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Editor’s note: We welcome Joanna back for one more post!

–by Joanna Hallac

Not long ago, I wrote a post on the Old Senate Chamber and mentioned just a few of the things that took place in that much-revered room. However, one of the most infamous events in Senate history took place there in 1856: the caning of Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts by Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina.

Sumner portrait, ca. 1860 (Library of Congress)

The incident, which may not be a strong enough word to describe the vicious beating, stemmed from a speech made by Sumner on the floor of the Senate known as the “Crime Against Kansas” speech regarding the events of “Bleeding Kansas” earlier that year. In his speech, Sumner, a staunch abolitionist, put the blame for the violence in Kansas at the feet of Democratic senators, particularly Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina. Sumner was crude in his comments about both men, though Butler was not present for the verbal assault in which Sumner accused him of having a mistress—“the harlot, Slavery.”

ca. 1857 portrait of Brooks (Library of Congress)

A relative of Andrew Butler, Rep. Preston Brooks, obviously did not take kindly to hearing his family described in such a way. Rather than challenging Sumner to a duel—as was still practiced by some at the time—or finding some other way to address this insult, Brooks took a cane, walked into the Senate chamber, found Brooks at his desk, and began to beat him viciously with the cane until it actually broke. A bloody and unconscious Sumner was carried out of the chamber, while Brooks walked out with no detainment and little consequence. Although Brooks would be censured by the House, he retained his seat; he then decided to resign and run in the special election to fill his seat, which he indeed won. Brooks died a short while later at just 37 years old. Sumner, on the other hand, took years to fully recover from the physically and emotionally traumatic beating, though he finally did return to the Senate and served another three terms.

Depiction of the caning

This 1856 print, probably by Winslow Homer, depicts the caning with a sympathetic bias toward Sumner and northern perceptions of the incident. Brooks raises his cane against an unsuspecting Sumner, while Congressman Lawrence Keitt (South Carolina) conceals a pistol behind his back and uses his cane to fend off any member who might wish to come to Sumner’s assistance. The quote across the top comes from a speech Henry Ward Beecher gave at a Sumner rally shortly after the caning. (Library of Congress)

The so-called “Golden Age of the Senate,” if not already waning, most surely came to an abrupt end in the aftermath of Sumner’s caning followed soon after by the secession of southern states and start of the Civil War. The episode serves as a somber reminder of our country’s often turbulent history and is a dark mark on an otherwise majestic chamber in which the men within its walls were able on two occasions to avert the dissolution of the Union. Today’s Senate, though thankfully free of actual bloodshed, is also terribly low on compromise. See? History does have a knack for repeating itself.

Additional Information
PBS page on the caning
Senate History page on the caning