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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Side Note--
What Sumner Wrote About Stephen Douglas

Sen. Charles Sumner
In 1874, Elias Nason published a biography of Charles Sumner, an anti-slavery senator from Massachusetts.  Sumner is often remembered for the episode in which he was brutally attacked and beaten in the Senate chamber, in May 1856, by Preston Brooks, a South Carolinian.  Brooks was outraged at the inflammatory and insulting speech that Sumner had given in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act--a speech which derided South Carolinian slave masters and Senator Andrew Butler of the same state.  Brooks, being Butler's nephew, sought revenge by nearly bludgeoning Sumner to death after pinning him down at his desk in the senate chamber.  John Brown considered Sumner a martyr, visited the recuperating senator in 1857, and reverently examined his blood-stained coat.  Contrary to hackneyed historical narratives, the Sumner beating had nothing to do with Brown's actions in the Pottawatomie killings of May 1856.

Stephen Douglas,
The Little Stinker
In preparation for his Sumner bio, Nason requested information from James Redpath who--among many other things--was Brown's authorized biographer and a leading antebellum journalist and author in the service of the antislavery cause.  Redpath wrote a letter to Nason on April 10, 1874, now in the Stutler Collection, which included a brief description of one of the slave masters' greatest political champions, Stephen A. Douglas.  Douglas, the so-called "Little Giant" is famously remembered as Abraham Lincoln's political nemesis.  But Douglas was more so the nemesis of enslaved black people, just as he was the author of legislation that both pacified and strengthened slave masters.  Most notably, Douglas was the mastermind behind the Compromise of 1850, which unleashed a ruthless revision of older slave "rendition" legislation--the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.  The Fugitive Slave Law reduced the entire nation to slave territory in effect by giving the Slave Power the right to pursue, arrest, and return fugitives, and by granting greater incentives to judges to rule in favor of slave masters.  Douglas also supported the racist Dred Scott Decision of the Supreme Court in 1857, which infamously declared that blacks had no rights that whites were bound to respect, and which negated any claim to freedom on the part of slaves relocated to free states with their masters.  Of course, these developments further galvanized the abolition movement, adding to its numbers, and leading people like John Brown to the realization that only political violence could end such a deeply entrenched and empowered "institution" like chattel slavery.

On the personal side, Sumner's brief description of Douglas (relayed by Redpath) is interesting, if not amusing:
Of Stephen A Douglass, (then a very great man in then popular estimation,) [Sumner] said: "Douglass, in private life is a brutal vulgar man without delicacy or scholarship; he is filthy in his person; he always looks as if he needed clean linen & sh[oul]d be put under a shower bath.
 So, not only did the politics of the "Little Giant" stink.  He stunk too.

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