Massachusetts Would Rather Sink Below the Sea

Saturday, February 2, 1861

Charles Sumner, Senator from Massachusetts, like his father, was a known abolitionist. In 1856, after delivering a scathing anti-slavery speech where he took his attacks from the political to the personal, South Carolina Senator Preston Brooks took offense and beat him repeated with a wooden cane about the head. Sumner, covered in blood, staggered up the stairs to leave the chamber, but collapsed. Brooks continued to beat the unconscious Sumner (while a friend brandished a pistol to keep others from coming to Sumner’s aide). Eventually, his cane broke and Brooks left the scene.

Sumner took three years to recover, finally returning to the Senate in 1859. A Senate vote was taken on whether or not to expel Brooks from the Senate. He was allowed to remain, though he ended up resigning.

The attack did nothing to change his views. Sumner was still an abolitionist and was strongly against any of the proposed compromises (like the Crittenden Compromise). Massachusetts had offered to send troops to help squash the Southern rebellion before it started. President Buchanan was well aware of the offer, but ignored it. Governor John Andrew requested that Sumner, who was no friend of Buchanan (he had called him a traitor), to visit the President to find out why the offer wasn’t accepted.

On this date, Sumner dropped in on Buchanan.

The President informed Sumner that the troops would not be needed. “What else can Massachusetts do for the good of the country?” asked Sumner.

After a pause, Buchanan pressed his luck. “Adopt the Crittenden propositions.”

Sumner was surprised. “Is that necessary?”

Buchanan assured him that it was.

The people of Massachusetts, said Sumner, would never agree to a compromise that gave slavery Constitutional protection in the territories. They would rather “see their State sunk below the sea, and turned into a sand-bank, before they would adopt propositions acknowledging property in men….”

The President conceded that he and Sumner differed in their political opinions. Sumner left the meeting with his answer, but nothing was actually accomplished. The compromises that Buchanan suggested and that Sumner despised were all but worthless now anyway. Sumner understood this. Buchanan, with his country falling apart around him, was probably getting the picture, but still held out hope.1


In his first full day back in Springfield, Lincoln replied to a letter written by a Louisiana newspaper editor who requested a copy of the address that Lincoln would give at his inauguration. Lincoln had been working on the first draft of the speech for a week now. It was far from complete, but a basic outline was there.

He replied to the editor: “I have the document already blocked out; but in the now rapidly shifting scenes, I shall have to hold it subject to revision up to near the time of delivery. So soon as it shall take what I can regard as it’s final shape, I shall remember, if I can, to send you a copy.”2

  1. Conversation pieced together from news reports and a letter Sumner wrote to Governor Andrew describing the interview. Both from Charles Sumner: His Complete Works, Vol. 7, Lee & Shepard, 1900. []
  2. Letter from Abraham Lincoln to George D. Prentice, February 2, 1861. []
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4 thoughts on “Massachusetts Would Rather Sink Below the Sea

  1. Most accounts seem to agree that the cane was made of gutta percha, a sort of 19th century plastic, actually. Not to denigrate the severity of the attack, which left Sumner debilitated for some time.

    1. Brooks was a member of the House of Representatives, he was a cousin to SC Senator Andrew Butler. He took offense with Sumner for content of speech and what he felt was a personal attack on the family. Not surprising that such a hot head was from SC. Who held others at bay with pistol?

      1. Thanks for the comment! The pistoleer was Laurence M. Keitt, also from South Carolina. The whole story behind the attack is really interesting. Definitely worth an afternoon of reading.

    2. Hi Allen,

      Turns out that you’re right. I’m not sure where I got “wooden” from. Could have been from the sources cited, but it could have just been something that slipped by me. Thanks again.


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