On this day in 1856, Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina approached Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts while the latter sat at his desk in the Senate chamber. As Sumner affixed postage to copies of “The Crime Against Kansas,” a speech he had given earlier that week, Brooks explained that the address had been a “libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.”
“Mr. Butler” referred to Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina, Brooks’s cousin and one of the figures Sumner, in his stem-winder, had excoriated for supporting the abominable Kansas-Nebraska Act. After explaining his business with the Senator, Brooks began caning Sumner, who tried to rise and flee but found himself trapped beneath his desk, which was bolted to the floor. Struggling wildly as Brooks continued raining blows down upon his head, Sumner finally wrenched the desk from its moorings. He then collapsed in a pool of his own blood.
Sumner, in his speech, had been rather hard on the superannuated Butler. The abolitionist had called the South Carolinian a “Don Quixote who had chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows…the harlot, Slavery.” Sumner also had said that Butler, who drooled and suffered from a tremor as a result of a stroke, “discharged the loose expectorations of his speech” when supporting slavery.
Steeped in the aristocratic South’s honor culture, Brooks found these insults intolerable. He also viewed Sumner as a social inferior and so chose not to challenge him to a duel. Instead, he beat Sumner as an overseer would beat a slave.
Many Southerners recognized that Brooks had defended not only his family’s reputation but also the region’s good name. Editors at the pro-slavery Richmond Examiner, for instance, opined that the violence represented an:
act good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequence. The vulgar Abolitionists in the Senate are getting above themselves…They have grown saucy, and dare to be impudent to gentlemen…The truth is, they have been suffered to run too long without collars. They must be lashed into submission.
Brooks thus became a hero in the South, where people apparently begged him for fragments of his shattered cane, “sacred relics.” He received from admirers dozens of new walking sticks, often inscribed with pithy phrases (“Hit Him Again”). And although some of his colleagues in the House tried to expel him, they failed to reach the required two-thirds majority because of the Southern delegation’s sectional loyalties. Brooks then quit to make a point, re-running for his seat and allowing the people of South Carolina to return him to Washington with their blessing.
For Northerners, many of whom had no love for radical abolitionists, the caning of Sumner nonetheless joined the Sack of Lawrence — an episode in which approximately 800 pro-slavery terrorists had burned parts of that town, the center of free-soil Kansas — which had taken place just a day earlier. Even for moderates, the two events, in concert, demonstrated that the Slaveocracy could not be placated, no matter how many times the North compromised to forestall secession.
John Brown was no moderate. He had been rushing to defend Lawrence when the town fell. The violence there, coupled with the caning of Sumner, next led him to embrace biblical justice gone mad. By his calculation, border ruffians had already killed at least five free-soilers in Kansas. And so, two days after Brooks pummeled Sumner, Brown kidnapped five pro-slavery settlers from their homes near Pottawatomie Creek. That night, he split their skulls open with broadswords. The nation slipped headlong toward war, the skids greased with martyrs’ blood.