If you think politics are nasty now, consider this. On May 22, 1856, an angry young Congressman from South Carolina entered the Senate chamber searching for a certain older Senator from Massachusetts. When the younger man honed in on his target, shit got really real, really fast. Preston Brooks beat Charles Sumner brutally with a gold-tipped cane until it broke into pieces. Then he calmly walked away, not knowing if his victim was dead or alive.
(Side note: Can you picture Nancy Pelosi and Mitch O’Connell duking it out in the Senate Chamber? Sublime.)
What had the Senator from Massachusetts done to deserve such a smackdown? He took issue with humans being bought and sold as property. Imagine that.
Senator Charles Sumner was an ardent abolitionist. He had a bone to pick with his fellow senators who were in favor of allowing slavery to spread into America’s new western territories. During a speech he gave on May 19, 1856, one of the senators Sumner called out was Andrew Pickens Butler of South Carolina. Sumner accused him of taking “that harlot, slavery,” as his mistress, and accused the South of immorality for allowing slavery in the first place.
It did not go over well in Dixie, as one might imagine.
Butler was not present at the time, as he was recuperating from an illness. But his nephew Preston Brooks, a member of the House of Representatives from South Carolina, caught wind of Sumner’s speech and decided southern and family honor was at stake. The Yankee must pay for believing it’s immoral for human beings to enslave other human beings.
Three days later, on May 22, Preston Brooks found Charles Sumner working at his desk. Brooks began beating the defenseless older man savagely with a cane that was a gift for winning a duel several years earlier. Even when Sumner fell to the floor, Brooks continued to strike him on the head and body. Brooks stopped only after his cane shattered into pieces and was rendered useless.
Apparently, sneaking up on an old dude and beating the piss out of him is the epitome of defending southern honor.
Brooks turned around and left the Senate chamber with poor Sumner splayed on the floor bloody, broken, and unconscious. Senator Sumner almost died from his injuries but managed to pull through. It took him three years to recover, and he would suffer from severe headaches and PTSD for the rest of his life.
Not surprisingly, northerners were outraged by this attack on Charles Sumner. Equally not surprisingly, in the south, Brooks was celebrated as a hero.
Southerners from all over the region sent him replacement canes. Although Brooks had resigned, he was re-elected to the House by a landslide, two actions that upset Americans in the north almost as much as the original assault.
Brooks (I always imagine him speaking with Foghorn Leghorn’s voice)returned to Congress but died suddenly less than a year after he attacked Senator Sumner. Too bad, so sad.
After his return to the Senate in 1860, Charles Sumner gave another passionate anti-slavery speech entitled “The Barbarism of Slavery.” Once more, he was vilified and even threatened, but at least no-one resorted to physical violence this time.
Unfortunately, there was plenty of that to come, as the country was poised on the edge of the Civil War, the bloodiest, most messed -up conflict in United States history.