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The official reports show that the proceedings of the American Congress, while in the main conducted with becoming propriety and decorum, have occasionally been dishonored by angry personal altercations and scenes of ruffianly violence. These disorders increased as the great political struggle over the slavery question grew in intensity, and reached their culmination in a series of startling incidents. 

Charles Sumner, one of the Senators from the State of Massachusetts, had become conspicuous, in the prevailing political agitation, for his aggressive and radical anti-slavery speeches in the Senate and elsewhere. The slavery issue had brought him into politics; he had been elected to the United States Senate by the coalition of a small number of Free-soilers with the Democrats in the Massachusetts Legislature.

The slavery question, therefore, became the dominant principle and the keynote of his public career. He was a man of liberal culture, of considerable erudition in the law, of high literary ability, and he had attained an enviable social eminence. Of large physical frame and strength, gifted with a fine presence and a sonorous voice, fearless and earnest in his opposition to slavery, Charles Sumner was one of the favorite orators of the early declamatory period of the Republican party.

He joined unreservedly in the exciting Senate debates, provoked by the rival applications from Kansas for her admission as a State. On the 19th and 20th of May, 1856, he delivered an elaborate speech in the Senate, occupying two days. It was one of his greatest efforts and had been prepared with his usual industry. In character, it was a philippic rather than an argument, strong, direct, and aggressive, in which classical illustration and acrimonious accusation were blended with great effect.

It described what he called "The Crime against Kansas"; and the excuses for the crime he denominated the apology tyrannical, the apology imbecile, the apology absurd, and the apology infamous. "Tyranny, imbecility, absurdity, and infamy," he continued, "all unite to dance, like the weird sisters, about this crime."

In the course of his speech he alluded, among others, to A.P. Butler, of South Carolina, and in reply to some severe strictures by that Senator during preceding debates, indulged in caustic personal criticism upon his course and utterance, as well as upon the State which he represented.

    With regret [said Sumner], I come again upon the Senator from South Carolina [Mr. Butler], who, omnipresent in this debate, overflowed with rage at the simple suggestion that Kansas had applied for admission as a State; and with incoherent phrases discharged the loose expectoration of his speech, now upon her representative and then upon her people. There was no extravagance of the ancient parliamentary debate which he did not repeat; nor was there any possible deviation from truth which he did not make, with so much of passion, I am glad to add, as to save him from the suspicion of intentional aberration. But the Senator touches nothing which he does not disfigure--with error, sometimes of principle, sometimes of fact. He shows an incapacity of accuracy, whether in stating the Constitution or in stating the law, whether in details of statistics or the diversions of scholarship. He cannot open his mouth but out there flies a blunder.

Charles Sumner
Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts


Butler was not present in the Senate on either day; what he might have said or done, had he been there, can only be conjectured. The immediate replies from Douglas and others were very bitter. Among pro-slavery members of both Houses, there was an undercurrent of revengeful murmurs. It is possible that this hostile manifestation may have decided a young member of the House, Preston S. Brooks, a nephew of Senator Butler, to undertake retaliation by violence. Acquainting Henry A. Edmundson, another member, with his design, he waited on two different occasions at the western entrance to the Capitol grounds to encounter Mr. Sumner, but without meeting him.

On the 22d of May, two days after the speech, Brooks entered the Senate Chamber on the same errand. The session had been short, and after adjournment Sumner remained at his desk, engaged in writing. The sessions were at that time held in the old Senate Chamber, now occupied by the Supreme Court. The seats were arranged in semicircles, with a railing to separate them from a narrow lobby or open space next the wall; a broad aisle ran from the main door to the desk of the presiding officer. Mr. Sumner's seat was in the outside row next to the railing, at the second desk to the right from the entrance and the main aisle. Occupied with his work, Mr. Sumner did not notice Mr. Brooks, sitting across the aisle to his left, and wherein conversation with a friend he was manifesting his impatience that a lady seated near Mr. Sumner did not take her departure from the chamber. Almost at that moment she arose and went out; quickly afterwards Brooks got up and advanced to the front of Sumner's desk. The act attracted the attention of Brooks's friend; he was astonished, amid the bitterness of party feeling, to see a South Carolina Representative talk to a Massachusetts Senator. His astonishment was quickly corrected. Leaning upon the desk and addressing Sumner with a rapid sentence or two, to the effect that he had read his speech, that it was a libel upon his absent relative, and that he had come to punish him for it, Brooks began striking him on the head with a gutta-percha walking-cane, of the ordinary length and about an inch in diameter.

Surprised, blinded, and stunned by the blows, Sumner's first instinct was to grapple with his assailant. This effort, however, was futile; the desk was between them, and being by his sitting posture partially under it, Sumner was prevented from rising fully to his feet until he had by main strength, in his struggles, wrenched it from its fastenings on the floor. In his attempt to follow Brooks they became turned, and from between the desks moved out into the main aisle. By this time, through the repetition of the heavy blows and loss of blood, Sumner became unconscious. Brooks, seizing him by the coat collar, continued his murderous attack till Sumner, reeling in utter helplessness, sank upon the floor beside the desk nearest the aisle, one row nearer the center of the chamber than his own. The witnesses variously estimated the number of blows given at from ten to thirty. Two principal wounds, two inches long and an inch deep, had been cut on the back of Sumner's head; and near the end of the attack, Brooks's cane was shivered to splinters.

There were perhaps ten or fifteen persons in the chamber, and after the first momentary pause of astonishment half, a dozen started to interfere. Before they reached the spot, however, Lawrence M. Keitt, another South Carolina Representative, came rushing down the main aisle, brandishing his cane, and with imprecations warning lookers-on to "let them alone." Among those hastening to the rescue, Mr. Morgan arrived first, just in time to catch and sustain the Senator as he fell. Another bystander, who had run round outside the railing, seized Brooks by the arm about the same instant; and the wounded man was borne to an adjoining room, where he was cared for by a hastily summoned physician.

Among Mr. Sumner's friends, the event created a certain degree of consternation. The language which provoked the assault, whatever might be thought of its offensive character, was strictly parliamentary, uninterrupted either by the chair or by any member. The assault itself was so desperate and brutal that it implied a vindictiveness deeper than mere personal revenge. This spirit of bullying, this resort to violence, had recently become alarmingly frequent among members of Congress, especially as it all came from the pro-slavery party. Since the beginning of the current session, a pro-slavery member from Virginia had assaulted the editor of a Washington newspaper; another pro-slavery member, from Arkansas, had violently attacked Horace Greeley on the street; a third pro-slavery member, from California, had shot an unoffending waiter at Willard's Hotel. Was this fourth instance the prelude of an intention to curb or stifle free Congressional debate? It is probable that this question was seriously considered at the little caucus of Republican Senators held that night at the house of Mr. Seward. The Republicans had only a slender minority in the Senate, and a plurality in the House; they could do nothing but resolve on a course of parliamentary inquiry, and agree on an attitude of defense.

Sumner's colleague, Henry Wilson, made a very brief announcement of the occurrence to the Senate on the following day, and it at once became apparent that the transaction would assume an almost strictly party character. As no Democratic Senator proposed an inquiry, Mr. Seward moved for a committee of investigation; upon which James M. Mason, of Virginia, proposed that the committee should be elected by ballot. The result was that no Republican was chosen upon it; and the committee reached the conclusion that it had no power in the premises, except to report the occurrence to the House. In the House, the usual committee from the three parties was raised, resulting in two reports. The minority, sustained by the vote of sixty members, pleaded a want of jurisdiction. The majority recommended the expulsion of Brooks, and expressed disapprobation by the House of the course of his colleague, Edmundson, in countenancing the assault, and of the act of Keitt in his personal interference. But the necessary two-thirds vote for the expulsion of Brooks could not be obtained; a vote of censure was therefore passed by a large majority. The discussion of the report and resolutions occupied the House several days, and whatever effort members made to disguise their motives, their actions, either of condemnation or of excuse, arose in the main clearly enough from their party relations. Under the forms of parliamentary debate, the South and the North were breathing mutual recrimination and defiance.

The public of both sections took up the affair with equal party zeal. From the North came resolutions of legislatures, outbursts of indignation in meetings and addresses, and the denunciation of Brooks and his deed in the newspapers. In the South, the exact opposite sentiment predominated. Brooks was defended and eulogized and presented with canes and pitchers as testimonials to his valor. When the resolution of censure had been passed, he at once resigned his seat in the House, and going home to his constituents, was immediately reëlected. Within three weeks he reappeared at the bar of the House, with a new commission from his Governor, and was sworn in and continued his service as before. The arrogant address which preceded his resignation contained the remarkable intimation that much more serious results might have grown out of the incident. "No act of mine," he said, "on my personal account, shall inaugurate revolution; but when you, Mr. Speaker, return to your own home and hear the people of the great North--and they are a great people--speak of me as a bad man, you will do me the justice to say that a blow struck by me at this time would be followed by a revolution; and this I know."

Under the state of public sentiment then prevailing at the South, it would have been strange if the extraordinary event and the succeeding debate had not provoked other similar affairs. Mr. Sumner's colleague, Senator Henry Wilson, of Massachusetts (afterwards Vice-President of the United States), in his speech characterized the assault as "brutal, murderous, and cowardly." For this language, Brooks sent him a challenge. Wilson wrote a reply declining the encounter, but in the same letter announcing that "I religiously believe in the right of self-defense, in its broadest sense."

One of the sharpest denunciations of the assault was made by Anson Burlingame, a Massachusetts Representative (afterwards United States Minister to China, and still later Chinese Minister to the United States). "I denounce it," he said, "in the name of the Constitution it violates. I denounce it in the name of the sovereignty of Massachusetts, which was stricken down by the blow. I denounce it in the name of humanity. I denounce it in the name of civilization, which it outraged. I denounce it in the name of that fair-play which bullies and prize-fighters respect." For this, after some efforts had been made by friends to bring about an amicable understanding, Brooks sent him also a challenge. Mr. Burlingame accepted the challenge, and his second designated the Clifton House in Canada as the rendezvous and rifles as weapons. Burlingame at once started on the journey; but Brooks declined to go, on the excuse that his life would not be safe on such a trip through the North.

Broadened into national significance by all these attendant circumstances, the Sumner assault became a leading event in the great slavery contest between the South and North. It might well rank as one of the episodes of the civil war then raging in Kansas, out of which it had in reality grown, and with which it was intertwined in motive, act, and comment. In result the incident was extremely damaging to the South, for it tended more than any single Border-Ruffian crime in Kansas to unite hesitating and wavering opinion in the North against the alarming flood of lawlessness and violence, which as a rule found its origin and its defense in the ranks of the pro-slavery party. Certainly, no phase of the transaction was received by the North with such popular favor as some of the bolder avowals by Northern Representatives of their readiness to fight, and especially by Burlingame's actual acceptance of the challenge of Brooks.

The shock of the attack, and the serious wounds received by Mr. Sumner, produced a spinal malady, from which he rallied with great difficulty, and only after severe medical treatment and years of enforced abstinence from work. As the constituents of Brooks sent him back to the House, so also the Legislature of Massachusetts, in January 1857, with but few dissenting votes, reëlected Sumner to a new senatorial term, beginning the 4th of March. He came to Washington and was sworn in, but within a few days sailed for Europe, and during the greater part of the long interim between that time and the succeeding Presidential campaign his seat in the Senate remained vacant.

It was on the 4th of June, 1860, that he again raised his voice in debate. Some changes had occurred: both Butler and Brooks were dead;[1] the Senate was assembled in its new hall in the north wing of the Capitol extension. But in the main the personnel and the spirit of the pro-slavery party still confronted him. "Time has passed," he said, "but the question remains." A little more than four years before, he had essayed to describe "The Crime against Kansas"; now, in an address free from offensive personalities but more unsparing in rhetoric and stronger in historical arraignment, he delineated what he named the "Barbarism of Slavery." Picturing to ourselves the orator, the circumstances, and the theme, we can comprehend the exaltation with which he exclaimed in his exordium: "Slavery must be resisted not only on political grounds, but on all other grounds, whether social, economical, or moral. Ours is no holiday contest; nor is it any strife of rival factions--of White and Red Roses; of theatric Neri and Bianchi; but it is a solemn battle between Right and Wrong, between Good and Evil... Grander debate has not occurred in our history, rarely in any history; nor can this debate close or subside except with the triumph of Freedom."

With this speech, Sumner resumed his place as a conspicuous figure and an indefatigable energy in national politics and legislation, tireless in attacking and pursuing slavery until its final overthrow.

[1] Preston S. Brooks died in Washington, January 27, 1857; Andrew P. Butler died in South Carolina, May 25, 1857.