There were incidents all over the divided United States in the years before the American Civil War. And a violent incident even took place in the US Congress as the battle lines between north and south, and those who opposed slavery and those who supported it were drawn…

On May 22, 1856, Republican Senator Charles Sumner from Massachusetts exited the Senate Chamber covered in his own blood. Unconscious and with his skull exposed, Sumner was carried away from the chamber. Standing in the middle of the chamber was the calm and collected Preston Brooks, a Democratic Representative from South Carolina. In his hand Brooks held a gutta-percha cane with a gold head and coated with the blood of Senator Sumner. Brenden Woldman explains.

 A lithograph cartoon depicting the incident.

A lithograph cartoon depicting the incident.

 An 1873 portrait of Charles Sumner.

An 1873 portrait of Charles Sumner.

 Preston Brooks, circa 1857.

Preston Brooks, circa 1857.

The event[1],  which became known as “The Caning of Charles Sumner”, did not just represent the personal vendettas between two men who had contrasting political views. The assault became a symbol of the ever growing divide between the anti-slave North and the pro-slave South. Knowing this, the greatest representation of this pre-Civil War strain came from Preston Brooks’ actions on Charles Sumner.

 

A Personal and Political Vendetta

Senator Charles Sumner was elected to the Senate in 1851 and devoted his time in office as an anti-slave advocate and a fighter against “Slave Power”.[2] For Sumner, the idea of slave power was nothing more than a form of “tyranny” that had no place within the United States.[3] His anti-slave rhetoric did not wane throughout his years in office. The culmination of Sumner’s ideals came when he addressed the Senate on May 19-20, 1856.

In his speech entitled “The Crime Against Kansas”, Sumner criticized the Kansas-Nebraska Act (which allowed slavery to advance westward through popular vote) and argued for the immediate admission of Kansas as a free state. His reasoning was that the admittance of Kansas as a slave state was nothing more than, “the rape of a virgin Territory, compelling it to the hateful embrace of slavery”.[4] The anti-slave ideals that came from Sumner’s speech did not shock or surprise any of the senators within the chamber that day. However, what did cause the controversy that ultimately led to Representative Brooks’ fury were the personal attacks against two of his fellow Democrats.

Sumner blamed the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the subsequent violence to occur during “Bleeding Kansas” on two Democrats. The first to feel Sumner’s verbal wrath was Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, the architect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In private, Sumner said Douglas was a “brutal, vulgar man without delicacy or scholarship [who] looks as if he needs clean linen and should be put under a shower bath”.[5] In public and on the chamber floor, Sumner looked directly into the eye of Senator Douglas and described him as a “noise-some, squat, and nameless animal… not a proper model for an American senator”.[6]

Sumner then turned his attention to South Carolinian Senator Andrew Butler. Ironically, Butler was one of the few senators who was not present on the day of Sumner’s speech.[7] Sumner assaulted Butler’s claim that he was a southern gentlemen and a “chivalrous knight”, as the belief that Butler was chivalrous was hypocritical in the eyes of Sumner because an honorable man would not support the institution of slavery.[8] Sumner charged Butler of choosing “a mistress… who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean the harlot, slavery”.[9] Sumner continued his accusations against the Senator from South Carolina as being one who supported “tyrannical sectionalism” and was “one of the maddest zealots”.[10] Furthermore, Sumner insulted Butler’s intelligence by stating, “[Butler] shows an incapacity of accuracy, whether in stating the Constitution or in stating the law, whether in the details of statistics or the diversions of scholarship. He cannot open his mouth, but out there flies a blunder”.[11] Sumner’s berating of both Douglas and Butler did not go unnoticed. For Preston Brooks, the actions of Charles Sumner crossed the gentlemanly lines on both a political and personal level.

Preston Brooks was elected to the House of Representatives in 1853 from South Carolina’s 4th District. Much like his fellow South Carolinians, Brooks was a Democrat who was also a passionate supporter of slavery and believed that any restriction on the expansion of slavery was an attack on southern society. Due to these beliefs, it would come to no surprise that Brooks was infuriated when he heard of Sumner’s “Crime Against Kansas” speech. For Brooks, Sumner had insulted both South Carolina, southern society, and the institution of slavery. On a personal level, however, Brooks had to defend Senator Butler, as they were both South Carolinians and second cousins.[12] By cause of his southern, political, and family pride, Preston Brooks demanded vengeance on Charles Sumner.

 

Slaughter in the Senate Hall

Brooks’ initial response was to challenge Sumner to a duel, the traditional form of combat between two gentlemen who had a disagreement. However, Sumner was no gentleman according to Brooks, as dueling was reserved for honorable gentlemen who held an equal social standing.[13] Due to Sumner’s foul and crude language, Brooks and fellow South Carolina Representative Laurence Keitt decided to treat the Senator from Massachusetts not as a gentlemen but instead like an animal. According to Brooks and Keitt, it was far more appropriate to publically humiliate Sumner by beating him with Brooks’ gold headed gutta-percha cane and treating him not as a man, but as a disobedient dog. [14]  

On May 22, 1856, three days after the “Crime Against Kansas” speech, Representative Preston Brooks awaited outside the Senate Chamber doors for Senator Charles Sumner. Shortly after the Senate had adjourned for the day, Brooks entered the chamber, where he approached Senator Sumner, who at that moment was attaching his postal markings to copies of his now famous speech.[15] Brooks calmly spoke to Senator Sumner and said, “Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine”.[16] As Sumner began to rise from his chair but before he could get a word out, Representative Preston Brooks from the 4th District of South Carolina took his gold-headed cane and struck Charles Sumner as hard as he could on the top of the Senator’s head.

The first strike left Sumner pinned to his senatorial desk and was beaten viciously until he was able to briefly break free and stumble up the aisle of the chamber floor.[17] Sumner recalled the force of that first blow years later, stating, “I no longer saw my assailant, nor any other person or object in the room… What I did afterwards was done almost unconsciously, acting under the instincts of self-defense”.[18] As he staggered his way toward the exit, Sumner, who was blinded by and choking on his own blood, collapsed due to his injuries only a few yards away from his desk.[19] It was there that Preston Brooks stood over Charles Sumner and repeatedly struck the Massachusetts Senator until his cane cracked in pieces and was covered in Sumner’s blood. Those who tried to defend Sumner were met by Representative Keitt, who held the crowd back at gunpoint and threatened to shoot anyone who tried to intervene.[20] Keitt was heard yelling, “Let them alone! Goddamn, let them alone”.[21] All in all, the “Caning of Charles Sumner” lasted only one minute, and by the recollection of Preston Brooks he struck Senator Sumner with, “about 30 first-rate stripes”.[22] However, the lasting legacy of the ordeal lived on in the American mindset.

 Covered in blood, Senator Sumner was carried away in an unconscious and unrecognizable state. Representative Brooks on the other hand coolly walked out of the chamber, his knuckles covered with Sumner’s blood and his face slightly cut due to the backlash caused by his cane. Due to the witnesses being stunned by the whole ordeal, Brooks calmly left the Senate chamber without being detained or charged with any crime. As Brooks saw it, he left the Senate chamber not as a criminal but as a defender of the southern way of life. On the other hand was the Senator from Massachusetts, who may have left the Senate chamber a bloodied, unconscious mess, but also left as a hero of the north and the anti-slave movement.

 

A Southern Defender and A Northern Martyr     

After the assault, Brooks did not walk away from it without being punished. Brooks was given a fine by the Baltimore district court and Senators demanded an investigation of the incident whilst members from the House demanded the removal of both Brooks and Keitt.[23] To avoid further prosecution, Preston Brooks resigned from his seat within the House. Fatefully, due to his soaring popularity within South Carolina and the South as a whole, Brooks was reelected to Congress during the special election that was supposed to replace his vacant seat.[24] After his first full term finished, Brooks was reelected in November of 1856, but suddenly died two months later on January 27, 1857, due to a respiratory infection.  

Sumner left the chamber on the brink of death but was proclaimed in the north as a martyr of the abolitionist cause. The serious nature of his injuries, which included head trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, caused Sumner to take leave from his Senate duties for three years.[25] His slow recovery led to a triumphant return to the Senate in 1859, where he continued to be a leading voice in the Republican Party and the abolitionist movement. Sumner remained in the Senate until his death on March 11, 1874.

 

A Country’s Point of No Return

There are moments in history that are so dramatic they seem as if they were written by a Hollywood screenwriter. In this instance, two relatively unknown members of the House and Senate became legendary figures due to a personal dispute. However, interpreting the “Caning of Charles Sumner” as simply an interesting and gruesome moment between two men is unfair to the historical significance of the event. One must not forget that this whole dispute was sparked due to “Bleeding Kansas” and the debate about slavery within the United States. Brooks’ assault on Sumner was more than the defense of “southern and personal honor”. It became a defining moment of a nation reaching its breaking point. This breakdown in reason within what was considered the “world’s greatest deliberative body” became known as a symbolized moment of discontent between the north and the south. It should come as no surprise that only five years after Brooks’ attack on Charles Sumner that the Confederate States of America attacked Fort Sumter, sparking the Civil War.

 

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[1] Manisha Sinha, "The Caning of Charles Sumner: Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War," University of Pennsylvania Press 23, no. 2 (Summer 2003): 233, doi: Journal of the Early Republic.

[2] Anne-Marie Taylor, Young Charles Sumner: and the Legacy of the American Enlightenment, 1811-1851 (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), 266.

[3] Ibid., 266.

[4] Charles Sumner, "The Crime Against Kansas. Speech of Hon. Charles Sumner, of Massachusetts. In the Senate of the United States, May 19, 1856," Archive.org, 2, accessed July 2017, https://archive.org/stream/crimeagainstkans00sumn#page/2/mode/2up/search/.

[5] ""The Crime Against Kansas"," U.S. Senate: "The Crime Against Kansas", April 17, 2017, 1, https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/The_Crime_Against_Kansas.htm.

[6] Ibid., 1

[7] Ibid., 1

[8] Sumner, “The Crime Against Kansas” 3.

[9] Ibid., 3

[10] Ibid., 4.

[11] Ibid., 29.

[12] Stephen Puleo, "The US Senate’s Darkest Moment," BostonGlobe.com, March 29, 2015, 1, https://www.bostonglobe.com/magazine/2015/03/28/the-senate-darkest-moment/sqXdd3HYKkMFEmGA4d24rM/story.html.

[13] Michael Daigh, John Brown in Memory and Myth (Jefferson City, NC: McFarland, 2015), 113.

[14] "The Caning of Senator Charles Sumner," U.S. Senate: The Caning of Senator Charles Sumner, April 17, 2017, 1, https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/The_Caning_of_Senator_Charles_Sumner.htm.

[15] Ibid., 113.

[16] Michael Daigh, John Brown in Memory and Myth, 113.

[17] Ibid., 113.

[18] Puleo, “The US Senate’s Darkest Moment”, 1.

[19] Michael Daigh, John Brown in Memory and Myth, 113.

[20] Ibid., 113.

[21] Puleo, “The US Senate’s Darkest Moment”, 1.

[22] Ibid., 1.

[23] "South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks's Attack on Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts," US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives, 1, http://history.house.gov/HistoricalHighlight/Detail/35817.

[24] Ibid., 1.

[25] Ibid., 1.