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Document Type

Feature Article

Publication Date

Spring 5-1-2012

Publication Title

Washington University Undergraduate Research Digest: WUURD 7(2)


Peer Editor: Sarah Cohen; Faculty Mentor: Ivan Bernstein

On May 22, 1856, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks assaulted Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner in response to a speech that Sumner delivered that not only insulted the South and slavery, but also slighted Brooks’ uncle, Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina. Although the caning took place in Washington, far away from the conflicts of “Bleeding Kansas,” Northerners saw the two events as connected. The caning provoked an angry response in the North that was unparalleled by any antebellum event up until that point. The Sumner caning indeed was not any ordinary event because it inspired an “awakening” of democracy that had religious undertones that yielded to secular democratic nationalism. To explain this awakening, this study uses newspapers, letters written to Sumner, and the correspondence of notable abolitionists. Explaining the popular mobilization in the North in the aftermath of the caning is central to understanding assumptions about slavery, violence, sexuality, and ideas of republicanism that are not well understood. These themes are crucial to grasping the processes that led to the Civil War. This thesis argues that the first sectional tensions arose from the caning as a result of northern popular mobilization. The mobilization resulted from Sumner’s oration, which reached out to democratic ideals and transformed them into a new public communication that was accessible. Northerners were also transfixed by the violent nature of the attack, which made Sumner a martyr and a religious figure. The North’s democratic mobilization was the sign of war in practice, if not actually declared. It seemed that there was no turning back.

From the Washington University Undergraduate Research Digest: WUURD, Volume 7, Issue 2, Spring 2012. Published by the Office of Undergraduate Research, Joy Zalis Kiefer Director of Undergraduate Research and Assistant Dean in the College of Arts & Sciences; Kristin Sobotka, Editor.


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