Something dramatic and historic happened on this day in 1856, but a foundation must be laid in order to understand and explain it’s uiltimate meaning.
The bitter conflict that existed between North and South from about 1808 up until the Battle of Fort Sumter (April 12-14, 1861) is the context in which it occurred. Some believe that there was agreement on slavery until the outbreak of the Civil War. I’ve encountered some who profess that the real cause of the Civil War was over a miriad of issues having little to do with slavery. This latter assumption is based upon the false notion that slavery was no longer economically profitable for the ante-bellum South and was already beginning to die out on its own. This belief is quite misplaced and 20th Century research has shown that slavery was in fact more profitable than ever. That’s why the South fought to keep it.
The conflict over slavery had existed before 1808 but it was on that date that it heated up and continued to burn hot right up to the Civil War. In Article 1, Section 9, of the Constitution ratified June 21, 1788 Congress is expressly prohibited from making any law against the Importation of slaves before 1808. The slave trade was a separate issue and some who supported slavery abhorred the slave trade. Without this compromise on the slave trade the Constitution would not have been ratified by the Southern Colonies. Congress followed up and in 1807 outlawed the slave trade effective on January 1, 1808, the earliest date possible under the Constitution.
The British Parliament outlawed the slave trade in 1807, making it a felony and charging the British Navy with enforcing it on the high seas.
Just as gun control laws today do not prevent criminals from getting guns, the Slave Trade Act of 1808 did not stop the South from importing African slaves. The operations were simply made to go underground. The Act did slow down the trade and did reduce the number of new slaves coming into the country than otherwise would, it being a little harder to traffic in human beings than inanimate objects such as firearms.
After 1808 the slavery conflict did nothing but intensify up to the Civil War. There was perhaps a brief interlude for the war of 1812, and during the so-called “Era of good feelings” roughly during the presidency of James Monroe (1818-1825). The central issue was whether new states would be admitted to the Union as slave states or free states. The slaveholding South realized that if new states were admitted as free states the balance of power in Congress (particularly in the Senate) would shift to free states.
The stage had been set for the struggle over whether new states would be admitted as free or slave by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The purpose of the NWO was to establish the Northwest Territory consisting of the lands beyond the Appalachian Mountains, South of the Great Lakes, North of the Ohio River, with the Mississippi River as the Western boundary. The NWO provided that the territory would be settled by the admission of new states rather than the expansion of existing states. The NWO also prohibited slavery in the new territory. In effect, the Ohio River became the boundary between slave and free territory in the region.
A series of compromises beginning with the Missouri Compromise of 1820 probably staved off the eventual civil war, but at the same time the controversy raged on. The Missouri Compromise established parallel 36°30′ North as the line dividing slave and free states in the territory West of the Mississippi River. All new states from this region were to be admitted as free states with the exception of Missouri, which would be admitted as a slave state.
Next followed Kentucky Senator Henry Clay’s Compromise of 1850. Clay drafted the compromise to defuse the argument over whether lands acquired from Mexico in the war of 1848 would be slave or free. Clay’s original proposal was that all this terrority would be free and not slave. Southern Senators erupted and the compromise reached allowed Stephen A. Douglas’s “Popular Sovereignty” doctrine to prevail in Utah territory and New Mexico territory, meaning slavery could exist if the voters in the those territories wanted it. They didn’t.
Stephen Douglas was the father of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 allowing people in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to decide for themselves (“popular sovereignty”) whether or not to allow slavery within their borders. The Act served to repeal the Missouri Compromise of 1820 which prohibited slavery north of latitude 36°30’. This led to Bleeding Kansas or the Border War, a series of violent political confrontations involving anti-slavery “Free-Staters” and pro-slavery “Border Ruffians.” It lasted from 1854-1861 to the Battle of Ft. Sumpter and the Civil War.
Well, all that was to set the stage and provide background for what happened on this day in 1856. Lawyers are generally not allowed to ask questions that seem to come out of the blue and, without foundation, may seem to have no relevance to any issue in the case. Thus, a preceding foundation needed to be laid before I suggest the importance of what happened on this day in 1856.
The cane beating of Massuchusetts Senator Charles Sumner by South Carolina Senator Preston Brooks on this day on May 22 of 1856 was a seminal event in the decades-long bitter disagreement between North and South over slavery. Sumner had given a speech 2 days before denoucing the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, calling it a crime against Kansas and a victory for Slave Power. He attacked the authors of the K-N Act, Senators Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina. The attack was personal:
The senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight with sentiments of honor and courage. Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean the harlot, slavery. For her his tongue is always profuse in words. Let her be impeached in character, or any proposition made to shut her out from the extension of her wantonness, and no extravagance of manner or hardihood of assertion is then too great for this senator.
Sumner took particular aim at Butler:
He touches nothing which he does not disfigure with error, sometimes of principle, sometimes of fact. He cannot open his mouth, but out there flies a blunder.
Two days later Senator Preston Brooks of South Carolina entered the Senate chamber carrying a walking cane with which he commenced striking Sumner from behind as Sumner sat in his seat. The beating wounded Sumner quite serioiusly, nearly killing him. He took months to recuperate. The American public was highly polarized on the expansion of slavery and this breakdown of reasoned discourse was a factor leading to the Civil War. In some ways it may be compared to the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914.