The Assault on Senator Sumner (3 cents)

Last evening, I read through the official transcript of the House of Representatives Select Committee, appointed in 1856 to study and make recommendations following the physical attack on Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts by Congressman Preston Brooks of (you guessed it) South Carolina. It had been determined that, although the attack was against a Senator and took place in the Senate chamber, only the House had jurisdiction over its own members.

1856 was a time of great tension. A prime issue was the Kansas Territory, recently opened to settlement, and attracting northern abolitionists and Missouri pro-slavery settlers, leading to violence and the epithet “Bloody Kansas”. Senator Sumner, a strong abolitionist, gave a fiery (to say the least) speech criticizing in very harsh, and erudite, terms, the actions of the pro-slavery contingent in Congress and especially Senator Butler of South Carolina (who was not present in the chamber, and was apparently ill) and Senator Stephan A. Douglas of Illinois. He spoke very unkindly regarding South Carolina in general Brooks, a young Congressman, was outraged at the attack and determined to wreak vengeance on the Massachusetts senator.

At first, he apparently considered a duel, but changed his mind because he thought that would have been construed as his having determined that Sumner was his social equal. As an alternative, he decided to beat him up, and enlisted the help and guidance of two other Congressmen, another South Carolinian and a Virginian. After a Senate session had adjourned, Sumner was sitting at his desk working. The three Congressmen entered the chamber, two stepping aside, while Brooks walked up to Sumner and began attacking him with his cane (he had a cane as a result of being shot in the hip during a previous duel), knocking him unconscious. Sumner required a long recovery period, and was unable to resume full Senate duties for about three years.

There was no dispute as to the facts. Brooks did not apologize (even once). The Select committee recommended that Brooks be expelled, and that the other two be reprimanded. An expulsion vote was taken, and defeated. Brooks resigned anyway, but (good old South Carolina) was re-elected to the next Congress, the cane becoming his symbol and apparently, at least informally, “hit him again” a catch phrase.

Sumner’s speech is an extraordinary example of nasty, high-falutin’ political oratory at its best/worst, putting aside the simple fact that he was right on the issues. No one today would dare give such a powerful talk, directed against particular individuals and governmental actions, the way Sumner did. And presumably, no one would walk into either chamber and bludgeon a man almost to death because of a speech.

But then again, we may be getting close, don’t you think?

2 thoughts on “The Assault on Senator Sumner (3 cents)

  1. the Wikipedia (for what its worth) article on this incident mentions that toward the end of Sumner’s speech, he got particularly personal, imitating Andrew Butler’s slurred speech and physical affect due to his stroke.
    PS: I’m looking for a replica guta percha walking stick.

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