May 22nd, 1856

Senator Thomas Hart Benton

Civility was quickly becoming a thing of the past. One needed only look at the curious case of the Great Missourian, Senator Thomas Hart Benton, and Mississippi’s Senator Henry Stuart Foote during the debates over the Compromise of 1850to understand that point. Even as Benton charged the smaller Senator Foote on the floor of the Upper Chamber, the Mississippian jumped to his feet, drew his revolver and took aim. Member of the Senate were up, quick to act, trying to hold back Benton, that bull of man, back. They found their efforts were futile as they were unable to restrain him. Even as Foote retreated, Benton would yell, “Let the assassin shoot! He knows that I am not armed!”

Though, in the end, he would not fire his revolver, the thought had, without a doubt, crossed Foote’s mind. And these were two members of the same Party.

Part of this could perhaps be explained by the fact that they were both older men, and originally from the South. For them dueling was a way of life. Foote, for example, walked with a limp from a bullet to the hip he took in a duel with Sargent Prentiss, and Benton had once dueled Andrew Jackson during their service together in the War of 1812. Commenting on it afterwards to someone who asked if he knew Jackson he would tell them, “Yes, sir, I knew him, sir; General Jackson was a very great man, sir. I shot him, sir. Afterward he was of great use to me, sir, in my battle with the United States Bank.”


Senator Charles Sumner

Yet, for as much as it might have been who men like Benton and Foote were, it wasn’t who Charles Sumner, the first term Senator from Massachusetts, was. Still, it wasn’t difficult to see that the Free-Soil Abolitionist was not necessarily going to be popular, at least not in some quarters of the Senate. His first speech to that Body would invoke the Constitution, and the Bill of Right, the Founding Fathers and the name of liberty, attacking the compromises and the laws that prolonged the life of Slavery within the Republic. In response Senator Jeremiah Clemens of Alabama would rise to declare, “the hope that none of my friends would make any reply to the speech which the senator from Massachusetts has seen fit to inflict on the senate… I shall only say, sir, that the ravings of a maniac may sometimes be dangerous, but the barking of a puppy never did any harm.”

Now though, as the Whig Party began to fade as a far distant memory, and the abolitionists, the Free Soil Party and the anti-slavery Whigs, began to unite behind the newly formed Republican Party, tensions were running higher than they ever did before. Now, as Senator Sumner rose to the floor to speak on the Bleeding Kansas Crisis that had degenerated into violence between the two sides of the Slavery debate precipitated by Kansas-Nebraska Act passed in 1854 everyone knew his speech would be controversial. Few though would predict how inflammatory it would be.

The wickedness which I now begin to expose is immeasurably aggravated by the motive which prompted it. Not in any common lust for power did this uncommon tragedy have its origin. It is the rape of a virgin Territory, compelling it to the hateful embrace of slavery; and it may be clearly traced to a depraved desire for a new Slave State, hideous offspring of such a crime, in the hope of adding to the power of slavery in the National Government…

With the tone set he would then set his sights on two men in particular, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, and Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina, who, along with President Millard Fillmore, were the primary architects of the Act. Calling them the “Don Quixote and Sancho Panza” of slavery, he would dub slavery their “Dulcinea del Toboso”. Then, mockingly, he would look to Butler, declaring,

if the slave States cannot enjoy what, in mockery of the great fathers of the republic, he misnames equality under the Constitution, in other words the full power in the National Territories to compel fellow-men to unpaid toil, to separate husband and wife, and to sell little children at the auction-block – then, sir, the chivalric senator will conduct the State of South Carolina out of the Union! Heroic knight! Exalted Senator! A second Moses come for a second exodus…. 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.

Even as the speech carried on, Douglas, Sancho Panza in Sumner’s narrative, paced along the back of the Senate Chamber, muttering to himself, “This damn fool is going to get himself killed by some other damn fool.” As he concluded, Michigan senator Lewis Cass, would declare his speech, “The most un-American and unpatriotic that ever grated on the ears of the members of this high body.”


Congressman Preston Brooks

Yet what could be considered his harshest criticism would come two days later when, on May 22nd, 1856, Congressman Preston Brooks, representative for South Carolina’s 4th District, and a cousin of Andrew Butler, would enter the Senate chamber accompanied by fellow Congressmen Laurence Keitt and Henry A. Edmundson. Two years prior Edmundson had been arrested by the Sergeant at Arms of the House for trying to attack Ohio Congressman Lewis Campbell on the Floor during the debates over the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Now, he was there to encourage Brooks in his course.

Originally Brooks was to challenge Sumner to a duel but Keitt had talked him out of it, arguing that Sumner was beneath him, and that the language that he had used in his speech established that. He should duel a man this far beneath his station. To Keitt Sumner should suffer the same fate as an insolent slave if he loved them so dearly.


The Caning of Charles Sumner

In a slow, steady voice, Brooks would confront Sumner, poking at him with his cane, stating, “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.” The Massachusetts Senator would defiantly push the cane away and go to stand. Immediately Brooks would hit him so hard over the head with his cane that he would stumble back, losing sight immediately as he fell to the ground. Brooks would thrash at him as the Senator found himself trapped under his desk, bolted to the floor, his chair on a sliding track. After the attack, Sumner would say, “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.” As the South Carolina Congressman continued to rain down his blows, Sumner would grip his desk as he tried to escape, the blood running down his face. He would rip his desk from the bolts before stumbling through the aisle, unable to keep a pace that would let him escape.

Finally he would collapse in the arms of Brooks who would grab him by his lapel, continuing his caning of the man. Even as a few members of the Senate like Tennessee Senator John J. Crittenden, tried to rush to Sumner’s aid, others, like Stephen Douglas, according to Sumner’s account, would stand at a distance and watch the events unfold. The one’s who did try to help would find Keitt standing in their way, yelling at them to let him be. It wasn’t until Ambrose Murray and Edwin Morgan, Republican Congressman from New York, were able to grab hold of Brooks and tear him away from Sumner that the beating would stop. By this time Sumner would crumble to the United States Senate unconscious, in a pool of his own blood.

Though he would recover with only minor injuries from the beating he took, the effects of what had happened would be long felt.

Though he received the praise and adulation of the Southern Papers, and his own constituents, with new canes being sent to him, the fact is that Brooks had done more to damage his cause than he did to help it. Even as the great Essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson declared at a Town Hall Meeting in Concord, “The events of the last few years and months and days have taught us the lessons of centuries. I do not see how a barbarous community and a civilized community can constitute one state. I think we must get rid of slavery, or we must get rid of freedom. Life has not parity of value in the free state and in the slave state,” the caning of Charles Sumner became a turning point for the Republican Party and a rallying cry for them. As historians like Michael Perman and William Geinapp would observe, “Sumner did more for his party by his suffering than he ever had done by his speeches. The Brooks assault was of critical importance in transforming the struggling Republican party into a major political force. “By great odds the most effective deliverance made by any man to advance the Republican Party was made by the bludgeon of Preston S. Brooks.”’

Brooks wouldn’t live to see what his contribution would bring. He wouldn’t live long enough to see the rise or the ascension of the Republican Party to the White House a Having been convicted of the assault and fined, though he would be overwhelmingly re-elected, he would die of Croup within a year.


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