This week I began to channel my research in the direction of looking at specific events in the chaotic period of politics in the 1850s. To that end, my focus this week was on the caning of Charles Sumner. My research included work with a new secondary source, David M. Potter’s The Impending Crisis, which provided historical background and context for the incident, as well as continued work with the previously-referenced text Fanatics and Fire-Eaters: Newspapers and the Coming of the Civil War, which offered some commentary on how this event was covered in the newspapers across the country. Beyond these secondary sources, I also dove into the New York Times Historical database to find some primary source examples of the newspaper coverage of the Brooks-Sumner incident. This search did yield some interesting results, which included two articles published on the same day in the New York Daily Times, each of which voiced an opposing view on the event.
Potter’s description of the event includes important background about Sumner’s speech. He describes his speech—“The Crime Against Kansas—as a “the most abusive of [his] somewhat theatrical productions.” (p. 210) What is most significant in leading up to the subsequent caning is Sumner’s characterization of South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler as a “Don Quixote” who had chosen “the harlot, slavery” as his mistress. It was this characterization that Brooks saw as inflammatory and to which he felt the need to respond. As Potter also points out, his response was driven by what he felt as an “obligation of the southern code to retaliate for an insult to his elderly kinsman.” (p. 210) These main points that Potter highlights are important to keep in mind as one goes on to consider how this event was reported in the newspapers.
Ratner and Teeter succinctly summarize in Fanatics and Fire-Eaters how the incident was interpreted and reported by newspapers representing different viewpoints. To some, Sumner was characterized as “a tough, manly, and heroic victim of a cowardly attacker,” while those papers in Brooks’s corner portrayed Sumner as “the cowardly receiver of a much-deserved thrashing.” (p. 48) These opposing portrayals are clearly illustrated in the primary source examples that I posted this week. In the May 26, 1856 edition of the New York Daily Times, one article titled “The Apologists for Brutality” clearly threw its support behind Sumner, attempting to cast the remarks in his speech not as attacks on anyone’s character, but rather as his critiques on other senators’ political choices. As the article implied, the language in his speech was thus justified:
“He criticized sharply and severely the political action and the political speeches of Senators—and this he had a perfect right to do.” And the article does not stop there, but instead goes on to single out other Northern newspapers (like the Boston Post or the Boston Courier) who, in their eyes, were not going far enough to condemn the acts of Preston Brooks.
Interestingly enough, however, the New York Daily Times also published an article taken from the Richmond Whig (whose name clearly states its political alliances.) This article, which the Times headed “What the South Thinks of the Washington Brutality,” portrayed the actions in a very different light, describing what Brooks did as “a good deed” directed at Sumner, who they described as “the notorious and foul-mouthed Abolitionist from Massachusetts.” The only faults that they found with Brooks’s actions were that he used a cane and not “a horsewhip or a cowhide.” As these examples go to show, the line between reporting and editorializing was very much blurred in these pre-war newspapers.