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The brutal attack of Preston Smith Brooks on a fellow congressman was not the first time violence had erupted on the floor of Congress, or even the first time an assault involving canes occurred there. What made Brooks' action so noteworthy was the severity of the injuries he dealt, and the cheerful acceptance of the act by the majority of the South. The incident, which clearly demonstrated the increasing polarization between the North and South, is rightfully included as one more factor in the increasing tensions between the two regions that later exploded into the Civil War.
Brooks was born in Edgefield, South Carolina, in 1819, and 20 years later he graduated from South Carolina College. One year later, a dispute over James Henry Hammond's gubernatorial bid led Brooks to challenge Louis Wigfall, a future Senator from Texas, to a duel. Wigfall had already dueled with two members of Brooks' family, killing one, but Brooks had better luck. Each man wounded the other but came away alive, Brooks with a bullet lodged in his hip. The injury would require him to use a walking stick for the remainder of his life.
Brooks served as an aide-de-camp to Hammond from 1842 to 1844, and around this time he was admitted to the bar. He began practicing law in his hometown, and in 1844 served a single term in the state house of representative. During the Mexican War, Brooks fought in the Palmetto Regiment of the South Carolina Volunteers. During Brooks' later notoriety, the New York Times said Sumner had commanded companies at both Mexico City and San Angel. However, the newspaper also said that in the latter neighborhood he "distinguished himself by gallantly discharging the six barrels of his revolver into a crowd of men and women in the market-place, for some fancied insult to his dignity."
In 1852, Brooks was elected to the House of Representatives as a Democrat. Two years later he was re-elected, and became chairman of the Committee on Expenditures in the Department of State. Like many politicians before and since him, his career would not have elevated him to much note in history, but for the imbroglio he involved himself in.
On May 19 and 20 of 1856, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, who had been elected in 1851 as a Free Soil candidate, gave a speech entitled "The Crime Against Kansas." A pronounced opponent of slavery, the speech supported the admission of Kansas into the Union under the Free State Constitution. Sumner also pinned the blame for the violence in the territory on pro-slavery raiders, and targeted some members of Congress for what he saw as their complicity in the bloodshed. Sumner named these people early in his speech, though he referenced them throughout. One of the lawmakers named was Democratic Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina, who was not present during the speech. Sumner compared Butler and Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and charged Butler with denouncing opposition to slavery as "sectional and fanatical" while promoting sectionalism himself. "The Senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight, with sentiments of honor and courage," said Sumner. "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 sight of the world, is chaste in his sight. I mean the harlot Slavery." Sumner also accused Butler of hypocrisy in his denunciations of abolitionists as fanatics. "If the Senator wishes to see fanatics, let him look round at his own associates, he said. "Let him look at himself."
Sumner never named Brooks in the speech, though he was not very charitable to South Carolina. He said the state had a "shameful" history in its association of slavery, including a qualification requiring a state representative to own "a settled freehold estate, or 10 Negroes." He also compared the state to the Kansas territory, saying the territory had already established more scholarly institutions than South Carolina and there was nothing in the state's history comparable to the "heroic spirit in a heroic cause" of the repulse of pro-slavery raiders at Lawrence. "Were the whole history of South Carolina blotted out of existence, from its very beginning down to the day of the last election of the Senator to his present seat on this floor, civilization might lose..." Sumner apparently paused, then continued, "I do not say how little; but surely less than it has already gained by the example of Kansas, in its valiant struggle against oppression, and in the development of a new science of emigration."
The oration was, of course, denounced in the slave states of the South as a grave insult. There was also some question of whether Sumner was implying other barbs, including the suggestion that the reference to Butler's marriage to "the harlot Slavery" insinuated the rape of female slaves by their masters. More insulting was Sumner's phrase that Butler "overflowed with rage at the simple suggestion that Kansas had applied for admission as a state; and, with incoherent phrases, discharged the loose expectoration of his speech, now upon her representative, and then upon her people." Some saw this as a low blow referring to Butler's condition, as he was recovering from a stroke which had left him unable to stop himself from drooling.
Brooks was one of the many people offended by the speech, especially since Butler was a family member (sources differ as to whether he was an uncle or cousin). He considered challenging Sumner to a duel, but felt that Sumner had not distinguished himself as a gentleman and therefore unworthy of the challenge. In fact, Brooks thought Sumner was so lowly that he was more deserving of a chastisement via whipping, a method approved in a pamphlet entitled Code of Honor. Brooks consulted with some of his peers on his plans to "punish" Sumner, with Democratic Congressman Henry A. Edmundson of Virginia advising him against attacking Sumner outside the Capitol because he would tire himself in the climb up the steps.
On May 22, as Sumner wrote at his desk following the adjournment of the Senate, Brooks entered the sparsely-populated chamber with Democratic Congressman Laurence Keitt, also of South Carolina. Brooks waited until a few women in the galleries had departed, and then approached Sumner, who was too immersed in his work to notice Brooks until he began to speak to him. His exact words differ from account to account, though the meaning remains the same in all of them. "Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully," Brooks said, according to the most popular rendition. "It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine."
One account sympathetic to Brooks claims that Sumner tried to attack him, though most agree that Brooks was already beginning his assault as he spoke or did so after Sumner began to stand up. Though a strong individual, Sumner was almost powerless as Brooks began to strike him multiple times with a heavy inch-thick gutta percha cane; he was unarmed and seated with his legs under the desk, which was fastened to the floor. Sumner was finally able to tear the desk out of the floor and stagger away, but Brooks continued to beat him until he collapsed, bleeding and unconscious. Overall, Brooks managed to land dozens of blows, only stopping when he shattered the cane. At one point, Senator John Crittenden of Kentucky came forward to intervene, but Keitt, who was standing near Brooks and armed with his own cane and a pistol, ordered Crittenden to stay back. The two congressmen from South Carolina left after Brooks retrieved the gold-topped head of his broken walking stick.
Brooks was briefly detained and brought before a judge, and put up $500 as a surety for his court appearance. The bail was more than his punishment for the crime. In July of 1856, the Criminal Court of the District of Columbia fined him $300. The New York Times opined that the punishment was "a mockery of justice, and an insult to the country."
Some Southern newspapers sought to diminish the severity of the assault, which had left Sumner with injuries to his head that were considered life-threatening for a time. Though Brooks later boasted that Sumner "bellowed like a calf" after about 30 blows, the Richmond Enquirer incorrectly reported that Brooks had bested Sumner with a single blow when the Senator deserved "nine-and-thirty every morning." The Richmond Whig was cold in its assessment, arguing that the reports of grievous injuries were a "miserable Abolition trick" intended to gain sympathy for Sumner and the anti-slavery movement. "Nigger-worshiping fanatics of the male gender, and weak-minded women and silly children, are horribly affected at the thought of blood oozing out of a pin-prick," the article spat. "And Sumner is wily politician enough to take advantage of this little fact."
Brooks later sent a note of apology to the Senate, saying he had intended the assault as a redress for personal wrongs rather than a breach of the privilege of that body. A Senate committee determined that they had no authority to punish Brooks, since he was a member of the House of Representatives, and could only ask the other chamber to take action. A House committee recommended the expulsion of Brooks, as well as censures for Keitt and Edmundson. However, a minority report expressed the opinion that no breach of privilege had been committed and any action would go beyond the scope of the Constitution.
A vote to accept the minority report failed, with 145 voting against it and 66 in favor. When the vote to expel Brooks came to the floor, 121 supported it (including a solitary Southerner) and 95 voted against it. Brooks was spared, because the tally did not meet the two-thirds majority needed for expulsion. Keitt was censured, but Edmundson was not.
Brooks and Keitt both chose to resign from the House after the vote, with Brooks giving a departing speech on July 14. Brooks said he would have been ill-regarded by the people of his state if he had taken no action against Sumner, and that he meant no insult to Congress or Massachusetts. "Whatever insults my state insults me," he said. "I did not then, and do not now, believe that the spirit of American freemen would tolerate slander in high places, and permit a member of Congress to publish and circulate a libel on another, and then call upon either House to protect him against the personal responsibilities which he had thus incurred." Brooks also said that the House had no power to punish him for an action that took place in the Senate, and that the collusion between the two chambers was risking tyranny. "Matters go smoothly enough when one House asks the other to punish a member who is offensive to the majority of its own body," he said, "but how will it be when, upon a pretense of insulted dignity, demands are made to this House to expel a member who happens to run counter to its party predilections, or other demands which it may not be so agreeable to grant?"
Brooks also denied that he ever intended to kill Sumner, which was why he had used a cane given to him by a friend in Baltimore three months before the assault rather than a more potent weapon. He appeared to recognize that his attack had done much to fan the flames of hatred in a none-too-fraternal nation. "Sir, I cannot, on my own account, assume the responsibility, in the face of the American people, of commencing a line of conduct which in my heart of hearts I believe would result in subverting the foundations of this government and in drenching this hall in blood," he told the Speaker. After saying that he believed some of the votes in favor of his expulsion were "extorted" by constituents rather than a reflection of some members' own opinions, Brooks announced that he was no longer a member of Congress and walked out.
The absence of Brooks and Keitt was short-lived. Both returned on the first day of August after being elected to fill their own vacancies, and also won re-election in November. Sumner, though re-elected to the Senate in 1857, did not recuperate enough to return to his seat until December of 1859. Until that time, his empty seat stood as a silent reminder of the attack. When Governor Henry Gardner proposed having the state pay for Sumner's medical bills, Sumner is said to have responded, "Whatever Massachusetts can give, let it go to suffering Kansas."
The divide in the nation was starkly visible in the reactions to the assault. Northerners were revolted, and held spontaneous meetings to condemn Brooks. Along with a dummy of President Franklin Pierce, "Bully Brooks" was hung in effigy in front of the New Hampshire State House in June. The abolitionist movement gained some support, and thousands of copies of "The Crime Against Kansas" were run off for use in the 1856 elections. One cheeky New York City man challenged Brooks to a duel with gutta percha canes somewhere along the Mason-Dixon line, "I having the privilege to take him sitting with his legs under a desk with his cane half a mile from him."
Writing in the New York Tribune, William Cullen Bryant asked, "Has it come to this? 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?" The Economist referred to the incident as "the most ruffianly attack ever committed in a country claiming to be civilized." The newspaper reported that only one Southern newspaper was condemning the attack; this was apparently the Mobile Advertiser, which the Examiner said in another report was giving the rather tepid opinion that "considering the time and place of the act, it admits of no justification."
The result was exactly the opposite in the South. Public meetings, especially in South Carolina, supported Brooks' action. One held in Columbia endorsed him for "inflicting upon Mr. Sumner the punishment he so richly earned by his libelous attack upon the state of Carolina and its faithful Senator, and upon the entire South." A meeting in Edgefield supported his conduct and promised "encouragement and sympathy to all similar and future instances of vindication of the character of Southern institutions and Southern men." Incredibly, the Columbia Times reported that a delegation of slaves was planning to present Brooks with an "appropriate token of their regard to him who has made the first practical issue for their preservation and protection in their rights and enjoyment as the happiest laborers on the face of the globe."
Brooks was also showered with gifts, which included a silver pitcher and golden goblet. The most popular presents by far, however, were canes sent to replace the one he had broken over Sumner's head. Brooks' rapidly growing collection would have quickly become common knowledge, but the repeated implication was that Brooks should treat each new stick as he had his old one. Their inscriptions included "Revilers Beware" and "Hit him again." A representative from Brooks' district said the ladies there would send hickory canes "with which to chastise Abolitionists and Red Republicans" whenever Brooks wanted one. Embracing the carnage that would arrive some five years later, the Charleston Mercury opined, "The South certainly has become generally convinced that it is by hard blows, and not by loud blustering and insulting denunciation, that the sectional quarrel is to be settled."
Congress was less accommodating of Brooks. Despite his earlier denunciation of sectional strife, he now made sure to uphold the reputation he had established with his assault. In September, the New York Times reported that Brooks had called for the South to invade the nation's capital and make off with its archives and treasure. When Republican Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts denounced the attack as "brutal, murderous, and cowardly," Brooks challenged him to a duel, which Wilson refused to accept. Brooks finally met his match with Republican Congressman Anson Burlingame of Massachusetts, who accepted Brooks' challenge of a duel after denouncing the attack "in the name of that fair play which bullies and prizefighters respect." Burlingame named Clifton House on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls as the dueling site, and even started for the location before Brooks rescinded the challenge. He said the location was unfair to him, as he would have to venture through hostile territory to get there.
Brooks died unexpectedly of the croup in Washington, D.C. in January of 1857. The furor over his attack had died down enough that most of the eulogies in Congress steered clear of mention of the assault. Sumner is said to have forgiven him, saying when asked how he felt about Brooks, "Only as to a brick that should fall upon my head from a chimney. He was the unconscious agent of a malign power." On another occasion, Sumner was quoted as saying, "What have I to do with him? It was slavery, not he, that struck the blow."
Sources: The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, "The Washington Brutality--The Pro-Slavery Side Of The Story" in the New York Times on May 24 1856, "The Brooks Affair" in the New York Times on Jun. 3 1856, "President Pierce, Preston S. Brooks, and Col. George Hung In Effigy At Concord, N.H." in the New York Times on Jun. 6 1856, "Outrage In The American Senate" in The Economist on Jun. 7 1856, "Brooks In The Mexican War" in the New York Times on Jun. 10 1856, "Testimonials to the 'Gallant Conduct' of Preston S. Brooks" in the New York Times on Jun. 10 1856, "The Outrage On Mr. Sumner" in The Economist on Jun. 21 1856, "The Sumner Case" in The Examiner on Jun. 21 1856, "Bully Brooks Challenged By A Gentleman Of His Own Kidney" in The Agitator on Jun. 26 1856, "The Case Of Brooks" in the New York Times on Jul. 9 1856, "The Sumner Outrage" in The Examiner on Aug. 2 1856, "More Honors To Preston S. Brooks" in the New York Times on Aug. 23 1856, "Compliments To Mr. Preston S. Brooks" in the New York Times on Sept. 1 1856, "Invasion And Capture Of Washington" in the New York Times on Sept. 8 1856, "Posthumous Honors" in The Agitator on Feb. 5 1857, The World's Best Orations: From the Earliest Period to the Present Time edited by David J. Brewer, The Magazine of History with Notes and Queries Vol. XIV, The Crime Against Kansas by Charles Sumner, Life of Charles Sumner by Walter Gaston Shotwell, The Road to Disunion: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861 by William H. Freehling, Encyclopedia of the American Civil War edited by David S. and Jeanne T. Heidler, The House: The History of the House of Representatives by Robert Vincent Remini, The Shattering of the Union: America in the 1850s by Eric H. Walther