On this day in 1856, the caning of abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner (R-MA) is administered on the floor of the United States Senate at the hands of Rep. Preston Brooks (D-SC); it would be three years before Sumner could return to the chamber. The beating nearly killed Sumner and drew a sharply polarized response from the American public on the expansion of slavery in the US, and has been considered the “breakdown of reasoned discourse” eventually leading to the Civil War.
Not long after the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which put the issue of slavery in those territories up for grabs by popular vote, the crisis known as Bleeding Kansas was in full sway. Pro-slavery elements in the territory of Kansas imported armed assistance in the form of “Border Ruffians,” and turned them on largely native “Free State Men.” Multiple guerrilla engagements ensued, resulting in chaos, destruction and hundreds of casualties on both sides.
After the sack of Lawrence, on May 21, 1856, Sen. Sumner gave a bitter speech in the Senate called “The Crime Against Kansas.” He blasted the “murderous robbers from Missouri,” calling them “hirelings, picked from the drunken spew and vomit of an uneasy civilization.” Part of this oratory was a vitriolic, personal tirade against South Carolina’s Sen. Andrew Butler; Sumner declared Butler an imbecile and said, “Senator Butler has chosen a mistress. I mean the harlot, slavery.” During the speech, Stephen Douglas leaned over to a colleague and said, “that damn fool will get himself killed by some other damn fool.” Yet the speech went on for two days.
Southerners in the 19th century were raised to live by an unwritten “code of honor,” and defending the reputation of one’s family was at the top of the list. A distant cousin of Senator Butler, Rep. Preston Brooks decided to teach Charles Sumner a lesson from Old Dixie. Two days after the end of Sumner’s speech, Brooks entered the Senate chamber with accomplices, while Sumner was working at his desk.
Brooks rebuked Sumner, stating “You’ve libeled my state and slandered my white-haired old relative, Senator Butler, and I’ve come to punish you for it.” Brooks proceeded to savagely strike Sumner over the head repeatedly with a gold-tipped cane. The cane shattered as Brooks rained blow after blow on the helpless Sumner, pinned between his desk and chair, but Brooks would not be stopped. Other colleagues attempted to aid Sumner but were held off by Brooks’ accomplices. Congressmen Laurence Keitt and Henry Edmundson were each armed with their own canes and Keitt with a pistol, warning everyone against interfering. Finally restrained by more intercessors, Brooks ceased the cascade of blows.
Northerners were incensed by bloodshed in “The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body.” The House voted to expel Brooks, but could not amass the votes to do so, and Brooks was simply fined $300 for the assault. He resigned and returned home to South Carolina, seeking the approval of his actions there, where supporters held events in his honor and reelected him to his House seat. Replacement canes were sent to Brooks from all over the south, and this response outraged northern moderates even more than the caning itself.
As for poor Charles Sumner, the physical and psychological injuries from the caning kept him away from the Senate for most of the next several years. The voters of Massachusetts also reelected him and let his seat sit vacant during his absence as a reminder of southern brutality. The violence from Kansas had spilled over into the national legislature, presaging the greater bloodbath to come five short years later.