Document 11: Undated letter scrap, Martha Coffin Wright to Charles Pelham, [1856], Osborne Family Papers, Department of Special Collections, Syracuse University Library.

Introduction

       In May 1856, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was severely beaten on the Senate floor with a cane by Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina, who had been offended by Sumner’s remarks during a debate on the Kansas-Nebraska Act.[19] Charles Pelham had apparently expressed approval of the attack in a letter to his Aunt Martha Wright. Martha sent an excerpt of her reply to Charles along with a letter to her daughter, Eliza Osborne. Martha’s restraint in this reply was quite remarkable.

       I felt very sorry that you should justify the murderous attack on Sumner, & that you should be willing to endorse the sentiment, so unworthy an American citizen, that personal violence, under any circumstances was allowable, for words uttered in debate. The cowardly mode of the attack, I believe you do not justify but do you think it possible for liberty to exist where freedom of speech is restrained, by the fear of personal indignity, at the hand of every assassin who bases his claim to respectability, on his skill in the use of the bowie knife & revolver? If the Northern members who felt themselves aggrieved by the bitter taunts, the poignant & sarcastic invective of Randolph of Roanoke,[A] had felt themselves at liberty to soothe their wounded feelings in the way that modern chivalry endorses, do you think that his friends wd. have calmly looked on, & seen him stricken down, for the exercise of a right guaranteed to every citizen of the Republic? (Every free white male Citizen, I mean). And yet, you must admit that he very often transcended the limit that gentlemanly courtesy sets to freedom of speech in debate; and that a careful perusal of Sumner’s speech will convince you he has never done; but even if he had, are you willing to admit, that for words spoken in the excitement of debate, the scholar, the gentleman, the statesman, is to be rudely assaulted, & to find that he expresses his opinion at the risk of his life? Is Austrian despotism worse than that? I hope you will review your opinions: read what is written on both sides, & come to a less prejudiced judgment. Your request for some of the old world relics, “something from the tomb of Cicero,” I will have conveyed to Marianna.[B] Perhaps by looking thro’ the Orations of Cicero, you can find sentiments in favor of Liberty more worthy of treasuring than the mere material relics that a visit to his tomb, or to his home, cd. furnish. I sent you a N. Y. Evening Post, by yesterday’s mail, containing Wilson’s[C] admirable ans. to Butler of S.C.[D] I think his retort as to the fighting on Mass. soil in Revolutionary times, capital--“the soil where friends will always find a welcome, & where foes may find a grave.” Tell me what you think of it--that is, if the wide difference in our opinions in relation to the outrage on Sumner, does not--Well, never mind. I shall always be happy to hear from you & I trust that more mature reflection, & the generous impulses of youth, will lead you to judge wisely on this momentous question wh. is destined to shake the Union from centre to circumference.

        Remember me to yr. Uncle John,[E] & ask him how far he sympathizes with the party that goes for “Free soil, Free speech, Free trade, Fre-mont.”[F]

Previous
Document
Document
List
Next
Document

A. John Randolph of Roanoke (1773-1833) was a Congressman and Senator from Virginia renowned for his fiery speeches in defense of slavery and states’ rights. He served in the House from 1799 to 1813, from 1819 to 1825, from 1827 to 1829, and for a brief time before his death in 1833; he served in the Senate from 1825 to 1827.
       Back to Text

B. Martha had apparently told Charles that her daughter Marianna was traveling in Europe with her husband Thomas Mott, and Charles had requested souvenirs.
       Back to Text

C. Senator Henry Wilson (1812-1875) of Massachusetts, like Sumner, was strongly antislavery. After Wilson called the attack on Sumner “brutal, cowardly, murderous,” Preston Brooks challenged him to a duel, but Wilson declined on legal and moral grounds. Wilson served in the Senate from 1855 to 1873, when he resigned to serve as Vice President under Ulysses Grant. See Dumas Malone, ed., Dictionary of American Biography, vol. XX (New York: Scribner's, 1936), pp. 322-25.
       Back to Text

D. Senator Andrew P. Butler (1796-1857) of South Carolina, uncle of Congressman Preston Brooks who had attacked Sumner on the grounds that he had insulted his uncle and his state. Butler served in the Senate from 1846 to 1857.
       Back to Text

E. Martha knew her brother-in-law John Pelham from her visits to his home in Maysville, Kentucky, in 1853 and 1855.
       Back to Text

F. In 1856, the newly formed Republican Party nominated John C. Frémont for President. The Republicans had absorbed the antislavery Free-Soil Party, whose slogan had been “free soil, free speech, free labor, and free men.” Interestingly, after the war Charles Pelham would become active in the Republican party.
       Back to Text

| Documents Projects and Archives | Teacher's Corner | Scholar's Edition | Full-Text Sources | About Us | Contact Us |