Monday, March 12, 2012

Middleborough Responds to the Attack upon Senator Sumner, 1856

On May 22, 1856, Representative Preston S. Brooks of South Carolina brutally assaulted Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner in the Senate chamber. Prompted by a recent anti-slavery speech by Sumner which was harshly critical of the South, Brooks mercilessly beat Sumner into unconsciousness with a gutta percha cane. The shocking brutality of the action further polarized the nation which at the time was riven by the controversy over whether to admit Kansas as a free or slave state, as well as the overall debate on slavery which was becoming increasingly violent.  While lauded as a hero in the South, Brooks was villified in the North. 

In Middleborough, the attack upon Sumner was roundly condemned. Both the Young Men's Literary Union (Y. M. L. U.) and the Philomathean Society passed resolutions concerning the assault and slavery in general.  The Y. M. L. U. "Resolved, That the recent and cowardly assault upon our beloved Senator, at Washington, reflects lasting infamy upon the country, its institutions and people."  It passed a further resolution that "American Slavery totally violates every law of the United States enacted for the peace and prosperity of the Union, is the quintessence of all abuse, and that those who uphold and sanction it are guilty of the blackest treason."

Less literary minded individuals hung Brooks in effigy on School Street, an action which prompted the following letter to the Namasket Gazette:

MR. EDITOR: - Passing up School street last Tuesday morning, I saw suspended from the branch of one of the trees in the Grove, an image in a complete suit of clothes, which a group of "Young Americans" were stoning with great zeal. On inquiring, I ascertained that this was an effigy of Preston S. Brooks, and certainly it looked mean enough to personify the late outrage committed by that dastard. About noon, as I repassed the same spot, a lad flung a stone with such violence as to break the rope, and it had scarcely touched the ground before many "violent hands" were laid upon it, and ere long it was reduced to ashes.

If this treatment of the effigy denoted disapprobation of the conduct of the Slave Power, as exhibited in the assault by Brooks, I have no objection to make to it. But I am doubtful as to the propriety of such demonstrations in reference to individuals. Please solve these doubts, and oblige.


The unknown writer, in fact, was not to be obliged. Editor Stillman Pratt who was also a minister and who was not surprsingly anti-slavery himself, responded that the burning of the School Street effigy was hardly improper when compared to the attack upon Sumner, and was but a weak response to a graver issue.

We do not think that pelting and burning an effigy is so barbarous as the beating of a real live man and still we think there are more effective modes of rebuking sin.

The trouble is that this mode of expressing disapprobation places the wrong doer on an equality with the virtuous.  It is just as easy to hang the effigy of Sumner as that of Brooks.  A change of label on the one alluded to above would make it tell in the opposite direction.

The reason why the bludgeon was applied to the head of our Senator, was because the truths uttered were extremely cutting, and the argument was at the same time unanswerable.  It is hoped that the Slave Oligarchy will be rebuked more effectually for making chattels of God's image, and the beating of men for insisting on "the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," than can be done by hanging, pelting and burning bags of straw.

"Southern Chivalry", lithograph, John L. Magee, 1856.
Magee's lithograph depicting Brooks' attack upon Senator Sumner was widely circulated and created an indelible impression in the north where the assault was widely condemned.

Senator Charles Sumner (1811-74) of Massachusetts, photograph, c. 1860.

Namasket Gazette, May and June, 1856


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