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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 Carolinian 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 sown when he was mortally wounded while commanding a South Carolina brigade at the 1864 Battle of Cold Harbor.