On May 22, 1856, pro-slavery South Carolina Congressman Preston S. Brooks approached abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts as Sumner sat at his desk in the nearly empty Senate chambers. Brooks declared ”Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech carefully, and with as much calmness as I could be expected to read such a speech. 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 for it.” With that, Brooks began beating Sumner with the heavy gold-headed, gutta-percha walking stick he carried. Over thirty blows were struck. Sumner tried vainly to defend himself but he was trapped by his desk, which was bolted to the floor. Sumner finally managed to wrench the desk free, bleeding profusely he staggered down the aisle as Brooks continued to beat him, even after breaking the cane over Sumner’s head. By this time Sumner collapsed unconscious and witnesses rushed to restrain Brooks and aid Sumner.
What prompted Brooks’ actions? Three days earlier, on May 19, Charles Sumner had delivered a much anticipated speech to a full Senate and packed gallery. “The Crimes Against Kansas” was a blistering attack on the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which left determination of slave or free status for new territories up to the settlers, popular sovereignty. Kansas had erupted in violence because of the act. Sumner was considered a powerful speaker and ardent anti-slavery advocate. But in his speech, Sumner also assailed the two main supporters of the bill, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Pickens Butler of South Carolina. Sumner especially heaped scorn on Butler, even mocking his speech impediment. He used sexual imagery in the speech, saying Butler had taken “the Harlot, Slavery” as his mistress. Butler, a respected 59-year-old Senate veteran and proponent for slavery, was suffering from ill health and wasn’t present for Sumner’s speech. The Southern senator, as well as being a fellow South Carolinian, was also Preston Brooks’ cousin. The speech lasted on to the second day, with Sumner continuing to attack Butler and speaking derisively about South Carolina.
Preston Brooks felt that Charles Sumner had dishonored both Andrew Pickens and South Carolina. The Southern code of honor demanded that the insult be answered by pistols on the dueling field. But Brooks also decided that Sumner, by his intemperate language, had demonstrated he was not a gentleman and didn’t merit being treated as an equal. A thrashing with a cane or whip was the proper response to a social inferior. Butler, being too old to thrash Sumner, the duty fell to Brooks.
After the caning, Preston Brooks reported his actions to the police, he was subsequently fined $300. After a House resolution to expel him failed to reach the necessary two-thirds majority, Brooks resigned his House seat. He returned to South Carolina and was promptly reelected. He would die unexpectedly a year later in 1857, at Brown’s Hotel, Washington. Butler also died in 1857.
Charles Sumner didn’t fare as well, it would take over three years for him to regain his health after the attack. He was unable to fully resume his Senate duties until December 1859. Sumner was also reelected and his seat was left empty as a symbol. He would have a distinguished political career, including chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee during the Civil War, dying in 1874.
The incident galvanized the nation and reflected the growing sectionalism of the country. Both men became heroes. Southerners sent Brooks a number of gold-headed canes, including one inscribed “Hit Him Again.” Southern newspapers praised his actions and communities passed resolutions approving his conduct. The North called him “Bully” Brooks, held “indignation meeting” to express their outrage, and considered Sumner a martyr to abolitionism and free speech, with the caning a demonstration of the depravity and brutality of the slave owner. The new Republican Party made good political use of the affair, aiding the party in its rise to power.