150th anniversary of a caning

In 1856, Charles Sumner’s tirade against slavery won him national fame – and a crack on the head

us sen. edward Kennedy stirs up the emotions of both supporters and detractors. The Bay State’s senior senator rallies the Democratic Party faithful like nobody else. And the mere mention of his name, in a direct-mail piece, can raise millions for the GOP from its most extreme quarters. But who can imagine a congressman bursting into the Senate and beating Kennedy, nearly to death, with a stick? That’s what happened to another US senator from Massachusetts, 150 years ago this spring.

Charles Sumner was a Republican with clout, seniority, and a national profile comparable to Kennedy—and when it came to attracting the enmity of his political opponents, he was even more of a lightning rod. In 1854, Sumner led Senate opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, introduced by Illinois Democrat Stephen Douglas, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and allowed for “popular sovereignty” to decide whether slavery would exist in the new western territories.

Abolitionists like Sumner believed that if settlers in Kansas and Nebraska were allowed to vote on the issue, it would mean an extension of slavery. When the bill passed despite his opposition, Sumner supported the formation of the New England Emigrant Aid Company and encouraged his abolitionist-minded neighbors to move to Kansas and vote against making it a slave state. But pro-slavery forces in adjacent states were doing the same thing, and their number dwarfed the anti-slavery northerners who settled in the territory. Sumner called the pro-slavery transplants “murderous robbers from Missouri” and “hirelings picked from the drunken spew and vomit of an uneasy civilization.”

When the Senate convened on December 5, 1855, Sumner predicted the session wouldn’t pass “without the Senate chamber’s becoming the scene of some unparalleled outrage,” but he scarcely imagined it would be committed against him. At one o’clock in the afternoon of May 19, 1856, Sumner took the floor of the Senate to speak against Douglas’s bill to admit Kansas to the Union as a slave state. He railed for three straight hours in a speech he called “The Crime Against Kansas.”

His fellow senators had other words for it. Sen. Lewis Cass of Michigan called it “the most un-American and unpatriotic” address “that ever grated on the ears” of the Senate. From the rear of the chamber, Douglas was heard calling Sumner a “damn fool,” likely to “get himself killed by some other damn fool.” As word of Sumner’s harangue spread through Washington, crowds thronged the Senate galleries. On the other side of the capitol, the House adjourned early and congressmen of both parties crowded the Senate lobby. “No such scene,” the New York Evening Post reported, had been “witnessed in that body since the days” of another Massachusetts senator and orator extraordinaire, Daniel Webster.

When the Senate reconvened the next day, Sumner continued his invective. This time, however, his targets were ready to give as good as they got. Douglas told his colleagues it was “well known” and “the subject of conversation for weeks” that Sumner’s speech had been “practiced every night before the glass with a Negro boy to hold the candle and watch [his] gestures.” The histrionics, Douglas claimed, annoyed Sumner’s fellow boarders “until they were forced to quit the house” where they were lodging.

Sumner struck back by calling Douglas “the squire of slavery, its very Sancho Panza” and described the absent Sen. Andrew Butler of South Carolina as Don Quixote, charging that Butler had as his mistress “the harlot Slavery,” a paramour “who, though ugly to others” was “always lovely to him.” Butler, added Sumner, couldn’t “ope his mouth, but out there flies a blunder.”

In antebellum America, those were fighting words. One of the congressmen listening from the gallery was 36-year-old Preston Brooks, a second-termer from South Carolina who, until then, was most noted for having proposed that lawmakers leave their firearms in the cloakroom before entering the House chamber. Brooks, a nephew of Butler, felt Sumner had insulted him, his uncle, and every Southerner, and vowed to respond.

Although he’d fought a duel in his youth, Brooks knew that no Southern gentleman would challenge Sumner in this manner; doing so would give the Massachusetts senator respect he didn’t deserve. When insulted by an inferior, the only way to avenge the slur was with a cane or horsewhip.

When the Senate adjourned two days later, Brooks entered the chamber and found Sumner sitting at his desk, franking copies of “The Crime Against Kansas” to send out to constituents. As Sumner later recalled the event, Brooks declared he’d read the speech “twice over carefully” and found it to be “a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.” The congressman remembered using more fanciful language, telling Sumner he’d read the speech “with care and as much impartiality as possible,” concluding that the senator had libeled his state and “slandered a relative who is aged and absent.” Not only that, but he’d “come to punish” him for it.


there was no disagreement over what happened next. As Sumner rose from his chair, Brooks struck the senator with a gutta-percha walking stick, delivering “about 30 first-rate stripes,” as he reportedly said to his brother the next day. (“Every lick,” he boasted, “went where I intended.”) The attack lasted less than a minute but would’ve continued longer if the cane, which was hollow with a gold head and weighed less than a pound, hadn’t broken in half.

“Towards the last,” Brooks blustered, the bloodied and battered Sumner “bellowed like a calf.” As two other congressmen pulled Brooks away, he said he hadn’t meant to kill Sumner but “did intend to whip him.”

Brooks felt that Sumner had insulted the entire South.

The senator lay sprawled in the aisle, “as senseless as a corpse,” according to a report in the New York Tribune, “his head bleeding copiously from the frightful wounds.” When he regained consciousness, he took a few sips of water and was carried to a sofa in the Senate lobby. After a doctor stitched and dressed his wounds, a carriage was brought and took the senator home to bed. His condition stabilized, but his physician felt it “absolutely necessary that he should be kept quiet” and not told “the extent of his injuries.”

As Sumner drifted off to sleep, mumbling that he couldn’t “believe that a thing like this was possible,” news of his assault traveled nationwide. By the time he awoke, his wounds were transformed into a crown of martyrdom—at least in the North. At the same time, Brooks was arrested, freed on $500 bail, and became a hero in the South.

A House committee investigated and recommended expulsion, but Brooks moved pre-emptively to make a martyr of himself, delivering a speech in the House justifying his actions and then dramatically resigning his seat, only to be elected again almost immediately.

Sumner returned to Boston, holed up in his Beacon Hill home, and refused to see anyone but his closest friends, while his speech made the rounds. The New York Tribune printed almost a million copies of “The Crime Against Kansas,” which Republican strategists bought at 20 cents a dozen and $20 per thousand and distributed throughout the North.

Although his physical injuries healed within months, Sumner’s mental and emotional state remained fragile. In January 1857, Sumner was reelected to the US Senate, but rather than return to Washington, he spent the next eight months in Europe. When he learned Brooks had died—at 37, apparently of natural causes—Sumner went back to Washington for the 35th congressional session. Soon after adjournment, however, he again sailed for Europe and recuperated abroad until November 1859.

In 1860, Sumner supported the election of Abraham Lincoln, and the two later became close friends. Although Lincoln wouldn’t issue the Emancipation Proclamation until 1862, Sumner’s early insistence upon the total overthrow of slavery paved the way for it.

Meet the Author
In 1869, his bust was placed in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. When he died in 1874, Sumner was the longest-serving member of the US Senate. Statues were erected in the Public Garden and Harvard Square, and a three-quarter-length portrait was hung in the State House.

Nonetheless, as we mark the sesquicentennial of his caning at the hands of a fellow lawmaker, Charles Sumner seems largely forgotten. Ask Bostonians today about him and the best you could hope for is a guess that the Sumner Tunnel running under Boston Harbor was named after him. But that’s because they have even less recollection of his distant relative, East Boston landowner William Sumner.