Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Caning of Charles Sumner

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

So imagine you are a member of the United States Congress - pick the Senate or the House of matters not. Now imagine some senator gives a speech that does not sit so well with you. What would you do? I suppose beating that person senseless in the senate chamber is probably out of the question, right? Well, not if it is 1856 - they got to have all the fun!

This is a pretty well-known story but nevertheless, it's something to think about as we all sit around and complain about our own "do-nothing" Congress. These guys did plenty. As the story goes: Sumner had recently delivered a speech on the slavery issue in Kansas - a hot topic to be sure, that could easily get the ire up from either side of the debate. In this speech he named names - which included hurling insults at proponents of the pro-slavery  faction such as South Carolinian Andrew P. Butler. Preston Brooks, Butler's cousin and a congressman from the Palmetto State did not take so kindly to Sumner's insolent remarks.

Now, Brooks could have challenged Sumner to a duel, as some southerners were wont to do. But dueling was for social equals - and Brooks undoubtedly saw Sumner as nothing more than a weak abolitionist Yankee politician...hardly a gentleman of his caliber. (in case you are interested, - this is a great book on dueling) So instead he approached Sumner as he sat at his desk in the senate chamber, informed him of his offenses, and beat him bloody with a cane. He hit him 30 times if he hit him once. Sumner stood up, pulling the bolted chair out of the floor and collapsed covered with blood - the caning put him out of commission for the next several years.

Southerners rejoiced - hailing Brooks as a hero of southern principles. Some even sent him new canes that were inscribed with such phrases as "Hit Him Again." But the caning had perhaps unintended consequences that we might overlook. In ways this event galvanized the North. Many who might have been luke-warm on Sumner or the anti-slavery contingent suddenly saw things in a different light. The northern press portrayed Brooks as a typical southern hothead. In matters of contention, Brooks's actions proved that the proslavery South would do nothing less than resort to violence. Northerners who followed the story could easily concur with this perception - and many thus aligned accordingly.



P.S - I understand that historian Michael Holt (author of The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party) does a fantastic recreation of this event, where he plays both roles. I have never seen this personally, but I hear it is quite the show.


  1. Keith--Ever the interesting story, proving that today, partisanship has nothing on the 1850s version! Interestingly enough, Brooks did prefer dueling when it came to other members of Congress; I blogged about this episode earlier this year:

  2. Thanks for posting, Ron. Yes, the politicians of the 1850s could be a rowdy bunch. It always makes me laugh when news networks state that our country today is more divided than it has ever been in history. These guys don' t have much of a historical consciousness!