On Monday and Tuesday the Republican Senator from Massachusetts delivered a speech. “The Crime Against Kansas” denounced the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the “slave power of our Republic.” Charles 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 forcing “the hateful embrace of Slavery” on Kansas. Sumner predicted the “hideous offspring of such a crime” would soon add “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.
Butler’s cousin, Representative Preston Brooks, was outraged. He would make Sumner pay for his crime.
Brooks had a violent past. 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 would he respond to this latest insult?
He initially wanted to challenge Sumner to a duel, but he quickly dismissed the notion. A duel was indeed the wrong way to settle the matter. The code duello required two participants of equal social standing. Brooks concluded the Senator from Massachusetts was not his social equal. Sumner’s reckless speech on the Senate floor proved as much.
Brooks collected his debt on Thursday, May 22, 1856.
“Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully,” Brooks exclaimed. “It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.”
As Sumner looked up from his desk and began to rise, Brooks began beating him on the head with his thick, gold-handled cane.
Brooks was merciless.
He landed a number of vicious blows before his cane snapped in half. Blinded by his own blood, Sumner staggered a few feet up the aisle before he collapsed unconscious.
Suffering from the physical, as well as the mental, effects of the beating, Sumner’s seat remained empty for the next three years.
Northern newspapers decried Brooks, as well as “the slave-power.” Writing in the New York Evening Post, William Cullen Bryant asked:
Has it come to this, that we must speak with bated breath in the presence of our Southern masters?...Are we to be chastised as they chastise their slaves? Are we too, slaves, slaves for life, a target for their brutal blows, when we do not comport ourselves to please them?
Similarly, the political cartoon (pictured 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.
Conversely, Southern papers like the Richmond Enquirer praised the act as "good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequences." The "vulgar abolitionists in the Senate" had been allowed "to run too long without collars," but Brooks thankfully "lashed" them "into submission."
Sectional hostilities continued to deteriorate.
Two days after the beating, blood stained the Kansas landscape. Anti-slavery forces, led by the messianic abolitionist John Brown, massacred five pro-slavery men with broadswords at Pottawatomie.
The long march toward Fort Sumter had begun.
For his actions, Brooks was not punished. Southern votes prevented his expulsion from Congress by the required two-thirds majority. Regardless, Brooks resigned his seat, only to recapture it a short time later.
Brooks became a hero, not only in South Carolina, but throughout the slave-holding states. A South Carolinian mayor 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. However, he did not have long to revel in his new-found celebrity. He died eight months later of the croup.