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THE CRIME AGAINST SUMNER: The Caning of Charles Sumner and the Rise of the Republican Party William E. Gienapp When the Republican party elected its first President, Abraham Lincoln, in 1860, only six years had elapsed since its formation, and only four years since the creation of its national organization. Despite this remarkable achievement, theparty had a precarious early existence, and emerged as the principal opposition to the Democrats only after a severe and difficult struggle with the rival American or Know Nothing party. It certainly was anything but clear initially that the Republicans would become a permanent fixture in the two party system. In fact, the 1855 state elections were a serious setback for the fledgling party. With only one year remaining until the 1856 presidential election, the Know Nothings were the Democrats' most formidable opponent. Indeed, in several Northern states the Know Nothings were so strong the Republican party did not even exist.1 In late November 1855, as he surveyed the political disorder of the previous two years, former New York Governor Washington Hunt expressed strong doubts about the permanence of the Republican party. He remained hopeful that the Whig party could be revived. Still, he admitted that he was uneasy. With an eye to the convening of a new Congress, now less than two weeks away, he predicted that the Republicans, hoping for new outrages in Kansas and in Washington to bolster their party's sagging fortunes, would try to provoke Southerners with insults and bravado. "We must be prepared for high words and stormy scenes," he warned, "but we will hope that there will be sense I wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Mabelle McLeod Lewis Memorial Fund, Stanford, California. 1 Historians are beginning to recognize the importance of the Know Nothings in the politics of the 1850's. See Michael F. Holt, "The Politics of Impatience: The Origins of Know Nothingism," Journal of American History, LX (Sept., 1973), 309-31. In 1855 the Republican party did not exist in New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, NewJersey , Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and California. Civil War History, Vol. XXV, No. 3 Copyright © 1979 by The Kent State University Press 0009-8078/79/2503-0002 $01.40/0 CHARLES SUMNER219 and moderation enough to prevent any desperate deeds, or anyviolent action in Congress."2 Hunt's fears were as well taken as his optimism misplaced. The most dramatic event of the session was the caning of Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts by Representative Preston S. Brooks of South Carolina. This wasprecisely thekind ofevent Hunthad feared: it inflamed popular emotions in both the North and the South, intensified sectional animosity, and destroyed the cherished hopes of men such as himself for the preservation of a national conservative party. Most historians, in seeking to explain the rise of theRepublicanparty, have emphasized, sometimes almost without qualification, the Kansas issue. There is no doubt that the repealoftheMissouriCompromiseand the ensuing troubles in the Kansas Territory were critical to the party's increasing strength. Nevertheless, if this issue were primarily responsible for the party's growth, one must ask why, despite the persistence of the Kansas crisis and the vigorous efforts of Republicans to capitalizeon it, the party had remained so weak. Why did the party's spectacular growth occur in the late spring and summer of 1856, and not earlier?3 This is a complex question, but one reason that has not received the emphasis it deserves is Brooks' attack on Sumner. When Congress convened in December, 1855, observers quickly noticed an intensified animosity between antislavery men and Southerners.4 The continuing troubles in Kansas, where free-state men had established their own government in opposition to the recognized territorial authorities, greatly contributed to this hardening of feeling. "We have before us a long session of excitement, & ribald debate," Sumner commented when debate over Kansas opened in the Senate.5 A staunch antislavery man, Sumner immediately began preparing to speak on affairs in Kansas. On May 19 and 20, 1856 he delivered a carefully rehearsed speech on "The Crime Against Kansas," in which he severely lashed the Administration, the South, and the proslavery men inKansas. The Republican leader also made scathing personal...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 218-245
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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