeches, was clearly a social inferior—a “Black Republican” of the worst type. Once Brooks settled on a course of action, he grappled with the choice of cane or bullwhip, but he never, ever, considered pistols.
Most of the South cheered. Fire-Eaters made similar threats against other Northern leaders, and Brooks mused, “It would not take much to have the throats of every Abolitionist cut.” He became a sort of a pop hero, the very exemplar of chivalrous Southern manliness. Among his adoring acolytes were students from the University of Virginia, who sent him a golden-headed cane, inscribed, and etched with the image of a cracked human skull.
Many in the North were appalled; there was editorial thundering and mass meetings. Sumner was not only a martyr, but the act demonstrated, again, the lawlessness to which the South was willing to stoop to protect its barbarous Peculiar Institution. What Brooks did was merely an extension of a pattern of slave-state violence in support of depravity.
Such was the rhetoric, but it’s important to put the speech and the caning in proper perspective. This is 1856. The Whig Party is fading into irrelevance, and the Democrats are fragmenting into sections. The Republican Party is barely two years old, made up of disaffected Northern and Free-Soil Democrats repelled by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, “Conscience Whigs,” and odds and ends from the fringes. Lincoln, although he will be put forward and get a handful of votes for the Vice-Presidential nomination, is a regional figure. The debates with Stephen Douglas, and Lincoln’s seminal speech at Cooper Union, which introduced him to influential New York and Northeast audiences, are still in the future. It is also before Dred Scott and before the feckless appeasement of the Buchanan Administration. It is a time of general discontent, when the proponents of compromise are struggling to find any solution sufficiently palatable to North and South to stave off disunion.
The caning is symbolic of the abyss between the sides, with radicals being permitted to define their respective regions. If Brooks was a caricature of offended Southern Honor, Sumner was a certifiably insufferable Northern elitist. He was pompous, condescending, morally superior, and hectoring. He happened to be right, both on Kansas, and the larger issue, as all the Abolitionists were right—slavery was an abomination that corrupted everyone who touched it. But his propensity for personal invective showed in “The Crime Against Kansas,” and he paid for it. Sumner lacked something essential in his nature that would have made him far more effective as a legislator and a leader—a fuse. He was incapable of the smooth tact that William Seward could apply when he wanted to, or Daniel Webster’s ability to seek common ground, or the detached empathy and remarkable tolerance of Lincoln. Sumner was a well-groomed bomb-thrower—in Carl Sandburg’s words, “perhaps the most perfect impersonation of what the South wanted to secede from.”
What the entire episode and the reactions that followed really demonstrated was the very same thing articulated later that year by Seward in his controversial “Irrepressible Conflict” speech. The forces of Union were weakening. There were two systems, slave and free, that had coexisted for decades, but, because of the South’s expansionist desires, the country had reached the point where, as Seward put it: “It is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slaveholding nation, or entirely a free-labor nation. Either the cotton and rice fields of South Carolina and the sugar plantations of Louisiana will ultimately be tilled by free labor, and Charleston and New Orleans become marts of legitimate merchandise alone, or else the rye-fields and wheat-fields of Massachusetts and New York must again be surrendered by their farmers to slave culture and to the production of slaves, and Boston and New York become once more markets for trade in the bodies and souls of men.”
Seward was sharply criticized at the time for his all-or-nothing construct, but he was largely right. Demographics and geography were conspiring to force a decisive confrontation over the fate of the Territories, and the Territories were the future of the country. The South needed the land. Its economy was largely agricultural, but generations of farming nutrient-sucking crops like tobacco had sapped many Virginia and North Carolina plantations of their vitality. To make money, big money, the type of money that Southern Aristocrats deemed crucial to a lifestyle of grace and comfort, they had to shift to a more industrial-farm, labor-intensive approach, in areas that were more fertile, but less hospitable. That meant the rich swamps of South Carolina and Louisiana, where rice, cotton, and sugar could be grown in abundance, and anywhere else where plow could be profitably put to soil.
Unfortunately, the swamps were also killing fields. The heat and humidity, malaria, yellow fever, cholera, and other tropical diseases, required a steady stream of “replacement” field-hands. Since slave importation had been barred in 1807, they had to be obtained from older, less profitable plantations whose owners saw a race of humans as capital to be liquidated when cash was needed. For a slave who lived his entire life in less challenging circumstances in Virginia, being “sold down the river” to pay a vendor or satisfy a mortgage was both a betrayal and often a death sentence.
There was another truth that Northerners had difficulty grasping. Southerners feared their slaves. Every slaveholder knew about the violent uprising in Haiti and the Denmark Vesey conspiracy. Concern was especially intense in places that had extraordinarily high ratios of slaves to whites (the toxic, often brutal plantations of the Deep South where a 20-1 or greater margin was not uncommon). But it also tugged at them in more traditional settings. Wild stories made the rounds about the faithful “Cuffie” slitting the throats of his kindly master, beautiful wife, and their angelic children. This led to the enactment of ever-harsher Slave-Codes, and a growing conviction among even the most humane (if you can use that word) that too much leniency was dangerous—spare the lash, and spoil the slave.
This anxiety, reasonable or not, also led Southerners to fear even the written word. Educated slaves (or Freedmen, like Vesey) who might read Northern newspapers or Abolitionist tracts were also able to more effectively communicate and recruit, so literacy became a target. Even Bibles were suspect—especially because many of the early Abolitionists were clergy or religiously motivated. Slave owners pointed to England’s William Wilberforce, who began with a fringe idea, and, with dogged persistence, led the successful Parliamentary campaign to ban British slave trade. For Southerners, that type of passion, tethered to a moral imperative and unconnected to politics, was a continuous threat because they knew it couldn’t be compromised away.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see how, by 1856, the two regions had reached an impasse. The status quo could not be maintained–the South couldn’t permit it. It needed new terms: guarantees that the Peculiar Institution would never be interfered with where it existed, and unfettered access to new territory. With that, the debate should come to an end, and the South expected the North to stop talking about it—literally to suppress speech.
In response, the North had to acknowledge a moral failure—it, too, had been complicit in slavery, from the New England sea captains, who had plied the slave trade, to Northern businesses and bankers, who had no problem conducting commerce with plantation owners. But there were political realities that limited what it could give. Even if it were willing to concede on protective legislation for Slavery where it currently existed, it couldn’t really accept the idea of more and more Territories being admitted as Slave States without additional Free States to balance them in Congress. That would ultimately place the Free States in a position of being a permanent minority. As for a Gag Rule, as much as Southern-sympathizing Northern Democrats would have liked people such as Sumner, Seward, and William Lloyd Garrison to just shut the heck up, they also knew that insisting on it would be both ineffectual and political suicide. Which Northern politician would openly admit he was willing to be that subservient to the slave power?
Perhaps it all was as simple as the observation of John A. Campbell, a Unionist, but loyal Southerner who resigned from the Supreme Court to return home after the Civil War began. Allan Nevins notes that Campbell “was right when he wrote that the grievances of which the South complained were either not material, or not remediable.” The basic questions of land and language could only be resolved by the impossible—one side capitulating.
Disunion doesn’t just happen. It is the product of the failure of compromise, a failure of vision, a failure of empathy and a failure to acknowledge the consequences of one’s own actions. By 1856, these elements were already in place when Sumner launched into his tirade and then Brooks grabbed his cane. As David Donald wrote, “When the two sections no longer spoke the same language, shared the same moral code, or obeyed the same law, when their representatives clashed in bloody conflict in the halls of Congress, thinking men North and South began to wonder how the Union could longer endure.”
Not long, but its violent end still came as a surprise to many. When the exhausted, bloodied Sumner was finally brought back to his bed, he said, “I did not believe a thing like this was possible.”
Sumner was wrong. And the war came.