I would be very interested to know what the weather was like in Washington, DC on Thursday, May 22, 1856. It had been an unusually long winter across the Midwest and Eastern seaboard of the United States that year. The capital itself had seen remarkably cold temperatures and above-average snowfall, followed by cold rains lasting well into May.
Then, on May 23, a brief heatwave pushed temperatures into mid-90s Fahrenheit in New York City, but that was followed by a storm-bearing cold front the following day. By mid-June, the sun was still trying to melt five-foot deep snowdrifts in the middle of the state, at Georgetown. Winter ran quite late that year.1
But that happened after May 22 and further north than Washington, which is the day and place I’m wondering about. So, not having any more information than what I’ve just shared, I’ll assume it was probably an unusually cool but mild day in on the eve of the aforementioned heatwave.
The reason for my curiosity is that I’m trying to imagine the scene at the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance on the west side of the Capitol grounds that day. That morning, South Carolina Congressman and Democrat Preston Brooks encountered his House of Representatives colleague Henry Alonzo Edmundson from the state of Virginia and also a Democrat as he stood there viewing the Capitol. He had chosen that spot for a very specific reason: it had a commanding view of all the entranceways to the Capitol that one particular man would use as he came from his place of residence. That man was Senator Charles Sumner, a member of the recently-founded Republican party,2 from Massachusetts. Brooks had a bone to pick with him, and he shared with Edmundson his intention to confront Sumner about it.
While it had been particularly cold year for weather in Washington, it was a particularly hot one for politics—and not only there but elsewhere in the country. On the previous day, Wednesday, May 21, 1856, about 800 pro-slavery forces led by Samuel J. Jones descended on the anti-slavery town of Lawrence, Kansas, confiscated the town’s cannon and other weapons, destroyed the printing presses of its two newspapers, threw the presses’ type into the river, and burned down the town’s largest building, the Free-State Hotel, along with the home of Kansas’s future first state governor, Charles L. Robinson. And all this despite the fact that the town offered no resistance and the hotel’s owner had even served Jones and his men an elegant and expensive dinner, which they had greedily consumed. Thankfully, there was only one casualty, but sadly, the man died.3
The account of the destruction of the Free-State Hotel provides a bit of comic relief. Jones’s gang began by trying to use its own cannon.
The first ball went completely over the roof, at which all the people cheered, much to the disgust of Jones. The next shot hit the walls but did little damage. After bombarding away with little or no effect till it was becoming monotonous, they attempted to blow up the building with a keg of powder. But this only made a big noise and a big smoke, and did not do much towards demolishing the house.
At every failure the citizen spectators along the street set up a shout. At last Jones became desperate, and applied the vulgar torch, and burned the building to the ground.4
Between the burning of the hotel and the burning of Robinson’s house, Jones’s mob ransacked the town.
Nearly every house was entered, and many of them robbed. Trunks were broken open, clothing stolen, and everything taken off to which they took a fancy.5
Total losses were estimated at $200,000—a lot of money in 1856. The episode became known as “The Sacking of Lawrence.” The one fatality occurred when a member of Jones’s gang was hit in the head by a piece of masonry from the hotel.6
It was events like this that inspired the phrase “Bleeding Kansas,” which was popularized by New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley. The violence began with the signing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act into law by Democrat President Franklin D. Pierce on May 30, 1854 and lasted right up to the Civil War—and even before it reached Kansas, the violence had already spilled over into Congress itself.
During the debates over the Kansas-Nebraska Act earlier in May 1854, Republican Congressman Lewis Davis Campbell of Ohio filibustered the bill in such a provocative way that it triggered an exchange of insults between Northerners and Southerners and soon weapons were brandished on the House floor. Among those ready to let his sidearm speak for him was none other than Virginia Congressman Henry Alonzo Edmundson, and he may have actually gone on record as the first Congressman to take out a fellow member while the House was in session had not his colleagues restrained him, and the Sergeant at Arms placed him under arrest. This no doubt holds the record for the most unusual way to end a filibuster, as the House adjourned in order to allow tempers to cool.7
And now, two years later, on May 22, 1856, that same Henry Alonzo Edmundson was accompanying his friend and fellow Southerner Preston Brooks, who was waiting for Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts leave the Senate chamber and emerge from the Capitol Building. What Brooks was contemplating in very deliberate fashion was not much prettier than what Edmundson had been prevented from doing two years earlier. Brooks was absolutely furious at Sumner.
On Monday of that week, May 19, Sumner began a speech on the Senate floor to an overflow crowd that would take four hours to deliver over the course of that day and the next. He had written the entire speech in longhand and memorized it.8 It was published as a 95-page long book that year, titled, The Crime Against Kansas.9
Sumner began his speech by targeting the authors of the Kansas-Nebraska Act for special contempt: Senator Stephen A. Douglas, a Republican from Illinois, and Senator Andrew Butler, a Democrat from South Carolina. He mockingly compared the duo to Don Quixote and his sidekick, Sancho Panza. But his remarks about Butler were especially scathing and even scandalous. He implied that Butler had sexual motives for supporting slavery. He said,
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.10
As Sumner delivered these remarks, “an angry, irritable Douglas paced at the back of the chamber grumbling, ‘That damn fool will get himself killed by some other damn fool.’”11
Sumner’s language was not intended as purely metaphorical. By using the word “harlot” he had a more personal reference in mind.
It is also important to note the sexual imagery that recurred throughout the oration, which was neither accidental nor without precedent. Abolitionists routinely accused slaveholders of maintaining slavery so they could engage in forcible sexual relations with their slaves. In 1858, Wendell Phillips went so far as to call the South a gigantic brothel in a speech in Boston.12
So, in keeping with the anti-slavery rhetoric of the day, Sumner was implying not only that slavery was Butler’s “harlot” in a metaphorical sense, but that it supplied Butler with his own personal harlots. At least that’s the way one member of the audience took it.
Congressman Preston Brooks later testified that he was in the audience that day, and the general rhetoric of the speech no doubt incensed him as a Southerner. But what enraged Brooks all the more was what Sumner implied about Andrew Butler, because Butler was his father’s first cousin.
Brooks spent the night of May 21 with his friend, South Carolina Congressman and Democrat Laurence M. Keitt, plotting his move.
His limp—the result of a hip injury suffered in a duel—grew more noticeable. He had with him a cane, but he gripped it not to support himself so much as to test its properties as a cudgel.13
The next day, when Sumner did not emerge from the Capitol Building after the Senate had adjourned, Brooks went in looking for him, accompanied by Edmundson. The cane he carried with him had a metal top.14 The House of Representatives’ report, which came eleven days later, describes what he did with it:
Most of the Senators left the Senate chamber, a few only remaining. Mr. Sumner continued in his seat engaged in writing. Mr. Brooks approached, and, addressing a few words to him, immediately commenced the attack by inflicting blows upon his bare head, whilst he was in a sitting posture, with a large and heavy cane. Stunned and blinded by the first blow, and confined by his chair and desk, Mr. Sumner made several ineffectual efforts to rise, and finally succeeded by wrenching his desk from its fastenings. The blows were repeated by Mr. Brooks with great rapidity and extreme violence, while Mr. Sumner, almost unconscious, made further efforts of self-defence, until he fell to the floor under the attack, bleeding and powerless.
The wounds were severe and calculated to endanger the life of the Senator who remained for several days in a critical condition. It appears that the blows were inflicted with a cane, the material of which was about the specific gravity of hickory or whalebone, one inch in diameter at the larger end, and tapering to the diameter of about five- eighths of an inch at the smaller end. It is not too much to say that the weapon used was of a deadly character, and that the blows were indiscriminately dealt, at the hazard of the life of the assailed.15
Brooks nearly killed Sumner that day. The attack was so vicious and brutal that Sumner would not be able to perform his Senate duties again for three years. He attempted to return the following year, but it appears he was suffering from what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “Southerners charged he was shamming for publicity’s sake,”16 but he became an overnight hero for the anti-slavery cause in the North. The phrase “Bleeding Kansas” became twinned with “Bleeding Sumner” in the 1856 election cycle.
Meanwhile, Brooks simultaneously became a hero for the pro-slavery cause in the South. His political career survived a vote on his expulsion from the House, after which he resigned to allow voters in his district to hold special election that same year. He was reelected in short order,17 his many Southern admirers sent him countless new canes to replace the one he damaged in his attack on Sumner,18 but he died in Washington on January 27, 1857 from a severe cold that developed into “violent croup.”19
Neither side appeared to be listening to the other anymore. At the highest level of American government, rational debate and political compromise had been replaced by diatribes, and diatribes were greeted with brandished weapons and flying canes. “The nation, suffering from the breakdown of reasoned discourse that this event symbolized, tumbled onward toward the catastrophe of civil war.”20 And it was a war that would cost the lives of 600,000 people.
The Worst It’s Ever Been?
Whenever anyone begins a sentence with the words, “A study has found,” as if that study has supplied the definitive word on whatever we’re discussing, my immediate reaction is to either (a) stop listening, (b) laugh uproariously, or (c) leave the conversation. I’m sure there are a lot of good academic studies out there, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned about them is that if you wait a few minutes the one you’re reading will be contradicted by another one.
Even worse is when people cite studies without understanding what they’re saying. Even worse than that is when it happens on a web site named, “Study Finds!” It happened on October 3, 2018, when that site introduced a study with the words:
It may not be so hard to believe during this murky political landscape, but a new study finds the divide between Democrats and Republicans is the worst it’s ever been, more so than many people may even think.21
Seriously? We’re supposed to believe that the divide specifically between the Democrats and Republicans is the worst it’s ever been? Did I miss a recent headline or two? Did our Congressmen, assembled on the House floor, recently brandish Glocks and point them at each other and it somehow escaped the notice of CNN, MSNBC, and Fox? Did one of our elected federal legislators pummel another legislator to within an inch of his life and that news was passed over in favor of a story about Kim Kardashian? I know things have gotten vicious this year, but I don’t recall anything of that sort reaching the level of the period in American history that began with the Compromise of 1850 and lasted through the end of the Civil War.
Now, perhaps I shouldn’t be so hard on the Study Finds web site, since it’s simply paraphrasing the title from the Michigan State University web site that earlier reported on the study. That title reads, “Democrat/Republican Divide Is Worst It’s Ever Been.”22 The fact that this is being declared on a page owned by a major American university is a specimen of academic malfeasance that beggars description.
Even worse than all this, however, is the fact that neither the title nor the abstract of the study supports the conclusion of either the MSU or Study Finds web sites. The study is titled, “A sign of the times? Weak and strong polarization in the U.S. Congress, 1973–2016,”23 by Zachary Neal, who is, coincidentally, not an historian, but an associate professor of psychology and global urban studies at Michigan State University.
So, how does the web site of a major university and a web site that specializes in reporting on academic studies conclude that a study on American political division dating back to 1973 informs us of how bad those divisions were going back to the founding of the Republic, or at least as far back as the founding of the Democrat and Republican parties? This could only happen if neither web site editor bothered to read the study’s title or they both have a very definition of the word “ever” than is found in English dictionaries.
Of course, we all know what will happen. Over the coming weeks and months, countless users of social media will see the Study Finds web page, and perhaps even the MSU web page, copy the URL into a tweet or Facebook comment, and ensure the dissemination of one of the most ridiculously ignorant statements ever made about both historic and contemporary American politics, all with the appearance of official academic certification—as if that counts for as much as most people think it does.
As my good friend, Don Veinot, likes to say, “For most people, history began 18 minutes ago.” Many people certainly act that way. Perhaps it will be mind-expanding for them to consider that it may have actually begun as early as 1973.Ω
© 2018, Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc. All rights reserved. Excerpts and links may be used if full and clear credit is given with specific direction to the original content.
- Donald Sutherland, “The Long, Hard Winter of 1855-56.” Accessed at http://wintercenter.homestead.com/files/1855-56.pdf. ↩
- The Republican party was founded on March 20, 1854. ↩
- “The Sack of Lawence, Kansas, 1856,” EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2008). According to the web site, “This eyewitness account was originally published in Gladstone, T.M. The Englishman in Kansas; or, Squatter Life and Border Warfare (1857), republished in: Hart, Albert Bushnell, American History Told by Contemporaries v. 4 (1928); Morrison, Michael A., Slavery and the American West (1997).” ↩
- Richard Cordley, A History of Lawrence, Kansas from the First Settlement to the Close of the Rebellion, (Lawrence, KS, USA: E.F. Caldwell, 1895), 100-101. ↩
- Ibid., 101. ↩
- Ross Drake, “The Law that Ripped America in Two: One hundred fifty years ago, the Kansas-Nebraska Act set the stage for America’s civil war,” Smithsonian Magazine, May 2004, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-law-that-ripped-america-in-two-99723670/. ↩
- Michael A. Morrison, Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War, (Chapel Hill, NC, USA and London, UK: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 153-154. ↩
- “The Crime Against Kansas,” United States Senate web site, https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/The_Crime_Against_Kansas.htm. ↩
- Charles Sumner, The Crime Against Kansas: the Apologies for the Crime, the True Remedy, (Boston, MA, USA: John P. Jewett and Company, 1856). ↩
- Sumner, The Crime Against Kansas, 9. ↩
- Eric H. Walther, The Shattering of the Union: America in the 1850s, (Lanham, MD, USA: SR Books, 2004), 97. ↩
- Williamjames Hull Hoffer, The Caning of Charles Sumner: Honor, Idealism, and the Origins of the Civil War, (Baltimore, MD, USA: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 62. ↩
- Hoffer, ibid., 7. ↩
- “The Caning of Charles Sumner,” United States Senate web site, https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/The_Caning_of_Senator_Charles_Sumner.htm. ↩
- United States House of Representatives, 34th Congress, 1st Session, Report No. 182, “Alleged Assault Upon Senator Sumner,” June 2, 1856, 2-3. ↩
- Thomas G. Mitchell, Antislavery Politics in Antebellum and Civil War America, 95. ↩
- United States, 61st Congress, 2nd Session, Document, No. 654, A Biographical Congressional Dictionary, With an Outline History of the National Congress, 1774-1911, (Washington, DC, USA: Government Printing Office, 1913) 502. https://books.google.com/books?id=4w09AAAAYAAJ&pg=PA502#v=onepage&q&f=false ↩
- Thomas G. Mitchell, Antislavery Politics in Antebellum and Civil War America, 96. ↩
- New York Daily Times, January 28, 1857, 1. http://www.rarenewspapers.com/view/222516. ↩
- “The Caning of Charles Sumner,” United States Senate web site, ibid. ↩
- https://www.studyfinds.org/political-divide-america-worst-ever/. ↩
- https://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2018/democrat-republican-divide-is-worst-its-ever-been/. ↩
- https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378873317303039?via%3Dihub. ↩