Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Life of Charles Sumner: The Scholar in Politics / Archibald H. Grimke -- NY: Funk and Wagnalls, 1892.

Charles Sumner is probably best known as the Senator who was bludgeoned on the Senate floor by Rep. Preston S. Brooks in 1856. The attack followed Sumner's speech, "Crime against Kansas," in which Sumner criticized assaults on free soil settlers by proponents of slavery. In the course of the speech, Sumner attacked South Carolina and its senator, Arthur P. Butler. This prompted Brooks, a relative of Butler and also from South Carolina, to attack Sumner unawares, beating him with a heavy walking stick until Sumner was unconscious. The attack was a landmark event in the years preceding the Civil War and spurred Northern hostility toward the South and slavery.

But Sumner's career is memorable for more than his victimization. Grimke's biography of Sumner, in the style of the times, is a glowing account of the Senator's career. Sumner is described as the most vocal and effective political opponant of "the Slave Power," comparable to William Lloyd Garrison's effectiveness as a moral critic of slavery. Nonetheless, Grimke rightly makes the bludgeoning of Sumner the climax of the biography.

Sumner is portrayed as a reluctant politician, who is drawn to office by his passion to end slavery. His contribution to Abolition is well recorded in the biography. I was, however, left wondering if Sumner was ever occupied with other issues than what brought him to be a leader of the Massachusettes's "Consceince Whigs." Grimke does indicate that Sumner was an early proponent of women's sufferage, but he says little about Sumner's attitudes toward economic questions that were significant prior to the War. Sumner's Whig background and close relationship to Joseph Story would indicate that he was no friend of the Northern working class, but instead an aristocratic Massachusettes politician, defending the intersts of the incipient power of corporations. However, Grimke does point out that Sumner was not sympathetic to the Whig position on banking and tarrifs. Furthermore, Sumner's undogmatic relationship to the Whigs made him acceptable to the faction of Democratic Party that joined the Free Soil Party.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Grimke's work is his descriptions of the potential for violence that lay just below the surface in the halls of Congress. Besides a detailed description of the attack on Sumner, Grimke quotes a paragraph from Henry Wilson's History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America illustrating the climate in Congress. According to Wilson, in 1845, during an anti-slavery speech by Rep. Joshua R. Giddings of Ohio, Rep. E.J. Black of Georgia, "approaching Mr. Giddings with an uplifted cane, said: 'If you repeat those words I will knock you down.' The latter repeating them, the former was seized by his friends and borne from the hall. Mr. Dawson, of Louisiana, who on a previous occasion had attempted to assault him, approching him, and, cocking his pistol, profanely exclaimed: 'I'll shoot him; by G-d I'll shoot him!' At the same moment, Mr. Causin, of Maryland, placed himself in front of Mr. Dawson, with his right hand upon his weapon concealed in his bosom. At this juncture, four members from the Democratic side took their position by the side of the member from Louisiana, each man putting his hand in his pocket and apparently grasping his weapon. At the same moment Mr. Raynor, of North Carolina, Mr. Hudson, of Massachusetts, and Mr. Foot, of Vermont, came to Mr. Gidding's rescue, who, thus confronted and thus supported, continued his speech. Dawson stood fronting him till its close, and Causin remained facing the latter until he returned to the Democratic side." A near gun battle on the floor of the House of Representatives puts our present "partisanship" in perspective.

In all, Grmike's Sumner is a wise and selfless paragon of justice, but such sympathy for the subject of a biography is typical of 19th century writing. Grimke's portrait of Sumner is engaging and entertaining, but should be augmented by more recent critical scholarship.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review! I especially like the idea of bringing back violence to the House floor. It would give "reaching across the aisle" a whole new meaning.