A haughty, self-involved United States senator from Massachusetts was recognized on the Senate floor and began to speak ...
It’s not what you think. This is not a story about Elizabeth Warren in the Senate, nor a review of John Kerry’s speech there on, well, anything. It is a prelude to what author and Suffolk University faculty member Stephen Puleo calls the incident that pushed America to civil war: the caning of Senator Charles Sumner by South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks.
Puleo’s book, “The Caning: The Assault That Drove America to Civil War,” is a vivid account of the May 22, 1856, incident on the floor of the Senate in which Brooks nearly beat Sumner to death with a gold-topped, gutta-percha cane. The skill with which Puleo introduces the events surrounding and following the incident brings life and significance to the black-and-white illustration of Sumner cowering under the attack we may have contemplated with mild amusement in school textbooks.
Puleo’s account of the caning is unique in that it presents the background stories of the principals in full. Much has been written about Sumner, and Puleo does not skimp on his profile of the Massachusetts abolitionist. As Puleo recounts, Sumner was a learned individual but cold toward family and friends, absolutely convinced that his views were in the right and that those who disagreed were not only incorrect, but vile, and entitled to the full wrath of public personal insult that he unsparingly delivered. Indeed, one historian called Sumner “the best-hated man in the chamber.” Puleo also presents a portrait of Brooks as devoted to his family and South Carolina that has not been presented so thoroughly before, which brings perspective — but certainly not absolution — for the action Brooks took against Sumner.
The caning of Sumner occurred during a perfect storm of events concerning the debate over the extension of slavery in the United States in the mid-19th century. The most significant controversy on which the book focuses is the question of whether Kansas would be admitted to the union as a free state or a slave state. Puleo masterfully interweaves the debate and horrific violence, including murder raids by John Brown, which took place in Kansas, with sectional attitudes and debates within the Senate on the issue involving Sumner, Stephen Douglas of Illinois, Andrew Butler of South Carolina and James Mason of Virginia, among others. He also describes the growing abolitionist sentiment in the north — particularly in Boston — concerning the passage of the Fugitive Slave Acts. Puleo, a noted historian of Boston, describes the marching of two escaped slaves through the streets of Boston to the harbor by federal agents in order to return them to their owners, and the rage of Bostonians at the sight.
Amid this, Sumner decided to act and delivered the speech on the Senate floor that would lead to his prolonged absence from the Senate and the slavery debate. Entitled “The Crime Against Kansas,” the speech in print totaled 112 pages and took five hours over two days to orate. Sumner grandiosely portrayed Massachusetts and its enlightened citizens who were bravely aiding those being threatened by the slavocracy in Kansas against the barbaric South and its minions, calling the fight “a cause which surpasses in moral grandeur the whole war of the Revolution.”
In his righteous fury, Sumner called out Butler by name during his speech, despite Butler’s absence from the chamber due to his incapacitation from a stroke. He mocked Butler as an American Don Quixote who “has chosen a mistress to whom he has made 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.” Sumner pressed on and seemed to ridicule the slurred speech that Butler suffered as a result of his stroke. Butler, Sumner charged, argued for the admission of Kansas as a slave state “with incoherent phrases [that] discharge the loose expectorations of his speech.” He spoke of Butler’s disfiguring arguments, his incapacity of accuracy and said that Butler “cannot open his mouth but out there flies a blunder.” The insults piled high and Brooks determined to avenge the slurs against his defenseless cousin.
Perhaps the best attribute of “The Caning” is Puleo’s evenhanded portrayal of the sectional passions that enflamed and would engulf the country and informed reaction to Sumner’s beating. Often it seems that opposition to slavery in an enlightened North is presented in history books and schools as a given. Yet Puleo reminds readers that slavery was tolerated by many in the North, particularly among New England textile merchants and mill operators, who depended upon Southern cotton for their fortunes. Abolitionists such as Sumner were often regarded by Northerners and Southerners alike as single-minded provocateurs who would only upset the delicate balance that had been struck between the two sections with their inflammatory rhetoric.
On the other side of the coin, Puleo brings readers into the world of the South that has not often been described in popular history books, particularly the concept of honor among Southern gentlemen that roiled against offenses against family and country and led Brooks to bludgeon Sumner. Puleo does this by way of explanation, not rationalization, while excellently juxtaposing this code of honor and manliness with the bizarre paternalism and revolting inhumanity visited upon slaves by slave owners such as Brooks. Puleo explains why Brooks thought he had no other choice but to confront Sumner physically and why a fellow South Carolinian said at the time that Brooks had “a high and holy obligation” to avenge the insult to family and state.
The only complaint one has with the book is that it was published without an appendix containing the entire transcript of Sumner’s speech. That defect, however, is understandable given that Sumner delivered “The Crime Against Kansas” over a period of two days. Adding such a lengthy text to the book may have been a financial blunder for the publisher, though it would be invaluable for reference purposes.
While it would be difficult for anyone to say that a single incident led to the Civil War, Puleo’s account leaves no doubt that the assault on Sumner sent previously moderate Northerners into the abolitionist — and the rising Republican Party — camp and reaffirmed to Southerners that Yankees were hellbent on destroying their way of life. Puleo deftly describes the manner in which both Sumner and Brooks were received in the North and the South, with wild praise and condemnation for one or the other. Sumner’s fame was such that a statue of him that still stands in the Public Garden is merely inscribed “Sumner.” Nothing more needed to be said. Brooks was showered with replacement canes and laurels from a grateful South Carolina.
In short, the caning of Sumner made nearly every American choose sides. Puleo’s account of this choosing is fast-paced, well-researched, and poignant. It is also highly recommended.
Matthew May welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.