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Monday, May 21, 2007

The Brooks-Sumner Affair, May 22, 1856

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Today in 1856, Congressman Preston Brooks beat Senator Charles Sumner severely in the chamber of the United States Senate. The attack symbolized the building animosity between the North and South and caused further polarization as newspapers and public officials on both sides alternately condemned and praised the attack.

Charles Sumner took his seat in the Senate in 1851, representing Massachusetts. He was an impressive orator and had a powerful physical presence, standing six feet, four inches tall. Despite this, he remained silent until August 26, 1852, when he delivered a speech entitled "Freedom National; Slavery Sectional". In it, Sumner called for the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. He spoke for nearly three hours and when he was finished, there was no question as to where he stood on the issue of slavery. His speech stirred up anger in the South, but made him friends in the North.

Preston Brooks was born in South Carolina, the state which he would represent in Congress beginning in 1853. He served with the Palmetto Regiment during the Mexican-American War. Before his election to Congress, he was involved in a duel with future Texas Senator Louis Wigfall and was shot in the hip. As a result, Brooks walked with a cane for the rest of his life. Brooks was a Democrat, although he stated numerous times that he did not trust political parties.

By 1856, the crack in the unity of North and South had become a chasm. During that year, the fighting in Kansas over the slavery issue became an indicator of what would soon engulf the entire nation. On May 19th, 1856, Senator Sumner gave his "Crime Against Kansas" speech in the well of the Senate. In his oration, Sumner attack Senators Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina, both pro-slavery. His attack on Butler was especially harsh and made fun of the Senator's speech defect. Butler was Congressman Preston Brooks' uncle, which helps to explain, but not excuse, what happened next.

Two days after Sumner's fiery speech, Brooks approached Sumner while the latter was writing at his desk in the Senate chamber. The room was nearly empty, but there were enough people present that an accurate account of what happened could later be assembled. Brooks approached the sitting Senator and said "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." With that, he began beating Sumner on the head with his heavy cane, which was topped with a gold head. Sumner could not rise up as his desk was bolted to the floor. Brooks continued to beat him until Sumner tore the desk from the floor and staggered up the aisle away from his attacker, blinded by his own blood. He collapsed in the middle of the aisle, at which time Brooks continued his attack until his cane broke in two. Several senators tried to intercede on Sumner's behalf, but Congressman Laurence Keitt of South Carolina, an ally of Brooks, stood by the men with a pistol drawn and shouted "Let them be!"

Senator Sumner took three years to recover from his wounds. The Massachusetts General Court reelected him in November 1856 anyway, believing that his vacant chair in the Senate chamber served as a powerful symbol of free speech and resistance to slavery. Keep in mind that, at that time, United States Senators were not elected by voters but rather by each state's legislature. Congressman Brooks became sort of a hero in the South, a symbol of that area's resistance to perceived bullying from the North. Northerners were outraged. Senator Sumner, elected to his seat as a Republican, became a symbol for anti-slavery forces. His party was new, but after his beating its political influence in the United States became strong.

Congressman Brooks was subject to an expulsion vote in the House of Representatives that did not pass, but nonetheless gave up his seat for the rest of his term. He claimed that he did not intend to kill Sumner, saying that if he had he would have used a more lethal weapon. The voters of his district in South Carolina returned him to Congress, where he remained until his death in 1857 from croup syndrome, a respiratory disease.

Senator Sumner returned to the Senate in 1859 as vehemently opposed to slavery as ever. When the Civil War began in 1861, he helped President Lincoln walk a fine line with the British, who came very close to recognizing the Confederacy. During the Trent affair, in which a US Navy ship seized two Confederates from a British ship, it was Sumner who talked the President into letting the two men go. Lincoln later described him as "my idea of a bishop."

Sumner played a role in Reconstruction after the war and remained active in the Senate to the very end of his life. He died in Washington, D.C. on March 11, 1874.

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