The Caning of Charles Sumner – note the inactivity (and sometimes glee) of the bystanders, Sumner’s noble poise, and the facelessness of Brooks (this way he could stand in for the whole South)
On this day in 1856, Senator Charles Sumner was beaten almost to death by Representative Preston Brooks. Sumner, an abolitionist from Massachusetts, had recently made a speech in the Senate entitled ‘The Crime Against Kansas’. In this impressive six hour speech, Sumner decried the violence in Kansas between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers (who were fighting over the future of slavery in the territory) and specifically targeted slavery itself and Southerners. One character he singled out was South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, who Sumner openly accused of taking one of his black slaves as a mistress. This was considered an affront against his honour, and his relative Preston Brooks sought revenge. Brooks considered challenging Sumner to an Old-South style duel, but felt that this would be to imply that they were social equals. Brooks instead resolved to try to kill the abolitionist, marching into his office two days after the speech and repeatedly striking the senator with a cane until Sumner was beaten unconscious and Brooks’s cane shattered. Several other Southern Congressmen were present and prevented anyone from helping Sumner.
“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”
– Brooks to Sumner before beating him unconscious
Preston Brooks (1819 – 1857)
The attack sharply divided national opinion; Northerners called Brooks barbaric and suggested the incident represented how slaveholders treat everyone like slaves, whereas in the South Brooks became a hero, with pieces of his cane being honoured like relics and people sending him a cane inscribed with the words ‘Hit him again!’. Sumner did not return to the Senate for three years, and the Massachusetts legislature decided to leave his seat empty – a poignant symbol of the brutality of slaveholders. Brooks meanwhile, was fined $300 and resigned from the House after a motion to expel him failed, but he was soon re-elected anyway.
Charles Sumner (1811 – 1874)
The caning of Charles Sumner was a pivotal moment on the road to Civil War. The violence in Kansas – known as ‘Bleeding Kansas’ – stretched sectional violence all the way from the Western frontier to the nation’s capital. These events were capitalised on by the fledgling Republican Party in the 1856 presidential election. They used the imagery of ‘Bleeding Kansas’ and ‘Bleeding Sumner’, even handing out copies of Sumner’s Kansas speech, to rally Northern anti-slavery voters to their cause by invoking the idea of a Southern ‘Slave Power’ conspiracy to spread slavery across the whole country. Whilst the Republican candidate John C. Fremont lost to the Democrat James Buchanan, the election was considered a ‘victorious defeat’ for the young party as it firmly established the Republicans as the main rival to the Democrats – besting its next closest rivals the anti-immigrant Know-Nothings. Sectional tension over slavery only continued after 1856, with the infamous Dred Scott decision the next year prompting outrage from Northerners and support from Southerners. Tensions came to a head in the 1860 election, which saw a final sectional split of the political parties and culminated in the election of anti-slavery Republican Abraham Lincoln to the presidency. The Southern states were horrified by his election, fearing an attack on slavery, and soon seceded from the Union. Once Confederate forces fired upon the Union Fort Sumter in South Carolina, war broke out. And the rest, they say, is history.