The Calculated Incivility of Anson Burlingame, The Only Congressman Mark Twain Could Tolerate

“His outlook upon the world and its affairs was as wide as the horizon, and his speech was of a dignity and eloquence proper to it. He dealt in no commonplaces, for he had not commonplace thoughts. He was a kindly man, and most lovable. He was not a petty politician, but a great and magnanimous statesman. He did not serve his country alone, but China as well. He held the balances even. He wrought for justice and humanity. All his ways were clean; all his motives were high and fine.”

– Mark Twain (February 20, 1906)

Mark Twain was famously hard on politicians, and particularly legislators. Much of his lifelong contempt for the U.S. Congress can be traced to the months he spent in Washington in the winter of 1867-68, during which he both worked as a political correspondent and flirted with government employment. Nearing the end of that season, he told his brother, “I am most infernally tired of Washington and its ‘attractions’…This is the place to get a poor opinion of everybody in.” Twain did, however, make one exception. “There isn’t one man in Washington, in civil office,” he told Orion, “who has the brains of Anson Burlingame.” Burlingame was partly responsible for attracting Twain to Washington in the first place. Since meeting him in Honolulu in 1866, Twain had been seriously contemplating accepting Burlingame’s invitation to come to China, where he had been the U.S. Ambassador since President Lincoln appointed him in 1861. After meeting Burlingame several more times in the coming year, Twain came to admire him and showed increasing interest in the picture of diplomatic life the Ambassador painted.

But soon after Twain’s arrival in Washington, Burlingame resigned his post. Some even characterized it as a defection. Over the next two years the former Ambassador would work as an emissary on China’s behalf to negotiate its first set of diplomatic treaties with Western nations, including the United States. Twain marveled at this project, wrote in support of it, and, as late of February 1868, told his sister, “I rather expect to go with Anson Burlingame on the Chinese Embassy.” As he grew more aggravated with the culture of the capitol, Twain regarded the Republicans inability to find employment for Burlingame in a more prominent or proximate post, or even, in the long run, to employ him at all, as evidence of the futility of the federal government. He told his brother that China had “saved [Burlingame’s] great talents to the world.”

The prominent men who Twain came to admire over the course of his career resemble each other rather closely. Burlingame not only fits the mold, but may have been significantly responsible for casting it. He had a sharp wit, made even more potent by his generally calm and quiet demeanor. He managed to retain an antiestablishment ethos, even as he operated deftly within the establishment. He was generous and egalitarian, refusing to judge others by their station and willing to use his own station to benefit the less fortunate. And he had a strong, if idiosyncratic sense of justice, which he was willing to pursue regardless of personal risk.

Before he made Burlingame’s acquaintance, Twain was already somewhat in awe, refusing to let the Ambassador call upon him in his untidy Hawaiian hotel suite, which he deemed unsuitable for “such a man, which is acknowledged to have no superior in the diplomatic circles of the world.” That he held Burlingame in such high esteem is substantive evidence that, even as early as 1866, Twain’s perspectives on race and politics had turned quite progressive. Though he was not yet aware of the exceptional actions Burlingame was preparing to take on behalf of China and Chinese immigrants, Twain would have certainly known the Ambassador as one of the most outspoken and radical abolitionists of the 1850s, a founding member of the Republican Party whose extremism was criticized even by his allies. One Republican editor wrote that “Mr. Burlingame’s strain of remark” represented “the first steps in a path which leads to disunion and civil war. His editorial further warned that through radicals such as Burlingame, Republicans risked “show[ing] ourselves no better than slaveholders when we imitate their violence, their bad temper, and bad taste.”

Burlingame was, along with his fellow Bostonian, Charles Sumner, among the first abolitionists elected to Congress. During Burlingame’s first term Sumner was assaulted by South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks on the floor of the Senate, a shocking event which John Bigelow, among others, would later call “the first blood of the Civil War.” The infamous caning had been provoked by Sumner’s “Crime Against Kansas” speech. In the aftermath it was Burlingame who picked up Sumner’s argument on the floor of the House and even pushed the abolitionist cause further. Burlingame’s “Defense of Massachusetts,” like Burlingame himself, has fallen out of the canon of U.S. political history, but in 1856 and for many decades to follow, Burlingame’s speech was reprinted more often than Sumner’s. Well into the 20th century, it was frequently included in anthologies of American oratory alongside speeches by Lincoln, Washington, and Daniel Webster.

Burlingame’s “Defense” marked the first and among the only times he would address the congressional assembly, as he served only six years in the House before moving to the diplomatic ranks. He used the opportunity to repudiate President Franklin Pierce, as well as Illinois Senator, Stephen Douglas, architect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, against which Sumner had spoken. Douglas had reportedly stood in the way of several senators who attempted to come to Sumner’s aid when Brooks attacked him. Burlingame also admonished delegates from Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina. And, of course, at the end of the speech, he turned his attention to Brooks directly:

Sir, the act was brief, and my comments on it shall be brief also. I denounce it in the name of the Constitution which it violated. I denounce it in the name of Massachusetts, which was stricken down by the blow. I denounce it in the name of civilization, which it outraged. I denounce it in the name of humanity. I denounce it in the name of that fair play which bullies and prizefighters respect…Call you that chivalry? In what code of honor did you get your authority for that? I do not believe that member has a friend so dear who must not, in his heart of heart, condemn the act. Even the member himself, if he has left a spark of that chivalry and gallantry attributed to him, must loathe and score the act. God knows, I do not wish to speak unkindly or in a spirit of revenge; but I owe it to my manhood, and the noble State I in part represent, to express my deep abhorrence of the act.

Burlingame’s invocations of “chivalry,” “honor,” “manhood,” and “fair play,” spoken directly to Brooks, were quite calculated. The South Carolina congressman had enjoyed considerable celebrity with his confederates following the assault on Sumner. Southern papers heralded him as a courageous and principled defender of the culture of his region, a throwback to militant Southern icons like Andrew Jackson and John C. Calhoun. Cognizant that such publicity had the potential to raise he status in the Democratic party and perhaps make him a viable candidate for higher office, Brooks leaned into the Southern gentleman persona. Emulating the mythic Jackson, he made a habit of challenging his political antagonists to meet him on the “field of honor.” He was not alone in this affectation. Several Southern congressman took to play-acting aristocratic entitlement, willing to defend their “names” at any cost. The euphemism “fighting man” regularly appears in the newspapers of the era, as an acknowledgement of which individuals were ready to respond to slights against their character with invitations to physical violence.

Burlingame’s speech was quite transparently designed to elicit such a response. Brooks’s allies would draw particular attention to the accusation that he “stole into the Senate, that place which had hitherto been held sacred against violence, and smote [Sumner] as Cain smote his brother.” When it was uttered, a fellow Carolinian, Laurence Keitt, could not contain his outrage, and cried out, “That is false!” Burlingame paused and responded carefully, “I will not bandy epithets with that gentleman. I am responsible for my own language. Doubtless he is responsible for his. I shall stand by mine.” Newspaper editors, particularly from the South, recognized these words as an open invitation to duel. “Mr. Burlingame is a very cool and quiet man; and his manner on Saturday seemed to indicate that he had fully made up his mind to meet whatever responsibility his words should invite,” the New Orleans Picayune reported, “If challenged, there is no doubt that he will accept the responsibility, and go to the field at once.” James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald reported, “Mr. Burlingame, I understand, is a fighting man, and engaged the services of a second before leaving home.”

Brooks took the bait. He wrote to Burlingame, with the standard false politeness of the “fighting man,” “Sir: Will you do me the kindness to indicate some place outside of this District where it will be convenient to you to negotiate in reference to the difference between us?” He shared this “card” with the Washington Union, the newspaper of record for Southern Democrats in the capitol. Brooks fully expected to make a public spectacle of Burlingame’s refusal, anticipating, as had been the case with his previous challenges to Yankee congressman, that Burlingame would either ignore the challenge or back down, after which Brooks could call him a coward, further inflating his reputation with the Southern base and living up to the nickname he’d been given by the Northern paper: “Bully” Brooks.

But Burlingame not only responded, but responded rapidly, accepting the challenge and naming both place and weapons, as was his right as the challenged party. The Massachusetts congressman set off with his rifle forthwith for Clifton House, a hotel located on the banks of the Niagara river, just across border in Canada, where they would not only be out of Washington, as Brooks had requested, but utterly free from U.S. law, were one of them to be killed.

On the day that he received the message, Brooks was, in fact, arrested under Washington’s anti-dueling statutes. This was an unintended consequence of having actively publicized his challenge. By the time he was released on bail, Brooks had had time to contemplate the full implication of the “field of honor” his opponent had chosen. Following Brooks’s lead, Burlingame had also leaked his terms to the press. Rumors now flowed back to Brooks that though Burlingame represented Massachusetts, he had actually been raised in Ohio and Michigan during a time when those states were considered part of the frontier. Sharpshooting had been among his daily occupations until he enrolled in Harvard Law School. Newspapers, reveling in the Congressional feud, reported that he was a “dead shot” from up to fifty yards. Burlingame’s second, Colonel Charles James, would later report that the radical abolitionist, while en route to Niagara, had wondered allowed whether it would be sufficient to merely shoot Brooks in the leg, as if such precision at the agreed upon distance was an afterthought.

To reach the crossing at what is now the Rainbow Bridge, and make the meeting at Clifton House, which stood on a spot now occupied by the Oakes Garden Theatre, Brooks, arguably the most notorious and despised man above the Mason-Dixon line, would have to pass through abolitionist strongholds in Pennsylvania and central New York. He would have to travel nearly four hundred miles through, as he termed it, “the enemy’s country” just to have a chance to be shot in the head by an expert marksman. Again using the Union as a vehicle for communicating with the public, Brooks explained, “No man knows better than Mr. Burlingame that I could not pass without running the gauntlets of mobs and assassins, prisons and penitentiaries, bailiffs and constables. He knew that I could never get to Canada, and that were I to do so and he were to fall, that I could never get back…I have no further demands upon him; but should he be screwed up to the point of making demands upon me, I will yet treat him as a gentleman, and meet him at any convenient and accessible point upon equal terms.”

Brooks, Burlingame, and their intermediaries would continue to debate the details of who said what, and under which circumstances they might agree to shoot each other, for months. Accounts of their feud, and the perpetually delayed duel, would be covered in papers across the country. The more time passed, the more comic it became. Obviously, neither of the congressman really wanted any part of the “field of honor.” Of course, for Burlingame, representing a party and district associated with pacifism and civil disobedience, the failure of the duel to materialize was not the least bit damaging. In fact, especially when it became clear that he had been carefully baiting Brooks from the beginning, the ordeal worked to his benefit. Later in the year and again in 1858, he was re-elected by wide margins.

For Brooks, on the other hand, negotiating semantics with a Boston lawyer in the Washington political rags was not a very good way to “play to his base.” The undisputed facts were that Burlingame had named the terms, as was his right according to the apparently well-known chivalric codes of the South and West, and Brooks had declined to meet them out of fear for his well-being. For a politician whose entire appeal had been based on manifesting an antiquated notion of aristocratic honor, it was an insurmountable blow. Brooks died of the croup the following January, by which point his political career had already been buried.

Recounting the events in 1906, Twain wrote, “Potter, (that is his name, I think) the Congressional bully…had bullied everybody, insulted everybody, challenged everybody, cowed everybody, and was cock of the walk in Washington. But when he challenged the new young Congressman from the West he found a prompt and ardent man at last. Burlingame chose Bowie-knives at short range, and Potter apologized and retired from his bullyship with the laughter of the nation ringing in his ears.”

Every part of Twain’s narrative, including the historical details it gets wrong, is calculated for effect. By self-consciously misremembering Brooks’s name, he emphasizes the damage that had been done to the South Carolinian’s legacy. By conflating “Bowie-knives at short range” with “rifles at fifty paces” – the perfection of this opposition hinting that the mistake is intentional – Twain reminded those familiar with the events how little the terms actually mattered. And by alleging that Brooks actually apologized, which was far from accurate, Twain nonetheless hit upon what had become the central and lasting impression of the incident: that he had been humiliated and emasculated by his inability to live up to his own ridiculous code. When Twain wrote this account, he had every reason to believe he was narrating what would remain a familiar piece of antebellum political lore.. For his generation, the Brooks-Burlingame feud was inextricable from the Sumner assault, as integral to explaining the build-up to the Civil War as the assault itself. In a Washington Post obituary for Colonel James in 1901, W. A. Croffut referred to Burlingame’s rifle as “the first gun of the civil war.”

Thirty-One years earlier, Twain had eulogized Burlingame in the pages of the Buffalo Express. Burlingame died at the age of fifty in St. Petersburg. He was in Russia to begin negotiations with Czar Alexander II, with the hope of performing for Russia the same service he had recently performed for China. “He had outgrown the narrow citizenship of a state, and become a citizen of the world,” Twain wrote, “and his charity was large enough and his great heart warm enough to feel for all its races and labor for them.”  Twain recognized that Burlingame’s cosmopolitanism grew directly out of his antebellum activism. “His fervent abolitionism, manifested in a time when it was neither very credible nor very safe to hold such a creed” had been the initial public demonstration of Burlingame’s “noble kindliness that could not comprehend narrowness or meanness.”

It was Burlingame’s “chivalrous generosity,” Twain speculated, “that prompted him to hurl his famous Brooks-and-Sumner speech in the face of an astonished and insulted South at a time when all the North was smarting under the sneers and taunts and material ruffianisms of admired and applauded Southerners.” This notion, that “a very, very great man” could, in response to abusive behavior, not turn the other cheek, but express his willingness to meet calculated incivility with calculated incivility, thereby exposing not just the brutishness of the behavior but the cynical falsity which motivated it, was something Twain returned to often, both in his fiction and in his social commentary. Following Burlingame’s example, Twain seemed often to suggest that those who had proven themselves incapable of civility, deserved none.