“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 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.”
— Sen. Charles Sumner in May, 1856
The summer of 1856 dawned upon an America in crisis. For eight decades from the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the nation had struggled to determine how it would deal with the question of slavery. Originally bottled up into the south by the Missouri Compromise in 1820, the Kansas-Nebraska Act had removed the restraints on the evil in 1854.
By 1856, senators and representatives from northern states were increasingly vocal in their belief that slavery was abhorrent and had to be constrained. Those in the south just as vociferously took the opposite view. Into that environment stepped a dashing Massachusetts senator who was as fervently anti-slavery as any member of that chamber. Charles Sumner was 6 feet 2 inches tall, weighed 185 pounds, and was 45 years old. A practicing lawyer and lecturer at Harvard Law School, he was as striking in his dress as he was in his physical appearance. When he took the Senate floor immediately after lunch on May 19, 1856, he was dressed in a light English tweed coat and lavender trousers.
It was oppressively hot for May in Washington — in excess of 90 degrees — and Sumner spoke through the remainder of the 19, and well into the 20. He assailed slavery, decried the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the violence that followed it, and charged that slavery threatened the nation’s Democratic institutions. On May 20, he turned his attentions to his fellow senators, first calling Stephen Douglas of Illinois a, “noise-some, squat, and nameless animal … not a proper model for an American senator.” Then, of South Carolina Sen.Andrew Butler, who was not present to defend himself, Sumner impugned his chivalry and said that slavery was his “mistress.” Douglas, in hearing these words, turned to a fellow senator and warned that Sumner was likely to get himself shot.
Though May 20 passed peacefully, at the close of the Senate’s business on May 22, Sumner sat at his desk processing some mail when Rep. Preston Brooks, Sen. Butler’s cousin, entered the chamber. As another member of Congress, his presence did not raise any alarms until Brooks approached Sumner from behind, raised a cane with a metal head, and proceeded to beat Sen. Sumner about the head and body for more than a minute as Sumner stumbled about the chamber, bloodied, and trying to defend himself — continuing the assault even after the cane snapped in two. Several senators attempted to intervene, but another South Carolina representative blocked them with a revolver and a command to “let them fight.”
The nation’s reaction was just as one would expect for the polarized time. Brooks became a hero in the south for defending a fellow southerner’s honor. Cities in Florida and Virginia, and a Georgia County were, in short order, named for him. Southern newspapers lauded him. A motion to expel him from the House failed, but he was convicted of assault, fined, resigned his House seat, and then was immediately reelected to it.
In the north, Sumner became a tragic hero. Though many had resisted his radical opposition to slavery, even if they disliked the practice on principle themselves, the reaction to the attack had the effect of rallying northerners around more stringent anti-slavery views. Northern newspapers lambasted pro-slavery forces in the south. Rallies were held from Boston to Cleveland to Detroit, and more than a million copies of the speech were printed. Ralph Waldo Emerson predicted the oncoming Civil War, stating, “We must get rid of slavery, or we must get rid of freedom.” Representatives and senators of both parties began to carry weapons into Congress to protect themselves.
Brooks returned to the house in the summer of 1856, but on Jan. 27, 1857 was overtaken, at age 37, by such a bout of croup that he attempted to rip open his own throat to breathe. He died within minutes. Sumner suffered serious head trauma and PTSD. He was reelected in 1856, despite being physically unable to return to Washington. His seat was left open as a symbol of the savagery of the attack and barbarity of pro-slavery forces. He returned to the Senate in 1859, delivered a series of strident speeches in 1860 and chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for a decade. He died at age 63 in 1874.
Our nation’s history shows the pendulum of unity and division swing repeatedly, but never so violently or drastically as when our nation’s representatives came to blows on the floor of Congress.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, where he has served as magistrate, court administrator, and now judge, since 2003. He has written a weekly column on law and history for The Gazette since 2005.