Thursday, May 22, 2008

May 22

Preston Brooks, a US Representative from South Carolina, attacked Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner with a gold-tipped cane on this date in 1856, beating him so severely that Sumner would be unable to resume his full duties until nearly four years had passed. Brooks was outraged by a speech delivered by Sumner two days earlier on the Senate floor, where he denounced the “crime against Kansas” being perpetrated by pro-slavery forces who were determined to extend the “peculiar institution” into the Midwest. Sumner singled out 89-year-old South Carolina Senator Andrew Pickens Butler -- Brooks’ uncle -- for special ridicule, accusing him of being smitten with “the harlot, Slavery,” for whom he had nothing but kind and chivalrous words.

During the course of the speech, Sumner dismissed Butler as a slobbering ignoramus, observing that
the Senator touches nothing which he does not disfigure with error, sometimes of principle, sometimes of fact. He shows an incapacity [for] accuracy, whether in stating the Constitution, or in stating the law, whether in the details of statistics or the diversions of scholarship. He cannot open his mouth, but out there flies a blunder . . .
Butler, believing “my State and my blood” had been libeled by the Senator from Massachusetts, vowed to avenge Sumner’s words. After consulting South Carolina Rep. Laurence Keitt on the proper reply to Sumner’s “libel,” Brooks carried out his plan on 22 May 1856.

Brooks chose not to challenge Sumner to a duel, in part because he knew the Senator would refuse the challenge, but also because dueling was a conventional means of settling disputes among social equals; Brooks regarded Sumner as an inferior man and chose to assault him in a manner reserved for “correcting” slaves or accosting drunkards. After approaching Sumner in the nearly vacant Senate chamber, Brooks shattered his cane -- a gift from a friend in Baltimore -- over the Senator’s head, surprising him as he was writing letters. Brooks delivered at least thirty blows before leaving the floor; he was assisted by his Keitt, who displayed a pistol and warned Sumner’s colleagues not to intervene. By the end of the assault, Sumner was nearly unconscious and was blinded by his own blood. For years, he suffered headaches and nightmares as a result of the incident.

For his part, Brooks received a $300 fine for the attack and was celebrated across his home state and throughout the South, where newspapers lined up to issue their praise. The House of Representatives voted to expel Brooks but fell short of the required two-thirds majority. Embittered, Brooks resigned his seat to seek re-election. Less than two months before he was to resume his place in Congress, Brooks died of croup in January 1857; a few days past the one-year anniversary of the beating of Charles Sumner, Andrew Butler joined his nephew in death.