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1851-1877

May 19, 1856
"The Crime Against Kansas"

[Charles Sumner]

On May 19, 1856, the temperature reached 90 degrees in the Old Senate Chamber, which was packed beyond reasonable capacity. At 1 p.m. Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner rose to speak. It had taken him two months to schedule floor time. The crusading antislavery Republican intended to address the explosive issue of whether Kansas should be admitted to the Union as a slave state or a free state.

The six-foot, two-inch, 185-pound, broad-chested, bombastic, 45-year-old freshman senator cut quite a figure. At a time when most senators dressed in black frock coats, Sumner wore light-colored English tweed coats and lavender trousers.

He carefully wrote every word of the address in longhand and arranged for an advance printed edition—112 pages long. By the time he entered the Chamber on May 19, he had memorized every word of the address he entitled "The Crime Against Kansas."

Adopting the manner of a classical scholar lecturing slow-witted children, Sumner spoke for five hours over two days. He singled out two Democratic senators as principal culprits in this crime that supporters of slavery had perpetrated against Kansas and the nation's democratic institutions.

First, there was Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. Sumner, a member of the newly emerging Republican Party, privately considered this leader of the Senate's Democrats a "brutal, vulgar man without delicacy or scholarship [who] looks as if he needs clean linen and should be put under a shower bath." Turning to Douglas, Sumner described him as a "noise-some, squat, and nameless animal . . . not a proper model for an American senator."

Then Sumner focused on Andrew Butler, one of the few senators not present that day. Mocking the South Carolina senator's stance as a man of chivalry, the Massachusetts senator charged him with taking "a mistress . . . 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," added Sumner, "the harlot, Slavery."

Two days later, minutes after the Senate had adjourned for the day and as Sumner sat at his desk signing his postal frank to envelopes containing the printed speech, a South Carolina House member related to Senator Butler entered the Chamber with a heavy cane. The resulting beating galvanized the nation and hastened civil war.

 
  


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