Caning of Charles Sumner
On May 22, 1856, in the United States Congress, Representative Preston Brooks attacked Senator Charles Sumner with his walking cane in retaliation for a speech given by Sumner two days earlier. The beating had nearly killed Sumner and it drew a sharply polarized response from the American public in the context of the expansion of slavery in the United States, and it has been considered symbolic of the “breakdown of reasoned discourse” that eventually led to theAmerican Civil War.
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In 1856, during the “Bleeding Kansas” crisis, Sumner denounced the Kansas-Nebraska Act in his “Crime against Kansas” speech, delivered on May 19 and May 20. The long speech argued for the immediate admission of Kansas as a free state and went on to denounce the “Slave Power“—the political arm of the slave owners:
- “Not in any common lust for power did this uncommon tragedy have its origin. It is the rape of a virgin Territory, compelling it to the hateful embrace of slavery; and it may be clearly traced to a depraved desire for a new Slave State, hideous offspring of such a crime, in the hope of adding to the power of slavery in the National Government.”
- “The senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight with sentiments of honor and courage. 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 the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight — I mean the harlot, slavery. For her his tongue is always profuse in words. Let her be impeached in character, or any proposition made to shut her out from the extension of her wantonness, and no extravagance of manner or hardihood of assertion is then too great for this senator.”
According to Manisha Sinha (2003), Sumner had been ridiculed and insulted by both Douglas and Butler for his opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law and the Kansas Nebraska Act earlier, with Butler even crudely race baiting Sumner. Butler made sexual allusions to black women and like many slaveholders accused abolitionists of promoting racial intermarriage.
According to Hoffer (2010), “It is also important to note the sexual imagery that recurred throughout the oration, which was neither accidental nor without precedent. Abolitionists routinely accused slaveholders of maintaining slavery so that they could engage in forcible sexual relations with their slaves.” Stephen Puleo wrote that rumors that slaveholders had sexual relations with slaves and sired children were often proven true. Sumner also attacked the honor of South Carolina, having alluded in his speech that the history of the state be “blotted out of existence…” Douglas said to a colleague during the speech that “this damn fool Sumner is going to get himself shot by some other damn fool.”
Representative Preston Brooks, Butler’s cousin, was infuriated. He later said that he intended to challenge Sumner to a duel, and consulted with a fellow South Carolina Representative Laurence M. Keitt on dueling etiquette. Keitt told him that dueling was for gentlemen of equal social standing, and that Sumner was no better than a drunkard, due to the supposedly coarse language he had used during his speech. Brooks said that he concluded that since Sumner was no gentleman, it would be more appropriate to beat him with his cane.
The day of the attack
Two days later, on the afternoon of May 22, Brooks confronted Sumner as he sat writing at his desk in the almost empty Senate chamber: “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.” As Sumner began to stand up, Brooks beat Sumner severely on the head before he could reach his feet, using a thick gutta-percha cane with a gold head. Sumner was knocked down and trapped under the heavy desk (which was bolted to the floor), but Brooks continued to strike Sumner until Sumner ripped the desk from the floor. By this time, Sumner was blinded by his own blood, and he staggered up the aisle and collapsed, lapsing into unconsciousness. Brooks continued to beat the motionless Sumner until his cane broke at which point he left the chamber. Several other Senators attempted to help Sumner, but were blocked by Keitt who brandished a pistol and shouted, “Let them be!”
The episode revealed the polarization in America, as Sumner became a martyr in the North and Brooks a hero in the South. Northerners were outraged. The Cincinnati Gazette said, “The South cannot tolerate free speech anywhere, and would stifle it in Washington with the bludgeon and the bowie-knife, as they are now trying to stifle it in Kansas by massacre, rapine, and murder.” William Cullen Bryant of the New York Evening Post, asked, “Has it come to this, that we must speak with bated breath in the presence of our Southern masters?… 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 outrage in the North was loud and strong. Thousands attended rallies in support of Sumner in Boston, Albany, Cleveland, Detroit, New Haven, New York, and Providence. More than a million copies of Sumner’s speech were distributed. Two weeks after the caning, Ralph Waldo Emerson described the divide the incident represented: “I do not see how a barbarous community and a civilized community can constitute one state. I think we must get rid of slavery, or we must get rid of freedom.” Conversely, Brooks was praised by Southern newspapers. The Richmond Enquirer editorialized that Sumner should be caned “every morning”, praising the attack as “good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequences” and denounced “these vulgar abolitionists in the Senate” who “have been suffered to run too long without collars. They must be lashed into submission.” Southerners sent Brooks hundreds of new canes in endorsement of his assault. One was inscribed “Hit him again.” Southern lawmakers made rings out of the cane’s remains, which they wore on neck chains to show their solidarity with Brooks. US Congress Representative Anson Burlingamemanaged to publicly humiliate him in retaliation by goading him into challenging him to a duel, only to intimidate Brooks into backing down with his duel conditions. Historian William Gienapp has concluded that Brooks’ “assault was of critical importance in transforming the struggling Republican party into a major political force.”
Sumner suffered head trauma that caused him chronic pain and symptoms consistent with what is now called traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, and spent three years convalescing before returning to his Senate seat. He suffered chronic pain and debilitation for the rest of his life.
Brooks claimed that he “meant no disrespect to the Senate of the United States” by attacking Sumner. He added that he had not intended to kill Sumner, or else he would have used a different weapon. Brooks was tried in a District of Columbia court for the attack. He was convicted of assault and was fined $300 ($7,870 in today’s dollars), but received no prison sentence. A motion to expel Brooks from the House of Representatives failed, but he resigned anyway on 15 July. Brooks was quickly returned to office in a special election on 1 August, and then re-elected to a new term of office later in 1856, but he died before the new term began.
Keitt, who facilitated Brooks’ attack, was censured by the House. He resigned in protest over his censure, but was overwhelmingly re-elected to his seat by his South Carolina constituency within a month. In 1858, he attempted to choke Representative Galusha Grow of Pennsylvania (Republican) for calling him a “negro driver”.
During the 1856 lame duck session of Congress, Brooks made a speech calling for the admission of Kansas “even with a constitution rejecting slavery”. His conciliatory tone impressed Northerners and disappointed slavery’s supporters.
- “The Caning of Senator Charles Sumner”. United States Senate. Retrieved 2/15/13.
- Michael William Pfau, “Time, Tropes, and Textuality: Reading Republicanism in Charles Sumner’s ‘Crime Against Kansas'”, Rhetoric & Public Affairs vol 6 #3 (2003) 385-413, quote on p. 393 online in Project MUSE
- Manisha Sinha, “The Caning of Charles Sumner: Slavery, race and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War,” Journal of the Early Republic 23 (Summer 2003): 233-262.
- William James Hoffer, The Caning of Charles Sumner: Honor, Idealism, and the Origins of the Civil War (2010) p. 62
- Puleo, Stephen. The Caning: The Assault that Drove America to Civil War. Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2012, ISBN 978-1-59416-516-0, p. 64
- “31e. Canefight! Preston Brooks and Charles Sumner”. Independence Hall Association. Retrieved 11/3/11.
- Donald, 1:286
- Donald, 1:290-91
- Donald, 1:293-96
- James M. McPherson (2003). Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford University Press. p. 150.
- William E. Gienapp (1988). The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856. Oxford University Press. p. 359.
- Puleo, 36-7
- Puleo, 102, 114-115
- William E. Gienapp, “The Crime Against Sumner: The Caning of Charles Sumner and the Rise of the Republican Party”, Civil War History, 25 25 (1979): 218-45
- Mitchell, Thomas G. Anti-slavery politics in antebellum and Civil War America (2007) p. 95
- Hoffer, p 83
- Puleo, p. 204
- The Caning of Senator Charles Sumner (U.S. Senate website)