Following the American Civil War Sesquicentennial with day by day writings of the time, currently 1863.

Sumner’s “The Barbarism of Slavery” Speech – June 4, 1860

June 4, 2010

Memoir of Charles Sumner


(Italicized text is from “Memoir of Charles Sumner”)

Returning to the U. S. Senate  four years after being severely beaten in the Senate Chamber by Preston Bookes – a congressman from South Carolina – Charles Sumner delivered a speech to the Senate titled, The Barbarism of Slavery, during the debate of the bill to admit Kansas as a free state.

Except for a couple of campaign style speeches in the House, it was the last speech on American slavery made in Congress until discussions on emancipation. The speech drew public attention more than any made in Congress or elsewhere during the year.  It was printed entire in the leading newspapers of the great cities East and West, and was issued in several pamphlet editions, one of which had the sanction of the National Republican Committee.  Whether regarded as timely or not, it was accepted as an exhaustive exposition of American slavery altogether unmatched in our history.

Southern members of Congress – such as Hammond of South Carolina, Hunter and Mason of Virginia, Brown and Davis of Mississippi – recently had not hesitated to defend slavery as a normal condition of society, beneficial to both races, even ennobling to the white race, and the just basis of republican justice.

Sumner thought the time had come to meet in the Senate these – and other – audacious assumptions once and for all, and to treat with absolute plainness and directness of language the principle, motive, and character of slavery, and its baleful effects as seen in the practices of slaveholders and the habits of slave society, — each statement to be supported by facts, the whole to be an argument which would defy answer at the time, or in any future discussion in Congress or elsewhere. It was in his mind to show to the country and mankind that what the pro-slavery party vaunted as the finest product of civilization was none other than essential barbarism. No such speech had as yet been made by any statesman; no one in Congress, not even Sumner himself, had hitherto attempted more than to treat the institution as related to a pending measure, or incidentally to emphasize one or more of its features. An assault on American slavery all along the lines in the Senate, where it was most strongly intrenched, required courage and rare equipment at all points in moral and political philosophy, in history and law. Such a treatment of the subject was, however, not at the time agreeable to Republican politicians; they feared, sincerely enough, that it would repel voters in doubtful States, who, though not yet antislavery by conviction, were, on the break-up of the Whig and American parties, inclined to vote for Mr. Lincoln as the only way of defeating their old opponents, the Democrats. Others of conservative temper thought it would irritate Southern men without converting them, and perhaps drive them to unite their distracted voters or to resist the government in case of Republican success. Some who doubted the policy of the speech admitted Sumner’s right to make it, in view of what he had suffered from the barbarism of slavery. . . .

Sumner had his own view of the historic conflict. To him it was “no holiday contest,” but “a solemn battle between right and wrong, between good and evil,” in which the deepest emotions of human nature were marshalled; in which courage, pertinacity, and devotion on the one side must be confronted by like courage, pertinacity, and devotion on the other. To him the transcendent issue was between slavery and freedom ; and whether settled in debate or civil war, it was not to be put aside by any considerations of fear or policy. Always, until the last slave became a freeman, he insisted that this issue should be supreme and constantly present in the public mind.

The following background information on the attack on Sumner is from Wikipedia:

In 1856, during the Bleeding Kansas crisis when “border ruffians” approached Lawrence, Kansas, Sumner denounced the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the “Crime against Kansas” speech on May 19 and May 20, two days before the sack of Lawrence. Sumner attacked the authors of the act, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina, comparing Butler to Don Quixote and Douglas to Sancho Panza.

Sumner said Douglas (who was present in the chamber) was a “noisome, squat, and nameless animal … not a proper model for an American senator.” He also portrayed Butler as having taken “a mistress 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.” Sumner’s three-hour oration later became particularly personally insulting as he mocked the 59-year-old Butler’s manner of speech and physical mannerisms, both of which were impaired by a stroke that Butler had suffered earlier.

Two days later, on the afternoon of May 22, Preston Brooks, a congressman from South Carolina and Butler’s nephew, confronted Sumner as he sat writing at his desk in the almost empty Senate chamber. Brooks was accompanied by Laurence M. Keitt also of South Carolina and Henry A. Edmundson of Virginia (the latter taking no part in the assault). Brooks said, “Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.” As Sumner began to stand up, Brooks began beating Sumner severely on the head with a thick gutta-percha cane with a gold head before he could reach his feet. Sumner was knocked down and trapped under the heavy desk (which was bolted to the floor), but Brooks continued to bash Sumner until he ripped the desk from the floor. By this time, Sumner was blinded by his own blood, and he staggered up the aisle and collapsed, lapsing into unconsciousness. Brooks continued to beat the motionless Sumner until he broke his cane, then quietly left the chamber. Several other senators attempted to help Sumner, but were blocked by Keitt who was brandishing a pistol and shouting, “Let them be!” (Brooks died in 1857; Keitt was censured for his actions and was later killed in 1864 during the Civil War while fighting as a Confederate officer).

Sumner did not attend the Senate for the next three years while recovering from the attack. In addition to the head trauma, he suffered from nightmares, severe headaches and (what is now understood to be) post-traumatic stress disorder. During that period, his enemies subjected him to ridicule and accused him of cowardice for not resuming his duties in the Senate. Nevertheless, the Massachusetts General Court reelected him in November 1856, believing that his vacant chair in the Senate chamber served as a powerful symbol of free speech and resistance to slavery.[6]

The attack revealed the increasing polarization of the Union in the years before the American Civil War, as Sumner became a hero across the North and Brooks a hero across the South. Northerners were outraged. The editor of the New York Evening Post, William Cullen Bryant, wrote:

“The South cannot tolerate free speech anywhere, and would stifle it in Washington with the bludgeon and the bowie-knife, as they are now trying to stifle it in Kansas by massacre, rapine, and murder.

Has it come to this, that we must speak with bated breath in the presence of our Southern masters? … Are we to be chastised as they chastise their slaves? Are we too, slaves, slaves for life, a target for their brutal blows, when we do not comport ourselves to please them?”

The outrage heard across the North was loud and strong, and historian William Gienapp later argued that the success of the new Republican party was uncertain in early 1856; but Brooks’ “assault was of critical importance in transforming the struggling Republican party into a major political force.”

Conversely, the act was praised by Southern newspapers; the Richmond Enquirer editorialized that Sumner should be caned “every morning”, praising the attack as “good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequences” and denounced “these vulgar abolitionists in the Senate” who “have been suffered to run too long without collars. They must be lashed into submission.” Many Southerners sent Brooks new canes, in support of his attack.

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