"Bloody Kansas"

31e. Canefight! Preston Brooks and Charles Sumner

United States Senate
Preston Brooks beats Charles Sumner with a cane.

Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was an avowed Abolitionist and leader of the Republican Party. After the sack of Lawrence, on May 21, 1856, he gave a bitter speech in the Senate called "The Crime Against Kansas." He blasted the "murderous robbers from Missouri," calling them "hirelings, picked from the drunken spew and vomit of an uneasy civilization." Part of this oratory was a bitter, personal tirade against South Carolina's Senator Andrew Butler. Sumner declared Butler an imbecile and said, "Senator Butler has chosen a mistress. I mean the harlot, slavery." During the speech, Stephen Douglas leaned over to a colleague and said, "that damn fool will get himself killed by some other damn fool." The speech went on for two days.

Preston Brooks

Should Preston Brooks have been sent to prison for caning Charles Sumner?



Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina thought Sumner went too far. Southerners in the nineteenth century were raised to live by an unwritten code of honor. Defending the reputation of one's family was at the top of the list. A distant cousin of Senator Butler, Brooks decided to teach Charles Sumner a lesson he would not soon forget. Two days after the end of Sumner's speech, Brooks entered the Senate chamber where Sumner was working at his desk. He flatly told Sumner, "You've libeled my state and slandered my white-haired old relative, Senator Butler, and I've come to punish you for it." Brooks proceeded to strike Sumner over the head repeatedly with a gold-tipped cane. The cane shattered as Brooks rained blow after blow on the hapless Sumner, but Brooks could not be stopped. Only after being physically restrained by others did Brooks end the pummeling.

Charles Sumner
United States Capital
Charles Sumner spent years recovering from the attack.

Northerners were incensed. The House voted to expel Brooks, but it could not amass the votes to do so. Brooks was levied a $300 fine for the assault. He resigned and returned home to South Carolina, seeking the approval of his actions there. South Carolina held events in his honor and reelected him to his House seat. Replacement canes were sent to Brooks from all over the south. This response outraged northern moderates even more than the caning itself.

As for poor Charles Sumner, the physical and psychological injuries from the caning kept him away from the Senate for most of the next several years. The voters of Massachusetts also reelected him and let his seat sit vacant during his absence as a reminder of southern brutality. The violence from Kansas had spilled over into the national legislature.

On the Web
Caning of Senator Charles Sumner
From the United States Senate homepage, an article on the caning of Sumner. Come here for a great telling of the story and to learn some of the reasons Brooks was incited to "raise Cane."
Preston Brooks on the Sumner Assault
In this speech, Preston Brooks at once gives his reasons for attacking Sumner and also resigns from the Senate. Fascinating account from the bully's point of view!
The Caning of Sumner (May 1856)
The "Secession Era Editorials Project" from Furman University has assembled the texts of a score of newspaper editorials written in reaction to the physical attack on Charles Sumner. Eager to sell newspapers and to make their political points, the editors took a firm stand and wrote with passion.
The Contenders: Election of 1856
Four parties offered candidates in the 1856 race for President. This detailed article concerns the candidates and issues surrounding the election, and the new issues Buchanan faced as he took office.
Secession Era Editorials — The Caning of Sumner
The south cheered, the north cried foul. No matter where you went in 1856, someone had an opinion on the Sumner caning incident. This website provides a listing of editorials that appeared in newspapers all over the country. Compare the differences between the editorials from Massachusetts (where Sumner was Senator) and South Carolina (where Andrew Butler was Senator). It's hard to tell if they are really speaking about the same event.
The logic of the Plantation, brute violence and might, has at last risen where it was inevitable it should rise to — the Senate of the United States. -Albany, New York, Evening Journal, 23 May 1856.
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