“The Union is being held together by threads of cotton” – Ralph Waldo Emerson –
Though our country seems sadly divided these days with disagreements evident on social media, talk shows and at family dinner tables, it’s hardly the first time in American history we’ve been at odds, and so far, no elected official has been beaten with a cane to an inch of his life.
Slavery was the most divisive national issue from the 1830s through the 1860s, impacted by Western expansion and new states entering the Union. Cotton was the most valuable commodity, and slavery seemed an economic necessity to many Americans. Textile mills in the North and Great Britain required over 18 million pounds of cotton annually to create cloth. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 increased the demand for cheap labor and replaced tobacco and rice with King Cotton. At the beginning of the Civil War, there were four million slaves in the United States, though only a third of Southerners owned slaves.
Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner (1811-1874) was committed to ending slavery. Not only was he opposed to it on moral grounds as many were, but he advocated equality and civil rights for everyone, including voting rights for African American men.
Sumner saw slavery as “a matter of cotton versus conscience…There is an unholy union between cotton planters and the flesh mongers of Louisiana and Mississippi and the cotton spinners and traffickers of New England – between the Lords of the Lash and the Lords of the Loom.” The Senator was infuriated by the Kansas-Nebraska Act that permitted residents of these new territories to vote on whether they would or would not allow slavery. It was called popular sovereignty and turned Kansas into a battleground.
Author Harriet Beecher Stowe worked to defeat this federal Act by “trying to secure a universal arousing of the pulpit.” She believed slavery could not survive if all the churches in the land spoke against it in a unified voice. She collected signatures from 3050 clergymen on a 200-foot long petition that she sent to Washington. Unfortunately, it arrived by mail ten days after Congress approved it.
Charles Sumner was a handsome, powerfully built, 45-year old Harvard graduate. The Bostonian was a gifted orator, though according to contemporaries, he was also self-righteous and lacked empathy. He saw only one side of an argument and often expressed disdain for those who disagreed with his viewpoint. “Sumner uses words as boys do stones,” said a friend, “to break windows and knock down flowerpots while all the time playing the offended.”
On May 19 and 20, 1856, Sumner delivered an incendiary five-hour speech on the Senate floor denouncing the Kansas–Nebraska Act and demanding the admission of Kansas as a free state. “The Crime Against Kansas” nearly cost him his life. Southerners thought the speech was a direct attack on their traditional way of life. Many in the North considered it too vindictive since business there depended on trade with the south. Sumner accused pro-slavers of being “murderers and assassins.” He verbally attacked Senators Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina, authors of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He even mocked Butler who was absent from Congress due to a stroke.
Preston Brooks, a Representative from South Carolina who owned 85 slaves, was determined to avenge the South. Since he didn’t consider Sumner a “man of honor,” he decided against challenging him to a duel. Instead, his weapon would be the cane he used to support the limp from a bullet wound he’d suffered in a duel.
On May 22 Congressman Brooks entered the Senate chamber with several supporters, where Sumner sat his desk signing printed copies of his 112-page speech. Not wishing ladies to witness what was about to take place, they waited for the room to clear before Brooks approached the Senator.
“Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina and on Senator Butler who is a relative of mine. I’ve come to punish you for it.” Brooks then raised his cane and began pounding the defenseless Senator over the head with it. The senator’s long legs were pinned under the heavy desk which was bolted to the floor as Brooks continued the beating. Sumner finally managed to struggle to his feet, ripping the desk from the floor in a desperate attempt to escape. Blinded by his own blood, he staggered up the aisle which only made him an easier target. Even when the cane broke, Brooks continued hitting Sumner with its gold head. Sumner lost consciousness, “bellowing like a calf,” according to Brooks, who then grabbed the falling Senator, holding him up with one hand as he kept hitting. Several other Senators and Representatives attempted to help Sumner, but were blocked by Brooks’ colleagues, warning, “Let them be!”
“Stop!” one southern colleague finally shouted. “Don’t kill him!”
“I gave Sumner thirty first-rate strikes,” Brooks later said. “And repeated it ’til I was satisfied.”
“I did not know such a thing was possible,” Sumner moaned. The injured senator was helped to a cloakroom where he received first aid before being transported by carriage to his lodgings.
Repercussions were swift as millions of copies of Sumner’s volatile speech were distributed across the country. There were rallies in support of the Senator in numerous northern cities. In Kansas, militant abolitionist John Brown, who admired Sumner as a martyr to the cause, murdered five pro-slavery farmers the next day. All abolitionists were subsequently judged madmen by the South.
Sumner’s fellow Massachusetts senator stood to address Congress the following day. “The seat of my colleague is vacant today for the first time in five years of public service.” Sumner became a martyred hero in the North while Brooks was championed in the South. Northerners considered it an affront to free speech. According to the Cincinnati Gazette, “The South cannot tolerate free speech anywhere, and would stifle it in Washington with the bludgeon and the bowie-knife, as they are now trying to stifle it in Kansas by massacre and murder.”
Pieces of the cane used by Brooks were left scattered on the blood-soaked floor, some ending up on display in the Boston State House. Southern lawmakers made rings out of other pieces worn around the neck in solidarity with Preston Brooks. “The pieces of my cane are sought after as sacred relics,” the Congressman boasted. “Every Southern man is delighted while the abolitionists are like a hive of disturbed bees.”
The Southern press was nearly unanimous in applauding his attack, praising Brooks as “a chivalrous defender of Southern honor.” The Richmond Enquirer said Sumner should be caned “every morning,” for it was “good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequences.” The journalist denounced “vulgar abolitionists in the Senate… (who) must be lashed into submission.” Brooks received hundreds of canes from Southerner supporters, some inscribed ‘Hit Him Again.”
“A most glorious deed! Mr. Brooks of South Carolina, administered to Senator Sumner, a notorious abolitionist from Massachusetts, an effectual and classic caning. We are rejoiced. The only regret we feel is that Mr. Brooks did not employ a slave whip instead of a stick.” –The Richmond Whig
Congressman Brooks was arrested for assault but released on $500 bail after agreeing to return for trial. He noted that had he intended to kill Sumner he would have chosen a different weapon. He was arrested for assault and tried in a District of Columbia court, convicted, and fined $300 but received no prison sentence. Censured, he resigned, then won back his seat. He later issued a written apology, not for caning Sumner but for doing so inside the senate chamber.
Years later, when Sumner was asked if he harbored any hatred towards Preston Brooks, he replied he did not “for it was slavery and not he that struck those blows.”
Sumner suffered severe headaches and persistent pain along with infections from his wounds. Sometimes he could not even walk, though determined to regain his health, rode horseback. His symptoms seemed consistent with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. “When despairing of his condition,” he noted, he “would simply remind himself that slaves suffered far worse every day.”
In the South, Sumner was accused of faking his injuries. Enemies argued that the cane Brooks used was not heavy enough to inflict severe injury and that Brooks had not hit Sumner hard or long enough to threaten his health.
Although Sumner understood that his empty chair in Congress was symbolic, and a powerful political statement, he hated being missing public life and was determined to return to the Senate. It was three and a half years before he was well enough to take his seat again, where after another hiatus for medical treatment in Paris, he served another fifteen years until the day of his death from a heart attack.
Sumner was among the founders of the Free Soil Party, heralding “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor & Free Men.” He also served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In 1849, Sumner represented African American parents in a legal case to desegregate schools in Boston, arguing before the Supreme Judicial Court that white children were harmed by segregation as much as their black counterparts. He helped create the Freedman’s Bureau, providing schools and land to ex-slaves and fought for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which offered citizenship and other legal rights to former slaves.
The attack on Senator Sumner polarized an already divided nation. According to historians, the result was extremism, militancy, and anger on both sides, rendering further compromise impossible. The gulf was now too wide to bridge. The caning resulted in thousands joining the new Republican party that would elect Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and also led to the founding of the Confederacy.
The Senator’s final words before dying were, “Don’t let the Civil Rights Bill fail!” referring to post-Reconstruction legislation he championed to advanced the cause of southern blacks. Charles Sumner would be remembered as “one who marched ahead of his followers when they feared to follow.”
Partisan and polarized as the country seems today, it was much more so back in the 1850s.
(Numerous sources were consulted for this article, the major one being The Caning: The Assault That Drove America to the Civil War by Stephen Puleo. (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2012).
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