Academic journal article Texas Law Review

Personal Conflict, Sectional Reaction: The Role of Free Speech in the Caning of Charles Sumner*

Academic journal article Texas Law Review

Personal Conflict, Sectional Reaction: The Role of Free Speech in the Caning of Charles Sumner*

Article excerpt

I. Introduction1

On May 22, 1856, Congressman Preston Brooks entered the Senate Chambers with the intention of unleashing a revengeful caning upon the abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner. Brooks was angry with Sumner for his six-hour diatribe in which he berated Brooks's uncle, Andrew P. Butler, a South Carolina Senator.2 Brooks's intention was to punish Sumner for disrespecting his elderly uncle.3 However, the results of Brooks's caning reached far beyond the personal injuries sustained by Sumner. Preston Brooks's caning of Charles Sumner sparked a variety of reactions in the different political and geographic sections of America. Issues of free speech and the rights of parliamentary debate were pervasive throughout these varying reactions. The varying free speech views expressed in reaction to the affair created great sectional significance in this otherwise personal conflict. Most importantly, the existence of an apparent violation of the right of free speech imparted upon a great many Northerners the idea that slavery was no longer just a problem for slaves and a morally regrettable institution. The Caning of Sumner- - which was no less than a violent suppression of antislavery speech - suggested that slavery was a threat to Northern civil rights. Realizing the potential for political gain, abolitionists and Republicans readily nurtured this Northern sentiment.

Construing specific acts of Southern hostility toward abolitionism as Southern attacks on the civil rights of Northerners had been a tactic of abolitionists since the mid- 1830s. Although there was little support for abolitionists in the early to mid- 1800s, many Americans had great reverence for freedom of speech.4 Thus, concrete examples of how slavery threatened the free speech rights of white people had a much greater impact on Northerners than abolitionist arguments about the immorality of slavery in the South.

Prior to the Sumner-Brooks affair, the suppression of abolitionist mailings, the Congressional Gag Rule, the murder of Reverend Lovejoy, and suppression of antislavery speech in the Kansas Territory served as concrete examples of slavery's threat to Northern rights. Although there is sufficient legal scholarship addressing these instances of suppression, Preston Brooks's caning of Charles Sumner has not been thoroughly addressed as an act of speech suppression. Numerous law review articles have referenced the incident between Sumner and Brooks - and some have even asserted the important role of free speech in the public's response - but none have addressed the free speech issues raised by the event in any detail.5 The existing scholarship that best addresses this topic is William E. Gienapp's The Crime Against Sumner: The Caning of Charles Sumner and the Rise of the Republican Party.6 In his article, which addresses the Republican reaction in general, Gienapp concludes that Brooks's attack on Sumner directly contributed to the increase in the Republican Party's membership.7 In his analysis, Gienapp identifies free speech issues as a major factor in this increase.8 However, despite identifying free speech issues as a major factor in the rise of the Republican Party, the more general scope of Gienapp's analysisNorthern reaction to Brooks's attack and the rise of the Republican Party - did not permit him to exhaustively examine or thoroughly support his free speech assertions.

Through the examination of newspapers, speeches, letters, accounts of town hall meetings, and the congressional record, this Note investigates in detail the role of freedom of speech in the reactions of Southern Democrats, Northern Democrats, and Northern Republicans to Preston Brooks's caning of Charles Sumner.9 This investigation determines that the presence of free speech issues intensified a preexisting debate over Southern suppression of Northern rights and contributed to the division of the Democratic Party and the rise of the Republican Party. In addition to investigating the role of free speech in the political consequences of this important historical event, this Note uses the role of free speech in the Sumner-Brooks affair to illustrate antebellum10 conceptions concerning the scope of freedom of speech. …

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