May 22, 1856 – Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner was attacked and savagely beaten at his desk on the floor of the Senate by South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks in retaliation for a speech Sumner made in which he excoriated Brooks’ uncle, Senator Andrew Butler, for his support for slavery.
The political fight over the spread of slavery (and the institution of slavery itself) in the United States had been building since 1820 with the passage of the Missouri Compromise, which (among other things) drew a line across the Louisiana Purchase Territory, then the westernmost territory of the country. For any new states that were to develop below that line, slavery was permitted; above, slavery was forbidden. While the compromise kept the free North and the slave-owning South in relative political harmony for a generation, the acquisition of new territories and the growing abolition movement in the North meant that this uneasy peace would not last forever.
In the mid-1830’s, for instance, Southern Congressmen, tired of being petitioned by Northern abolitionists over the existence of the “Peculiar Institution,” pushed through a series of “Gag Rules” which forbade the submission or discussion of abolitionist petitions in Congress. Texas’ request to be admitted as a new state in 1836 was partly blocked by Northern Congressmen since it would have been a slave state; it was not until 1845, with the acquisition of the “free” Oregon Territory from England to balance it out, that Texas was added as a state.
In the late 1840’s, conquest over Mexico and the resulting acquisition of California and the Southwest in the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo revised the fight over whether or not slavery would be allowed in these new territories; the Compromise of 1850 briefly settled that question by permitting slavery there if the white settlers approved it, under the theory of “popular sovereignty.” Although this compromise included the Fugitive Slave Act, a law despised by Northerners, it did seemingly resolve the question of the spread of slavery. The relative quiet bought by this latest compromise, however, lasted only four years.
In 1854, Senator William Douglas of Illinois, needing the support of southern senators for his bill to build the transcontinental railroad from his home city of Chicago, was able to push through a deal called the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which removed the ban on slavery in the northern section of the Louisiana Purchase Territory created by the Missouri Compromise. Instead, settlers in the newly created Kansas and Nebraska Territories would be allowed, under the theory of “popular sovereignty,” to choose to allow slavery. For Northerners opposed to the further spread of slavery, this was the last straw.
By 1856, the Kansas Territory had become a literal battleground between pro and anti-slave settlers. The violence in the territory had become so bad that newspapers dubbed the area “Bleeding Kansas.” This violence became the backdrop for Northern and Southern politicians to harangue each other in Congress, culminating in a two-day long speech delivered in May by Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner entitled “The Crime Against Kansas.”
In that speech Sumner excoriated not only the pro-slavery forces in Kansas but any and all supporters of slavery wherever they resided, describing them as murderers and rapists. He singled out pro-slavery members of the Senate by name, including South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, who was elderly, suffering the effects of a stroke that affected his ability to speak and walk, and not present during the speech. After mocking Butler’s affected speech and gait (which, in all honesty, was pretty uncool), Sumner finally insulted Butler’s honor (if a slave-owner can have honor) by claiming that he had “chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows . . . the harlot, Slavery.”
Southern politicians – who routinely accused Northern politicians of worse – were, of course, outraged. Particularly incensed was one of Butler’s cousins, Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina. Brooks’ initial reaction was to challenge Sumner to a duel, but upon deciding that Sumner was no gentleman (like himself) and therefore not of equal social standing, a public beating would have to do instead.
On May 22, 1856, two days after Sumner’s speech, Brooks, along with two associates (Congressmen Laurence Keitt and Henry Edmundson), entered the Senate chamber and approached Sumner, who was working at his desk. After telling Sumner that his speech was an insult to Butler, Brooks began to savagely beat Sumner on the head with his cane. Sumner fell to the ground and became trapped under his desk as Brooks continued to rain blows down upon his head, beating him so hard that his cane snapped in half. When Sumner collapsed, unconscious, Brooks grabbed him with his free hand to hold him up as he continued to beat him with his broken cane.
When fellow senators attempted to intervene, Edmundson blocked them, yelling at all to leave Brooks alone. Keitt reinforced that order by pulling out a pistol and waving it around at anyone who came close. Finally, two other Representatives were able to restrain Brooks, who then calmly left the chamber. Aids were able to revive Sumner and help him out of the Senate to receive medical attention.
The country was predictably split in its reaction to the event. Northerners were appalled by the attack, making Sumner into a martyr, while Southerners celebrated Brooks as a hero. Northern newspapers, such as the New York Post, condemned the assault, writing, “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?” Conversely, Southern newspapers, such as the Richmond Enquirer, praised the assault as “good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequences,” opining that “these vulgar abolitionists in the Senate . . . must be lashed into submission.”
Butler was subsequently arrested, convicted of assault, and fined $300 (he received no jail time). When a motion to expel him from the House of Representatives failed due to a lack of Southern support, he resigned his Congressional seat only to be overwhelmingly re-elected by his constituents in the next election. He received hundreds of replacement canes from Southerners as gifts (Fittingly, perhaps, Brooks died a horrible death in January of 1857 right before he was to return to Congress, choking to death from an attack of Croup). Keitt similarly resigned from the House after being censured for his participation in the attack, and his constituents overwhelmingly re-elected him as well.
Proving that there is nothing new under the sun, Southerners later insisted that Sumner was faking his injuries and that the reporting of the event was exaggerated (Crisis actors and fake news, anyone?). In truth, Sumner suffered lifelong health issues from the attack, and it took over three years for him to resume his work as a Senator. In the interim, the Massachusetts legislature overwhelmingly re-elected Sumner as Senator as an anti-slavery statement of their own. Soon afterward, the true bloody battle over slavery would begin.