Since the earliest days of the Republic, those supporting strong federal government found themselves opposed by those favoring greater self-determination by the states. In the southern regions, climate conditions led to dependence on agriculture, the rural economies of the south producing cotton, rice, sugar, indigo and tobacco. Colder states to the north tended to develop manufacturing economies, urban centers growing up in service to hubs of transportation and the production of manufactured goods.
In the first half of the 19th century, 90% of federal government revenue came from tariffs on foreign manufactured goods. A lion’s share of this revenue was collected in the south, with the region’s greater dependence on imported goods. Much of this federal largesse was spent in the north, with the construction of railroads, canals and other infrastructure.
The debate over economic issues and rights of self-determination, so-called ‘state’s rights’, grew and sharpened with the “nullification crisis” of 1832-33, when South Carolina declared such tariffs to be unconstitutional and therefore null and void within the state. A cartoon from the time depicted “Northern domestic manufacturers getting fat at the expense of impoverishing the South under protective tariffs.”
Chattel slavery pre-existed the earliest days of the colonial era, from Canada to Brazil and around the world. Moral objections to what was really a repugnant institution could be found throughout, but economic forces had as much to do with ending the practice, as any other. The “peculiar institution” died out first in the colder regions of the US and may have done so in warmer climes as well, but for Eli Whitney’s invention of a cotton engine (‘gin’) in 1794.
It takes ten man-hours to remove the seeds to produce a single pound of cotton. By comparison, a cotton gin can process about a thousand pounds a day, at comparatively little expense.
The year of Whitney’s invention, the South exported 138,000 pounds a year to Europe and the northern states. Sixty years later, Great Britain alone was importing 600 million pounds a year from the southern states. Cotton was King, and with good reason. The stuff is easily grown, highly transportable, and can be stored indefinitely, compared with food crops. The southern economy turned overwhelmingly to the one crop, and its need for plentiful, cheap labor.
The issue of slavery had joined and become so intertwined with ideas of self-determination, as to be indistinguishable.
The first half of the 19th century was one of westward expansion, generating frequent and sharp conflicts between pro and anti-slavery factions. The Missouri compromise of 1820 attempted to reconcile the sides, defining which territories would legalize slavery, and which would be “free”.
The short-lived “Wilmot Proviso” of 1846 sought to ban slavery in new territories, after which the Compromise of 1850 attempted to strike a balance. The Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854 created two new territories, essentially repealing the Missouri Compromise and allowing settlers to determine their own direction.
This attempt to democratize the issue had the effect of drawing up battle lines. Pro-slavery forces established a territorial capital in Lecompton, while “antis” set up an alternative government in Topeka.
In Washington, Republicans backed the anti-slavery side, while most Democrats supported their opponents. On May 20, 1856, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner took to the floor of the Senate and denounced the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Never known for verbal restraint, Sumner attacked the measure’s sponsors Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois (he of the later Lincoln-Douglas debates), and Andrew Butler of South Carolina by name, accusing the pair of “consorting with the harlot, slavery”. Douglas was in the audience at the time and quipped “this damn fool Sumner is going to get himself shot by some other damn fool”.
In the territories, the standoff had long since escalated to violence. Upwards of a hundred or more were killed between 1854 – 1861, in a period known as “Bleeding Kansas”.
The town of Lawrence was established by anti-slavery settlers in 1854, and soon became the focal point of pro-slavery violence. Emotions were at a boiling point when Douglas County Sheriff Samuel Jones was shot trying to arrest free-state settlers on April 23, 1856. Jones was driven out of town but he would return.
The day after Sumner’s speech, a posse of 800 pro-slavery forces converged on Lawrence Kansas, led by Sheriff Jones. The town was surrounded to prevent escape and much of it burned to the ground. This time there was only one fatality; a slavery proponent who was killed by falling masonry. Seven years later, Confederate guerrilla Robert Clarke Quantrill carried out the second sack of Lawrence. This time, most of the men and boys of the town were murdered where they stood, with little chance to defend themselves.
Meanwhile, Preston Brooks, Senator Butler’s nephew and a Member of Congress from South Carolina, had read over Sumner’s speech of the day before. Brooks was an inflexible proponent of slavery and took mortal insult from Sumner’s words.
Preston Brooks (left), Charles Sumner, (right)
Brooks was furious and wanted to challenge the Senator to a duel. He discussed it with fellow South Carolina Representative Laurence Keitt, who explained that dueling was for gentlemen of equal social standing. Sumner was no gentleman, he said. No better than a drunkard.
Brooks had been shot in a duel years before, and walked with a heavy cane. Resolved to publicly thrash the Senator from Massachusetts, the Congressman entered the Senate building on May 22, in the company of Congressman Keitt and Virginia Representative Henry A. Edmundson.
The trio approached Sumner, who was sitting at his desk writing letters. “Mr. Sumner”, Brooks said, “I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.”
Sumner’s desk was bolted to the floor. He never had a chance. The Senator began to rise when Brooks brought the cane down on his head. Over and over the cane crashed down, while Keitt brandished a pistol, warning onlookers to “let them be”. Blinded by his own blood, Sumner tore the desk from the floor in his struggle to escape, losing consciousness as he tried to crawl away. Brooks rained down blows the entire time, even after the body lay motionless, until finally, the cane broke apart.
In the next two days, a group of unarmed men will be hacked to pieces by anti-slavery radicals, on the banks of Pottawatomie Creek.
The 80-year-old nation forged inexorably onward, to a Civil War which would kill more Americans than every war from the American Revolution to the War on Terror, combined.
3 thoughts on “May 22, 1856 State’s Rights”
That story about Sumner never ceases to shock me no matter how many times I read it.
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Our politics are currently divided in a way that I have not seen in my days, and I will be 60 this summer. I often wonder how the current mood compares with that of the 1850s.
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Disturbingly similar, from what I’ve read 😦 Here’s hoping it doesn’t come to more beatings on the senate floor or elsewhere… 😦
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