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Preston Brooks’ Diplomacy

By Parke Pierson
3/1/2010 • Politics

Preston Brooks’ big stick diplomacy:
Heated oratory leads to violence in the hallowed halls of the U.S. Senate

With swift, powerful strokes, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks battered the prostrate body in the aisle of the nearly empty U.S. Senate chamber. The merciless blows from his thick gutta-percha cane echoed in the cavernous space, as a few concerned witnesses tentatively stepped toward the scene. But Lawrence Keitt, a fellow South Caro-linian and friend of Brooks, brandished a pistol and snarled, “Let them be!” The would-be rescuers stopped in their tracks and the bludgeoning of Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts continued.

That the Brooks-Sumner imbroglio revolved around sectional lines was no coincidence. Sumner was a passionate abolitionist who had entered the Senate in 1851, just as the controversy over the Compromise of 1850 was in full bloom. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1856, which opened the door to further slavery expansion, had fired Sumner’s already aroused passions. By then a member of the “Radical” wing of the Republican Party, he delivered a stirring speech called “The Crime Against Kansas” on May 19 and 20, in which he ridiculed the act’s primary authors—Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina.

Sumner particularly doused Butler with oratorical venom, claiming the Carolinian had written the act to satisfy his “harlot” of slavery and mocking But­ler’s speech impediment: “He cannot open his mouth, but out there flies a blunder.” That was too much for Butler’s nephew, Preston Brooks. A fiery advocate of Southern rights who had been elected to Congress as a Democrat in 1853, Brooks was a survivor of a duel and no stranger to using violence to settle quarrels. But this time Brooks eschewed the challenge of a duel—in his mind, Sumner was beneath such a dignified manner of resolving a dispute.

On the day of the attack, Brooks—accompanied by Keitt and Virginian Henry Edmundson, who took no active part in the assault—approached Sumner as he worked at his desk. “Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine,” Brooks declared, and the caning began. Sumner was a big man, 6 feet 4 inches tall, and strong, and in his effort to escape Brooks’ weapon, he snapped off the bolts that held his desk to the floor. But with his body pummeled, and blinded by his own blood, Sumner collapsed in the aisle. Brooks kept at it until his cane snapped.

The incident made both men heroes. Southerners sent Brooks new canes to replace the one he shattered over Sumner. And while Sumner was reelected later in 1856, he couldn’t resume his duties for three years, so severe were the headaches and mental trauma caused by the assault. His empty Senate chair stood as a defiant symbol to the South.

For that May evening, at least, the South certainly seemed to triumph over the North. But Brooks’ violent outburst on the Senate floor solved nothing, and only added more heat to the flames of anger that would soon engulf the country and prove the time for reason and compromise was quickly passing. A bigger bloodletting was on the horizon, employing artillery and musketry instead of walking sticks. While Brooks died from croup in 1857 and Sumner survived and served in the Senate until 1874, Lawrence Keitt, Brooks’ handgun-waving second, would reap what he had sewn when he was mortally wounded while commanding a South Carolina brigade at the 1864 Battle of Cold Harbor.

10 Responses to Preston Brooks’ Diplomacy

  1. wade says:

    $100 says Parke Pierson is a Yankee. Probably from New York, Massachusetts or some other liberal, historically/politically biased state. Your arrogance and condescending tone is offending. Charles Sumner did indeed slander Andrew Butler and deserved the severe beating he received from Preston Brooks. Furthermore to say that Lawrence Keitt had “reaped what he had sewn” being mortally wounded at the Battle of Cold Harbor would insinuate that he deserved to die for his action in defending Brooks. Well Mr. Pierson, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If this logic around justice, karma and reaping what you’ve sewn is true, then i suppose one could also argue that Lincoln rightfully deserved the mortal wound that karma dealt him in Ford theater. Think Lincoln was a saint or that I’m just a “tea bagger” from the south?? I suggest reading “Lincoln Uber Alles: Dictatorship Comes to America” by John Avery Emison. Your opinion just might change.

    • Bob Brooks says:

      Parke Pierson .…id=R…

      A native of Fredericksburg, Parke Was a graduate of James Monroe High School and Lynchburg College. He was a member of Fredericksburg Baptist Church, …

  2. David Lawrance says:

    As a non-American who can stand aloof from the sectional passions of Civil War politics, I am fascinated by the double standards employed by many Southern partisans to justify their cause. The preservation of honor is always paramount in that justification; and yet those same partisans saw no dishonor in a violent attack upon an unarmed, unprepared man while shielded from intervention by a pistol-wielding collaborator. It was the same mentality which rationalized the institution of slavery, in which defenseless peoples were held in bondage by the application of force and terror.

  3. Robert C. Brooks says:

    Being that Preston and I have a common ancestry (his grand-father and one of my great grandfathers were brothers) I will obviously show bias. Still, I offer these considerations:

    It is interesting to look at the norms and standards of the time when this incident happened. Sumner overstepped the then current rules of decorum by slandering Butler, the South and especially the people of South Carolina. Suggesting that these people had taken on and defended a “harlot” was highly offensive in that time. Of particular recognized offense at the time was Sumner making fun of Butler’s speech impediment.

    Now I do not wish to justify Brooks’ actions. It is interesting to note that the House of Representatives, of which Brooks was a member, had an overwhelming northern majority as the population of the North was far more than that of the South. Even with that super majority there were not enough votes to remove Brooks from the House.

    This is because AT THAT TIME the majority of the northern representatives believed that Sumner had brought on the attack because of his inflammatory oratory. They sided with the southern representatives in voting NOT to expel Brooks.

    Think about how interesting that is.

    Of course excusing a violent attack like this would not happen today but such standards were common in those days. Slander and liable extended to the slights infractions.

    Imagine those 1850s representatives response to the over blown reactions today if a representative makes even an unintentional faux pas that could be regarded as racial. Even when the transgression is accidental the representative is subjected to political and popular reprimand. Even after apologies and explanations of the unintentional nature of the offense.

    The Brooks-Sumner incident is very interesting and serves to remind us just how tense things had gotten between the representative factions of the North and South. Historians often use this incident to to portend exactly what would happen 5 years later in 1861.

    Respectfully submitted,

    Robert C. Brooks

    • donya Williams says:

      Dear Mr. Brooks,

      I am not responding to this but instead hoping to talk with -you. My 2x great-grandmother was owned by Preston S. Brooks and Preston’s father Whitfield Brooks. I would love to talk with you since you seem to verse on the Brooks family history. please send me an email at I look forward to hearing from you.


  4. Whale says:

    IF what Sumner said was slander, and it wasn’t, the result of slander is a court case showing proof of said slander and a compensatory damage claim, not an armed surprise attack from behind against an unarmed man.

    Nothing said on the floor of Congress can LEGALLY be slander, the floor of Congress is exempt from such legal definitions.

    The north may have had a higher population, but the south was over represented in Congress due to the 3/5 clause, the number of slaves in each state was determined and 3/5 of that amount was added to the total white population for determination of taxes and representatives. Furthermore, while the north may have had a higher population, the Democratic Party controlled both houses of Congress, the Executive Branch and the Judicial branch for the vast majority of the 80 years before the Civil War. So having enough votes to defeat an expulsion motion was easily arranged.


  5. Robert C. Brooks says:

    Defamation—also called calumny, vilification, slander (for transitory statements), and libel (for written, broadcast, or otherwise published words)—is the communication of a statement that makes a claim, expressly stated or implied to be factual, that may give an individual, business, product, group, government, or nation a negative image. It is usually a requirement that this claim be false and that the publication is communicated to someone other than the person defamed (the claimant).

    In common law jurisdictions, slander refers to a malicious, false, or defamatory spoken statement or report, while libel refers to any other form of communication such as written words or images.

    For a little more on the current “status” of the Brooks-Sumner incident look here:

    Robert, Eric know Brooks-Sumner family feud is history
    By Frank Wooten
    Sunday, December 19, 2010

    • whale says:

      Article 1, Section 6 Clause 1; “They shall in all Cases, except Treason, Felony and Breach of the Peace, be privileged from Arrest during their Attendance at the Session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place.”

      If you read the US Constitution and anything relating to the US Congress, you would know that NOTHING said on the floor of Congress can be held against Senators or Representatives in court.

      They have the privilege to say anything about anyone at anytime and can NOT be held liable for those words if said on the floor, whereas if they said it in the street, the exact same words would constitute slander. So, as I said previously, despite your contention, your relative was NOT slandered.

      Either way, the proper response to defamation is a trial and compensatory damages, not a vicious armed attack from behind without warning.

      ESPECIALLY in the American citadel for free debate, the response to words can NEVER be violence.


  6. Jim says:

    preston brooks was a representative.

  7. Liberal says:

    Preston brings up a good point re: that slander and libel were viewed quite differently at the time of this incident. On the other hand, so was the bondage of another human being, tearing apart families and the subjugation of an entire race.

    What Preston’s serious response asks is this question: Are wrongs universal or are they only to be interpreted within the context of their time? Is there a universal context? Was slavery always wrong even though it was commonplace through most of the world? Is beating a man senseless in response to slander always bad? In our time, when the Taliban stoned women in a soccer field for the crime of adultery, is it just wrong by western standards, but completely all right if you live in the Taliban’s world?

    If your ancestor, Preston, committed a wrong, to beat a man with such bloodthirstiness that he put him into a coma and forever caused him physical and mental harm, then I submit to you, it is a wrong whatever time it was done, without regards to the norm at the time.

    If you are a Christian, you know the answer to this already. How would Jesus rule on that? You know the answer.

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