On May 22, 1856, at the height of a heated debate over the impact of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, an event took place in the Senate Chamber that is nearly unique in American history. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was assaulted at his Senate desk by Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina.
Tempers had become so inflamed over the slavery issue that Brooks felt compelled to attack Sumner for a speech that he had made on the floor of the Senate two days beforehand. The story of those events illustrate the widening divide between the North and the South.
To understand the events surrounding the near-fatal beating of Senator Sumner, one must understand the events of the time and the two protagonists.
The debate over the Kansas-Nebraska had begun when the original bill was introduced in the Senate on January 4, 1854. Over the course of the next two bills the contents of the bill had been modified by its sponsor Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. By May the bill passed both chambers in its final form and was signed by President Franklin Pierce.
The main issue with the bill was its “popular sovereignty” clause. In the case of this act, it said that the residents of territories should be able to decide by voting whether or not slavery would be allowed in the territory.
It ignited a rush of pro-and anti-slavery settlers into Kansas in an attempt to vote their position. The period following the movement of forces “Bleeding Kansas”.
On May on May 19 and May 20, 1856, Sumner attacked the Kansas-Nebraska Act. 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. Their goal, he alleged, was to spread slavery through the free states that had made it illegal.
In his speech, Sumner, a Free Soil Democrat, attacked authors of the Act, Senators Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina.
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.
The main outside event leading up to the assault on Senator Sumner took place on May 21, 1856. A group of pro-slavery Border Ruffians entered the Free-State stronghold of Lawrence, where they burned the Free State Hotel, destroyed two newspaper offices and their printing presses, and ransacked homes and stores.
On May 22nd, Representative Brooks entered the Senate chamber accompanied by fellow South Carolina Representative Laurence M. Keitt. Brooks was armed with a thick gutta-percha cane with a gold head. His companion carried a pistol. Sumner was working at his desk in the almost empty Senate chamber.
Dueling was still legal in the nation’s capital but Keitt had advised Brooks that dueling was for gentlemen of equal social standing Both of the men considered that Sumner was no better than a drunkard, due to the supposedly coarse language he had used during his speech. Brooks had decided to beat him with a cane.
Approaching his desk, Brooks identified himself as Senator Andrew Butler’s nephew. “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 began to beat him mercilessly with the cane, using the head to beat him about the head. Sumner attempted to hide under his desk but eventually he ripped the bolted desk from the floor.
Keitt quickly drew a pistol from his belt, jumped into the aisle and leveled it at the horror-struck Congressmen who were approaching to try to assist Sumner, loudly announcing “Let them be!”. He resigned in protest over his censure, but was overwhelmingly re-elected to his seat by his South Carolina constituency within a month.
Sumner staggered into the aisle, blinded by his own blood. He soon lapsed into unconsciousness but Brooks continued his assault. Brooks continued to beat the motionless Sumner until his cane broke, at which point he left the chamber.
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.”
In addition to the head trauma, Sumner suffered from nightmares, severe headaches, and what is now understood to be post-traumatic stress disorder or “psychic wounds”. He spent months convalescing while his political enemies ridiculed him and accused him of cowardice for not resuming his duties.
The Massachusetts General Court reelected him in November 1856, believing that his vacant chair in the Senate chamber served as a powerful symbol of free speech and resistance to slavery. He eventually returned to the Senate in 1859. He continued to serve in the Senate until his death in 1874.
There was an attempt to oust Preston Brooks from the House of Representatives but it failed. He was fined $300 for the assault and resigned his seat on July 15, 1856. He was re-elected by his constituents but died the following January before the new Congressional term began.
Lawrence Keitt resigned in protest over his censure by the House, but was overwhelmingly re-elected to his seat by his South Carolina constituency within a month. He was involved in a later incident in the House when he started a massive brawl in House on February 5, 1858.
Keitt insulted Pennsylvania Representative Galusha Grow calling him a “black Republican puppy”. Grow responded by telling Keitt that “No negro-driver shall crack his whip over me.” Keitt became enraged and went for Grow’s throat, shouting that he would “choke him for that”.
A massive brawl involving some 50 Representatives ensued. It ended when a missed punch from Rep. Cadwallader Washburn of Wisconsin upended the hairpiece of Rep. William Barksdale of Mississippi. The embarrassed Barksdale accidentally replaced the wig backwards, causing both sides to erupt in spontaneous laughter.
Keitt served as a delegate from South Carolina to the Provisional Confederate Congress, 1861–62, and a colonel in the Confederate States Army during the Civil War, commanding the 20th South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment and later Kershaw’s Brigade. Mortally wounded at the Battle of Cold Harbor on June 1, 1864, Keitt died the next day near Richmond, Virginia.