In the mid-1850s, the United States was being torn apart over the issue of slavery. The abolitionist movement was becoming increasingly vocal, and enormous controversy focused on whether new states admitted to the Union would allow slavery.
While blood was being spilled in Kansas, another violent attack shocked the nation, especially as it took place on the floor of the United States Senate.
Senator Charles Sumner Delivered a Fiery Senate Speech Denouncing Slavery
On May 19, 1856, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, a prominent voice in the anti-slavery movement, delivered an impassioned speech denouncing the compromises that helped perpetuate slavery and led to the current confrontations in Kansas. Sumner began by denouncing the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the concept of popular sovereignty, in which residents of new states could decide whether to make slavery legal.
Continuing his speech the next day, Sumner singled out three men in particular: Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, a major proponent of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Senator James Mason of Virginia, and Senator Andrew Pickens Butler of South Carolina.
Butler, who had recently been incapacitated by a stroke and was recuperating in South Carolina, was held to particular ridicule by Sumner. Sumner said that Butler had taken as his mistress “the harlot, slavery.” Sumner also referred to the South as an immoral place for allowing slavery, and he mocked South Carolina.
Listening from the back of the Senate chamber, Stephen Douglas reportedly said, “that damned fool will get himself killed by some other damned fool.”
Sumner’s impassioned case for a free Kansas was met with approval by northern newspapers, but many in Washington criticized the bitter and mocking tone of his speech.
A Southern Congressman Took Offense
One southerner, Preston Brooks, a member of the House of Representatives from South Carolina, was particularly incensed. Not only had the fiery Sumner ridiculed his home state, but Brooks was the nephew of Andrew Butler, one of Sumner's targets.
In the mind of Brooks, Sumner had violated some code of honor which should be avenged by fighting a duel. But Brooks felt that Sumner, by attacking Butler when he was home recuperating and not present in the Senate, had shown himself not to be a gentlemen deserving of the honor of dueling. Brooks thus reasoned that the proper response was for Sumner to be beaten, with a whip or a cane.
On the morning of May 21, Preston Brooks arrived at the Capitol, carrying a walking stick. He hoped to attack Sumner, but could not locate him.
The following day, May 22, proved fateful. After trying to find Sumner outside the Capitol, Brooks entered the building and walked into the Senate chamber. Sumner sat at his desk, writing letters.
Violence on the Floor of the Senate
Brooks hesitated before approaching Sumner, as several women were present in the Senate gallery. After the women left, Brooks walked to Sumner’s desk, and reportedly said: “You have libeled my state and slandered my relation, who is aged and absent. And I feel it to be my duty to punish you.”
With that, Brooks struck the seated Sumner across the head with his heavy cane. Sumner, who was quite tall, could not get to his feet as his legs were trapped under his Senate desk, which was bolted to the floor.
Brooks continued raining blows with the cane upon Sumner, who tried to fend them off with his arms. Sumner finally was able to break the desk free with his thighs, and staggered down the aisle of the Senate.
Brooks followed him, breaking the cane over Sumner’s head and continuing to strike him with pieces of the cane. The entire attack probably lasted for a full minute, and left Sumner dazed and bleeding. Carried into a Capitol anteroom, Sumner was attended by a doctor, who administered stitches to close wounds on his head.
Brooks was soon arrested on a charge of assault, and was quickly released on bail.
Reaction to Brooks Beating Sumner
As might be expected, northern newspapers responded to the violent attack on the Senate floor with horror. An editorial reprinted in the New York Times on May 24, 1856, proposed sending Tommy Hyer to Congress to represent northern interests. Hyer was a celebrity of the day, the champion bare-knuckles boxer.
Southern newspapers published editorials lauding Brooks, claiming that the attack was a justified defense of the South and slavery. Supporters sent Brooks new canes, and Brooks claimed that people wanted pieces of the cane he used to beat Sumner as “holy relics.”
The speech Sumner had given, of course, had been about Kansas. And in Kansas, news of the savage beating on the Senate floor arrived by telegraph and inflamed passions even more. It is believed that abolitionist firebrand John Brown and his supporters were inspired by the beating of Sumner to attack pro-slavery settlers.
Preston Brooks was expelled from the House of Representatives, and in the criminal courts he was fined $300 for assault. He returned to South Carolina, where banquets were held in his honor and more canes were presented to him. The voters returned him to Congress but he died suddenly in a Washington hotel in January 1857, less than a year after he attacked Sumner.
Charles Sumner took three years to recover from the beating. During that time, his Senate desk sat empty, a symbol of the acrimonious split in the nation. After returning to his Senate duties Sumner continued his anti-slavery activities. In 1860, he delivered another fiery Senate speech, titled “The Barbarism of Slavery.” He was again criticized and threatened, but no one resorted to a physical attack on him. Sumner continued his work in the Senate and died in 1874.
While the attack on Sumner in May 1856 was shocking, much more violence was to come. In 1859 John Brown, who had gained a bloody reputation in Kansas, would attack the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry. And of course, the issue of slavery would only be settled by a very costly Civil War.