(Congressman Brooks Beating Senator Sumner, by John L. Magee (c.1820–c.1870), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
Charles Sumner, a member of the Free-Soil Party and an ally of the Republican Party, was elected to the United States Senate in 1851. The top priority of Sumner and the Free-Soil Party was to quarantine slavery and not let it spread to new U. S. territories.
Though Sumner’s stalwart stance against the expansion of slavery gained him many enemies, it was a single speech in 1856, titled “Crime Against Kansas,” that would bring his life into mortal danger. In the speech, Sumner launched into a vitriolic verbal attack against the states, and state representatives, that supported slavery. He targeted two Democrat Senators in particular: Stephen Douglas from Illinois and Andrew Butler from South Carolina. Unfortunately for Sumner, by criticizing Senator Butler, he unknowingly drew the ire of South Carolina Democrat Congressman Preston Smith Brooks—Senator Butler was a relative and friend of Congressman Brooks. When he heard of the “Crime Against Kansas” speech, Preston Brooks, a veteran from the Mexican-American War, immediately sought to restore the honor of his tarnished relative.
That was why Congressman Preston Brooks marched into the Senate chamber on May 22, 1856. The Senate had just ended its business for the day, and Senator Sumner was gathering his belongings and tidying copies of his speeches, totally unaware of the approaching South Carolinian statesman. It was then that Congressman Brooks cracked Senator Sumner over the head with a metal-tipped cane. He continued to relentlessly bludgeon Sumner until the man fell unconscious, only ending his assault when nearby Senators pulled Congressman Brooks away from his prey.
Senator Sumner took more than three years to recover from the brutal beating. The assailant, Congressman Preston Brooks, faced very little repercussions for his actions; he only faced a moderate monetary fine. Brooks soon resigned from the House of Representatives and returned to South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union to start the United States Civil War in 1861.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.