Sumner’s Rendezvous With a Gutta-Percha
After South Carolina Congressman Preston S. Brooks administered a lesson to Charles Sumner, senator from the slave-trading State of Massachusetts, Brooks received new canes from all over the South. The canes were accompanied by emphatic suggestions that he promptly deliver additional beatings on Sumner for the insults toward his uncle and distinguished Senator Andrew P. Butler. Sumner feigned injury to attract sympathy from abolitionist newspapers.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com
Sumner’s Rendezvous With a Gutta-Percha
“From the moment he took his seat in the Senate, Sumner’s conscience was always on parade. [And] according to Sumner, the Constitution did not sanction slavery, and since slavery was a monstrous evil it should be eliminated at once.
Freedom was national whereas slavery was only sectional. In the official view of the South, which incidentally coincided with that of the Garrisonians, the founding fathers had expressly guaranteed slavery along with other forms of personal property. Far from being a national evil, it was a national benefit, to the Negro as much as to the white man.
Sumner seized upon the controversy over Kansas, whether the territory was to come into the Union as a free or as a slave State, to pronounce what he called “the most thoroughgoing philippic ever uttered in a legislative body.” It was an elaborate speech and it took five hours to deliver.
For those who expected an accurate presentation of the facts about Kansas it was a disappointment, but Sumner’s conscience was never concerned with facts unless the facts bore on the depravity of slaveholders. Sumner’s conscience directed him to pour more oil on the fire rather than water.
He began by assuming the truth of every charge made against the slave power in Kansas, and ignoring all the evidence on the other side. Major John Sedgewick, who was stationed in Kansas at the time . . . thought that most of the atrocities had been committed by the [Northern] Free Soil party, but any such evidence, even if it had come his way, Sumner would have brushed aside as the ravings of a lunatic. He had prepared his speech with infinite pains, committed it to memory, practiced it before the glass, and nothing would induce him to alter it.
The crime against Kansas was nothing less than “the rape of virgin territory compelling it to the hateful embrace of slavery.” The criminal (slave power) has “an audacity beyond that of Verres, a subtlety beyond that of Machiavelli, a meanness beyond that of Bacon, and an ability beyond that of Hastings.”
The long string of erudite insults reached their climax in an attack upon the much beloved Senator Butler of South Carolina who, said Sumner, “has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows and who, although ugly to others, is always lovely to him; although polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight — I mean the harlot, Slavery.”
That Sumner honestly thought he was serving the cause of freedom by such language is hard to believe. Senator Cass of Michigan, a devoted Union man and not a slaveholder, delivered the official rebuke: “Such a speech — the most un-American and un-patriotic that ever grated on the ears of the members of this high body — I hope never to hear again here or elsewhere.”
While Senators were shaking their heads . . . Sumner was suddenly transfigured into a national hero, a martyr for freedom. The man responsible for this . . . was a Southerner, Congressman Preston S. Brooks of South Carolina, a nephew and a devoted admirer of Senator Butler.
[And] Brooks had made up his mind that the only suitable answer to Sumner was severe corporeal punishment. Accordingly, while Sumner was sitting at his desk after the Senate had adjourned, Brooks strode up to him and . . . struck him over the head with a gutta-percha cane.
How severely Sumner was injured has always been a matter of dispute, but by the time Brooks had finished his chastisement Sumner was lying on the floor unconscious. Southerners accused Sumner of shamming.
The doctor who attended him took four stitches in his scalp and declared him ready to return to duty after a few days of rest. [Sumner] complained of perpetual headache and nervous prostration, but Southerners pointed out that during a trip to Europe to recover his health he indulged in a continuous round of social entertainments that might well have reduced any traveler to a state of exhaustion.”
(No Compromise!, Arnold Whitridge, Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1960, pp. 125-127)