Violence Over Slavery on the Floor of the US Senate





In the mid-1850s, the United States was being torn apart over the issue of slavery. The abolitionist movement was becoming increasingly vocal, and enormous controversy focused on whether new states admitted to the Union would allow slavery.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 established the idea that residents of states could decide for themselves the issue of slavery, and that led to violent encounters in Kansas beginning in 1855.

While blood was being spilled in Kansas, another violent attack shocked the nation, especially as it took place on the floor of the United States Senate.

Senator Charles Sumner Delivers a Fiery Senate Speech Denouncing Slavery

On May 19, 1856, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, a prominent voice in the anti-slavery movement, delivered an impassioned speech denouncing the compromises that helped perpetuate slavery and led to the current confrontations in Kansas. Sumner began by denouncing the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the concept of popular sovereignty, in which residents of new states could decide whether to make slavery legal.

Continuing his speech the next day, Sumner, singled out three men in particular: Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, a major proponent of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Senator James Mason of Virginia, and Senator Andrew Pickens Butler of South Carolina.

Butler, who had recently been incapacitated by a stroke and was recuperating in South Carolina, was held to particular ridicule by Sumner. Sumner said that Butler had taken as his mistress “the harlot, slavery.” Sumner also referred to the South as an immoral place for allowing slavery, and he mocked South Carolina.

Listening from the back of the Senate chamber, Stephen Douglas reportedly said, “that damned fool will get himself killed by some other damned fool.”

Sumner’s impassioned case for a free Kansas was met with approval by northern newspapers, but many in Washington criticized the bitter and mocking tone of his speech...

... Charles Sumner took three years to recover from the beating. During that time, his Senate desk sat empty, a symbol of the acrimonious split in the nation. After returning to his Senate duties Sumner continued his anti-slavery activities. In 1860, he delivered another fiery Senate speech, titled “The Barbarism of Slavery.” He was again criticized and threatened, but no one resorted to a physical attack on him. Sumner continued his work in the Senate and died in 1874.

While the attack on Sumner in May 1856 was shocking, much more violence was to come. In 1859 John Brown, who had gained a bloody reputation in Kansas, would attack the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry. And of course, the issue of slavery would only be settled by a very costly Civil War.



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