Charles Sumner (R-MA) served in the United States Senate for twenty-three years. He was, without doubt, a Radical Republican during the Civil War Era and Reconstruction. However, he was most famous for a tragic incident that occurred on the floor of the Senate in 1856.
On May 19th and 20th, Sumner delivered a speech commonly known as “The Crime Against Kansas,” in which he denounced the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the “slave power of our Republic.” Sumner’s rhetoric was characteristically graphic, but two passages were particularly objectionable.
The first passage included an extended metaphor in which Sumner compared the crisis in Kansas to “the rape of a virgin Territory…” The slave states were “compelling it to the hateful embrace of Slavery, and it may be clearly traced to a depraved longing for a new slave State, the hideous offspring of such a crime, in the hope of adding to the power of slavery in the National Government.”
While the first passage was generally offensive to the slave states, the second passage attacked a specific individual, Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina:
The Senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight, with sentiments of honor and courage. Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and 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. For her, his tongue is always profuse in words. Let her be impeached in character, or any proposition made to shut her out from the extension of her wantonness, and no extravagance of manner or hardihood of assertion is then too great for this Senator.
Representative Preston Brooks was outraged. A cousin of Sen. Butler, he could not let Sumner off the hook. Brooks had a violent past; in fact, a few years earlier he fought a duel and had been shot in the hip, forcing him to use a cane for the rest of his life. How should he respond to Sumner’s verbal assault?
Brooks initially thought he should challenge Sumner to a duel. Of course, he knew the Senator from Massachusetts would never accept such a challenge. Yet, a duel could hardly settle the matter. Dueling etiquette required two participants of equal social standing. Sumner’s reckless speech demonstrated that he was not fit to be called a gentleman.
On this day, May 22, 1856, Representative Preston Brooks confronted Sumner on the floor of the U. S. Senate.
“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,” Brooks exclaimed.
Sumner looked up from his desk and began to stand up when Brooks began beating him on the head with a thick, gold-handled cane.
Brooks was merciless. He landed a number of vicious blows before he eventually broke his cane. Blinded by his own blood, Sumner staggered a few feet up the aisle before he collapsed unconscious.
Suffering from the physical and mental effects of the beating, Sumner’s seat remained empty for three years.
The incident increased sectional hostilities. Northern newspapers decried Brooks and “the slave-power.” The political cartoon (as seen above) comes from a Northern paper. Notice what is in Sumner’s hands, a pen and paper, sure symbols of “the words of truth,” to which Southern men could only reply with force. Notice too the other Senators in the background, some are even smiling and holding others at bay.
For his actions, Brooks was not punished. Southern votes prevented his expulsion by the required two-thirds majority. Regardless, Brooks resigned, but won unanimous reelection in his district. While in South Carolina, the mayor of the state capitol presented Brooks with a new cane, while the city of Charleston gave him another one with the inscription, “Hit Him Again.” Brooks received dozens of canes from all across the South and became a hero to the emerging fire-eaters.
Brooks did not have long to revel in his new-found celebrity. He died eight months later of the croup.