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1856 - Caning Senator Sumner

On May 22, 1856, the "world's greatest deliberative body" became a combat zone. In one of the most dramatic and deeply ominous moments in the Senate's entire history, a member of the House of Representatives entered the Senate chamber and savagely beat a senator into unconsciousness. Tall and handsome, Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner was also pompous and arrogant. Those latter traits got him into trouble in May of 1856.

Sumner, a Massachusetts antislavery Republican, addressed the Senate on the explosive issue of whether Kansas should be admitted to the Union as a slave state or a free state. In his "Crime Against Kansas" speech, Sumner identified two Democratic senators as the principal culprits in this crime—Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina. He characterized Douglas to his face as a "noise-some, squat, and nameless animal . . . not a proper model for an American senator."

Mocking Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina as a man of chivalry, and using shockingly explicit and sexually-charged language, Sumner accused Butler of taking taking "a mistress . . . who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight — I mean," added Sumner, "the harlot, Slavery."

Several days later, a House member who was related to Butler entered the Senate Chamber and savagely beat Sumner with a heavy walking stick. Representative Preston Brooks was Butler's South Carolina kinsman. If he had believed Sumner to be a gentleman, he might have challenged him to a duel. Instead, he chose a light cane of the type used to discipline unruly dogs.

Bleeding profusely, Sumner was carried away. Brooks walked calmly out of the chamber without being detained by the stunned onlookers. Overnight, both men became heroes in their respective regions. Surviving a House censure resolution, Brooks resigned, was immediately reelected, and soon thereafter died at age 37. Sumner recovered slowly and returned to the Senate, where he remained for another 18 years.

The caning of Senator Sumner signalled the end of an era of compromise and sectional accommodation in the Senate, further heightening the discord that culminated in war after eleven southern states seceded from the Union during the winter of 1860-1861. The nation, suffering from the breakdown of reasoned discourse that this event symbolized, tumbled onward toward the catastrophe of civil war.





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Page last modified: 07-09-2017 17:00:26 ZULU