Secession Era Editorials Project

THE ASSAULT ON MR. SUMNER.

Boston, Massachusetts, Atlas [Republican]

(24 May 1856)

The outrage in the Senate, on Thursday last is without a parallel in the legislative history of the country. Nothing has heretofore seemed so bold, so bad, so alarming. There have been affrays, more or less serious, in the House, for the House is a popular, and therefore, a tumultuous body; there have been rencounters in the streets, for the streets are arenas in which any assassin may display his prowess; but never before has the sanctity of the Senate Chamber been violated; never before has an intruder ventured to carry into those privileged precincts his private hostilities; never before has a Senator been struck down in his seat, and stretched, by the hand of a lawless bully, prostrate, bleeding, and insensible upon the floor. The wrong is full of public importance; and we almost forget the private injury of Mr. Sumner in the broad temerity of the insult which has been offered to the country, to Massachusetts, to the Senate. This first act of violence may pass into a precedent; what a single creature has done today, a hundred, equally barbarous, may attempt tomorrow; until a band of alien censors may crowd the galleries, and the lobbies, and even the floor of the Senate, and by the persuasive arguments of the bludgeon, the bowie knife, and the revolver, effectually refute and silence any member who may dare to utter, with some thing of force and freedom, his personal convictions. The privileges which we have fondly supposed were conferred with the Senatorial dignity; the right to characterize public measures and public men, with no responsibility, save to God and to conscience; the freedom of debate, without which its forms are a mere mockery -- these will all disappear; and in their place we shall have the government of a self-constituted and revolutionary tribunal, overawing the Senate, as the Jacobins of Paris overawed the National Assembly of France, as the soldiers of Cromwell intimidated the Parliament of Great Britain. Shall we have, did we say? We have it already. There is freedom of speech in Washington, but it is only for the champions of slavery. There is freedom of the press, but only of the press which extenuates or defends political wrongs. Twice already the South, failed in the arguments of reason, has resorted to the argument of folly. Driven from every position, constantly refuted in its reasoning, met and repulsed when it has resorted to invective, by an invective more vigorous than its own, at first astonished and then crazed by the changing and bolder tone of Northern man, the South has taken to expedients with which long use has made it familiar, and in which years of daily practice have given it a nefarious skill. Thank God, we know little of these resources in New England! We have our differences, but they are differences controlled by decency. We have our controversies, but we do not permit their warmth to betray us into brutality; we do not think it necessary to shoot, to slash, or to stun the man with whom we may differ upon political points. The controversial ethics of the South are of another character, and they find their most repulsive illustration in the event of Thursday.

The barbarian who assaulted Mr. Sumner, and who sought in the head of his bludgeon for an argument which he could not find in his own, complained that South Carolina have been insulted by the Senator from Massachusetts, and that his venerable uncle had been spoken of in disrespectful terms! If every State, the public policy of which is assailed in the Senate, had been entitled to send to Washington a physical champion, we should long ago have despatched thither our brauniest athlete. If every nephew, whose uncle provokes criticism by public acts, is to rush into the Senate, the champion of his kinsman, we shall have a nepotism established quite unauthorized by the Constitution! The South complains of hard words, of plain speech, of licentious language! Have its members then been accustomed to bridle their tongues, to control their tempers, to moderate their ire, to abstain from personalities? What indeed have we had from that quarter, save one long stream of vituperation, one endless rain of fish-wife rhetoric, one continuous blast of feverish denunciation and passionate threat? Let the world judge between us. We have borne and forborne. We have been patient until patience has become ignominious. There are wrongs which no man of spirit will suffer tamely; there are topics which it is impossible to discuss with coldness; there are injuries which must lend fire to language, and arouse the temper of the most stolid. Mr. Sumner's speech is before the country and it is for the country to decide whether it does or does not justify the violence with which it has been met. Our Senator comments freely upon the character of the Kansas bill, upon the apologies which have been made for it, in Congress, upon the readiness of the Administration to promote the schemes of its supporters, upon the unparalleled injuries which have been inflicted upon the unfortunate people of Kansas. Others have spoken upon the same topics with equal plainness, although not perhaps with equal ability. Mr. Sumner is singularly well sustain in all his positions, in his opinions of the bill, and in his estimate of Douglas and Butler, by the mind and heart, not only of his constituents, but of the whole North. The time had come for plain and unmistakable language, and it has been uttered. There are those who profess to believe that Northern rhetoric should always be emasculated, and that Northern members should always take care to speak humbly and with "bated breath." They complain with nervous fastidiousness that Mr. Sumner was provoking. So were Mr. Burke and Mr. Sheridan, when in immoderate language they exposed the wrongs of India and the crimes of Hastings; so was Patrick Henry, when he plead against the parsons; so was Tristram Burges, when he silenced Randolph of Roanoke; so was Mr. Webster, when, in the most remarkable oration of modern times, he launched the lightning of his overwhelming invective, while every fibre of his great frame was full of indignation and reproach. Smooth speeches will answer for smooth times; but there is a species of oratory, classic since the days of Demosthenes, employed without a scruple upon fit occasions, in all deliberative assemblies, perfectly well recognized, and sometimes absolutely necessary. Who will say that Kansas, and Atchison, and Douglas together, were not enough to inspire and justify a new Philippic?

But we care not what Mr. Sumner said, nor in what behalf he was pleading. We know him only as the Senator of Massachusetts; we remember only that the commonwealth has been outraged. Had the Senator of any other State been subjected to a like indignity, we might have found words in which to express our abhorrence of the crime; but now we can only say, that every constituent of Mr. Sumner ought to feel that the injury is his own, and that it is for him to expect redress. A high-minded Senate, would vindicate its trampled dignity; a respectable House of Representatives would drive the wrong-doer from its benches; in a society unpolluted by barbarism, the assaulter of an unarmed man, would find himself the object of general contempt. We can hardly hope that such a retribution will visit the offender; but Massachusetts, in other and better times, would have had a right confidently to anticipate the expulsion of Preston Brooks from the house of Representatives. We leave it to others to decide how far it may be fit and proper for her officially to express her sense of this indignity. For our own part, we think she can rely upon the generosity and the justice of her sister states, that an outrage so indefensible will meet with a fitting rebuke from the people, if not from the representatives of the people. And if in this age of civilization, brute force is to control the government of the country, striking down our senators, silencing debate, and leaving us only the name of Freedom, there are remedies with which Massachusetts has found it necessary to meet similar exigencies in the past, which she will not hesitate to employ in the future.


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