by Jim Nintzel
You think today's Congress is splintered on a partisan basis? It ain't nothing compared to the atmosphere before the Civil War. We were just talking with a friend about the time that Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina smashed a walking stick over the head of Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts:
One southerner, Preston Brooks, a member of the House of Representatives from South Carolina, was particularly incensed. Not only had the fiery Sumner ridiculed his home state, but Brooks was the nephew of Andrew Butler, one of Sumner's targets.
In the mind of Brooks, Sumner had violated some code of honor which should be avenged by fighting a duel. But Brooks felt that Sumner, by attacking Butler when he was home recuperating and not present in the Senate, had shown himself not to be a gentlemen deserving of the honor of dueling. Brooks thus reasoned that the proper response was for Sumner to be beaten, with a whip or a cane.
After trying to find Sumner outside the Capitol, Brooks entered the building and walked into the Senate chamber. Sumner sat at his desk, writing letters.
Brooks hesitated before approaching Sumner, as several women were present in the Senate gallery. After the women left, Brooks walked to Sumner’s desk, and reportedly said: “You have libeled my state and slandered my relation, who is aged and absent. And I feel it to be my duty to punish you.”
With that, Brooks struck the seated Sumner across the head with his heavy cane. Sumner, who was quite tall, could not get to his feet as his legs were trapped under his Senate desk, which was bolted to the floor. Brooks continued raining blows with the cane upon Sumner, who tried to fend them off with his arms. Sumner finally was able to break the desk free with his thighs, and staggered down the aisle of the Senate.
Brooks followed him, breaking the cane over Sumner’s head and
continuing to strike him with pieces of the cane. The entire attack probably lasted for a full minute, and left Sumner dazed and bleeding. Carried into a Capitol anteroom, Sumner was attended by a doctor, who administered stitches to close wounds on his head.
Brooks was soon arrested on a charge of assault, and was quickly released on bail.
Southern newspapers published editorials lauding Brooks, claiming that the attack was a justified defense of the south and slavery. Supporters sent Brooks new canes, and Brooks claimed that people wanted pieces of the cane he used to beat Sumner as “holy relics.”
Preston Brooks was expelled from the House of Representatives, and in the criminal courts he was fined $300 for assault. He returned to South Carolina, where banquets were held in his honor and more canes were presented to him. The voters returned him to Congress but he died suddenly in a Washington hotel in January 1857, less than a year after he attacked Sumner.
Oh, those South Carolina politicians!
Let's hope our state lawmakers can patch up their differences with Gov. Jan Brewer so nothing like this happens up there.