Life in the 1850s: Preston Brooks and Charles Sumner

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which I’ve previously briefly discussed, overturned the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The Missouri Compromise provided a boundary in the western territories, north of which slavery would be illegal and south of which it would be legal. The Kansas-Nebraska Act instead made slavery an issue to be decided by a vote of the settlers in a territory which opened a path for that expansion of the peculiar institution most desired by the plantation owners. The expansion of slavery would not only mean an increase in political power, as they elected more of their own to national office, but stood to further invigorate the slave trade, already a profitable enterprise for many as slaves were exported from the tobacco states of the upper south to the Cotton Kingdom. Emotions ran high in the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska act. Abolitionist groups organized groups of settlers, and noted abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher raised money to arm abolitionist settlers there, leading to Sharps rifles being nicknamed “Beecher’s Bibles”.* In response, equally well-armed pro-slavery activists poured across the border from Missouri, and the bloodshed only escalated as both sides watched with interest to see what the final outcome would be.

On May 20, 1856, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner gave a speech. Sumner was known for his speeches, which were lengthy, crammed with classical allusion, and delivered with an emphatic speaking style. He was also known for his utter lack of a sense of humor, and the utter seriousness with which he took himself, along with everything else. A paragraph from his May 20th speech, for example, went like this:

Take down your map, sir, and you will find that the Territory of Kansas, more than any other region, occupies the middle spot of North America, equally distant from the Atlantic on the east, and the Pacific on the west; from the frozen waters of Hudson’s Bay on the north, and the tepid Gulf Stream on the south, constituting the precise territorial centre of the whole vast continent. To such advantages of situation, on the very highway between two oceans, are added a soil of unsurpassed richness, and a fascinating, undulating beauty of surface, with a healthgiving climate, calculated to nurture a powerful and generous people, worthy to be a central pivot of American institutions. A few short months only have passed since this spacious and mediterranean country was open only to the savage who ran wild in its woods and prairies; and now it has already drawn to its bosom a population of freemen larger than Athens crowded within her historic gates, when her sons, under Miltiades, won liberty for mankind on the field of Marathon; more than Sparta contained when she ruled Greece, and sent forth her devoted children, quickened by a mother’s benediction, to return with their shields, or on them; more than Rome gathered on her seven hills, when, under her kings, she commenced that sovereign sway, which afterward embraced the whole earth; more than London held, when, on the fields of Crecy and Agincourt, the English banner was carried victoriously over the chivalrous hosts of France.

Right. Clearly he was a learned man. Just as clearly, he felt very strongly on the issue of slavery in Kansas:

But the wickedness which I now begin to expose is immeasurably aggravated by the motive which prompted it. 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 longing for a new slave State, the hideous offspring of such a crime, in the hope of adding to the power of slavery in the National Government. Yes, sir, when the whole world, alike Christian and Turk, is rising up to condemn this wrong, and to make it a hissing to the nations, here in our Republic, force, ay, sir, FORCE has been openly employed in compelling Kansas to this pollution, and all for the sake of political power. There is the simple fact, which you will in vain attempt to deny, but which in itself presents an essential wickedness that makes other public crimes seem like public virtues.

Still, he might not have had quite so many problems with his speech, in which he pounded heavily upon the wickedness of slavery and predicted that civil war was on its way, except that he then began to name names, and in particular the names of two fellow Senators: Andrew Butler of South Carolina and Stephen Douglas of Illinois. He then executed a neat rhetorical right turn to launch an attack upon the state of South Carolina itself, in a time when southerners felt more allegiance to their states than to their nation.

The Senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight, with sentimcuts 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 frenzy of Don Quixote, in behalf of his wench, Dulcinea del Toboso, is all surpassed. . . .

. . .the Senator from Illinois (Mr. Douglas) is the Squire of Slavery, its very Sancho Panza, ready to do all its humiliating offices. This Senator, in his labored address, vindicating his labored report—piling one mass of elaborate error upon another mass constrained himself, as you will remember, to un familiar decencies of speech.

. . .Were the whole history of South Carolina blotted out of existence, from its very beginning down to the day of the last election of the Senator to his present seat on this floor, civilization might lose—I do not say how little; but surely less than it has already gained by the example of Kansas, in its valiant struggle against oppression, and in the development of a new science of emigration.

Butler was not present that day to hear Sumner give his speech. Douglas’s only response was to turn to the Senator next to him and murmur, “This damn fool is going to get himself shot by some other damn fool.” As it turns out, Senator Douglas was mistaken. The other senator from South Carolina was present that day, a Mr. Preston Brooks.

Preston Brooks was, among other things, a relative of Andrew Butler. He’d also been expelled from South Carolina College for threatening police officers with firearms, and had been wounded in the hip in a duel earlier in life, forcing him to use a walking cane. He was enraged by Sumner’s speech, and initially thought to challenge Sumner to a duel. In the end, though, he decided that duels were matters of honor between peers, whereas Sumner was so far beneath him in social station as to be unworthy of such a compliment as a duel. Accordingly, Brooks waited for his chance, and on May 22, he got it. Brooks and two associates, Representative Laurence Keitt of South Carolina and Representative Henry Edmundson of Virginia, found Sumner nearly alone in the Senate chamber as Sumner sat at his desk working on yet another of his famous speeches.

Brooks approached Sumner’s desk and began to speak, saying “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.” But at this point, Sumner began to stand. Bad move, as it turns out, because when he moved Brooks snapped and began beating Sumner about the head with a gold-headed gutta percha cane. The desk was bolted to the floor, which kept Sumner trapped until, in desperation, he managed to rip the desk from its bolts. Blinded by his own blood, still under assault from Brooks, Sumner staggered up the aisle and then fell unconscious as Brooks continued to savagely beat him. Meanwhile, Keitt stood between Brooks and any who tried to interfere, holding a pistol and shouting “Let him be!” as behind him, Brooks raged on. He continued to beat Sumner until finally his cane broke, at which point he finally walked from the Senate chamber, accompanied by Keitt and Edmundson.

After the attack was over, Sumner was finally cared for. He would survive his injuries but not return to work for another three years. Brooks resigned from the Senate, but was re-elected immediately to the seat he vacated. His fans sent him new canes emblazoned with saying like “Hit him again!” His letter of resignation to the Senate outlined his reasons for attacking Sumner, and the justification for his methods:

Some time since a senator from Massachusetts allowed himself, in an elaborately prepared speech, to offer a gross insult to my State, and to a venerable friend who is my State representative and who was absent at the time. Not content with that, he published to the world. and circulated extensively, this uncalled-for libel on my State and my blood. Whatever insults my State insults me. Her history and character have commanded my pious veneration; and in her defense I hope I shall always be prepared, humbly and modestly, to perform the duty of a son. I should have forfeited my own self-respect, and perhaps the good opinion of my countrymen, if I had failed to resent such an injury by calling the offender in question to a personal account. . . .

If I desired to kill the senator why did I not do it? You all admit that I had him in my power. It was expressly to avoid taking life that I used an ordinary cane, presented to me by a friend in Baltimore nearly three months before its application to the “bare head” of the Massachusetts senator. I went to work very deliberately, as I am charged—and this is admitted—and speculated somewhat as to whether I should employ a horsewhip or a cowhide; but knowing that the senator was my superior in strength, it occurred to me that he might wrest it from my hand, and then—for I never attempt anything I do not perform—I might have been compelled to do that which I would have regretted the balance of my natural life.

My answer is, that the senator would not accept a message; and having formed the unalterable determination to punish him, I believed that the offense of “sending a hostile message,” superadded to the indictment for assault and battery, would subject me to legal penalties more severe than would be imposed for a simple assault and battery. That is my answer.

Brooks did not have long to enjoy his triumphal re-election to the Senate, dying on January 27, 1857 of croup. Charles Sumner returned to the Senate in 1859, serving until well into Reconstruction, and died in 1874. Laurence Keitt went on to start a brawl in the House of Representatives in 1860 (no, I’m not kidding) before being mortally wounded at the battle of Cold Harbor and dying on June 4, 1864. Henry Edmundson went on to serve in the Confederate Army and survived the war, dying in 1890 at his home Falling Waters in Shawsville, Virginia.

* The nickname was a result of an article in the New York Tribune, which characterized Beecher as “believ[ing] that the Sharps Rifle was a truly moral agency, and that there was more moral power in one of those instruments, so far as the slaveholders of Kansas were concerned, than in a hundred Bibles.”

Beecher Bibles at the Kansas State Historical Society.

The text of Sumner’s May 20th speech. Warning: very long and very dense. It will make you wish you had paid more attention in literature classes for sure.

Text of Preston Brooks’s resignation from the Senate. A model of brevity and clarity compared to Sumner’s speech, but the logic may cause modern minds to feel like they’re in the twilight zone.

Published in: on 24 July, 2009 at 04:39  Leave a Comment  
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