The Roots of Progress

That Senator really took a beating

October 17, 2017

If you think politics today is divisive, if you think politicians can get away with anything, I give you… the Brooks–Sumner Affair.

In 1856, Massachussets Senator Charles Sumner, an abolitionist, gave a now-famous speech, “Crime Against Kansas”, against admitting Kansas to the Union as a slave state. In the speech he insulted South Carolina and in particular mocked its Senator Andrew Butler:

He has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and 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 the harlot, Slavery.

Butler’s cousin Preston Brooks, a South Carolina Congressman, was infuriated. He was going to challenge Sumner to a duel for the insult—but a fellow Congressman convinced him that this was too honorable and that Sumner should be humiliated with a public caning. (!)

So two days later, Brooks approaches Sumner on the Senate floor, and, before Sumner can even get up, starts to beat him—repeatedly, on the head, using a thick cane with a gold knob, as hard as he can, not even stopping when his cane breaks into pieces. Sumner is bleeding and trying to get away, and other Congressmen are trying to help him, but they are blocked by Brooks’s accomplices. Finally someone manages to intervene. Sumner survives, badly injured. Brooks exits, leaving the broken cane on the bloody Senate floor.

What were the consequences for Brooks, let alone his accomplices? Sumner became a martyr in the North, but Brooks a hero in the South.

Brooks’s constituents bidded for pieces of his broken cane; he boasted that “the fragments of the stick are begged for as sacred relics.” Southerners sent Brooks new canes, showing their approval of the attack. One was inscribed: “Hit him again!” The Richmond Enquirer praised the attack as “good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequences.” (!)

He was tried in a DC court and convicted of assault. His punishment? A $300 fine. No prison sentence.

But at least he lost his seat in Congress, right? Nope. There was a motion to expel him from the House it failed. So Brooks resigns, in order to let his constituency cast their judgment. The re-elect him immediately. His two accomplices similarly escape punishment.

Got all that? A Congressman brutally, physically attacks a Senator, on the Senate floor, gets away with it, and is hailed as a hero. Imagine the shock, revulsion and horror if anything like that happened today.

Lessons? One, an illustration of the hostilities that led to the Civil War. Two, Steven Pinker was right re: the decline of violence.

Full story at Wikipedia: Caning of Charles Sumner. Discovered via Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber.