With the rhetoric Trump and other politicians used during this election, many wish for a return to the “old days” when politicians were more polite and civil in their debates. In reality, politics has never civil. What if I told you on May 22, 1856, Congressman Preston Brooks (D-SC), entered the senate chamber and almost beat Senator Charles Sumner (R-MA) to death?

What motivated Brooks to do this? Prior to the caning, Sumner, a staunch abolitionist gave a roaring speech against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which he called a “Crime Against Kansas.” (Here is some context about the Kansas-Nebraska Act, but the essential part that you need to know is that it resulted in Kansas becoming a slave state). Sumner also proceeded to use ad-hominem attacks against the authors of the act: Senators Stephen Douglas (D-Il) and Andrew Butler (D-SC). Most notably, Sumner mocked Butler’s poor speaking ability, which had resulted from a recent stroke. Tensions were already high between the two, as Butler, and other pro-slavery senators, had previously mocked Sumner and his abolitionist allies as only being abolitionist for the goal of interracial marriage, (a common attack used against abolitionists at the time).

Where does Congressman Preston Brooks come in? Well, it just so happens that Brooks was Butler’s cousin. Brooks was deeply offended by Sumner’s attacks on his family member and decided to do something about it. Originally, Brooks planned to challenge Sumner to a duel but in the end decided Sumner was not worthy of such pleasantries and Brooks decided that he would instead cane Sumner like a dog.

So, on May 22, Brooks, metal cane in hand, waited patiently for the senate to adjourn for the day. Once the meeting was over and all the ladies had left the room, Brooks rushed to where Sumner was packing up his stuff and proceeded to beat him over the head with a metal cane. The first strike was so hard that it temporarily blinded Sumner, who stumbled around the senate chamber in vain attempts to defend himself while Brooks continued to beat him. Once, Sumner was on the floor, bleeding profusely, Brooks simply walked out of the chamber. Everyone was so shocked at what had taken place that they forgot to detain Brooks for his actions.

After the event, Brooks and Sumners both became heroes in their respective regions. Sumners, a hero of the north, and Brooks, a hero of the south. Brooks went on to serve one more term in Congress before dying at 37 and Sumner eventually recovered and served in the senate for 18 more years. The event served as a good metaphor to the tensions between the north and the south who, a short 5 years later, in 1861, would be locked in bloody conflict.

Politicians may denounce each other and cause trouble, but at least they are not caning each other, (at least not yet).

One thought on “Politics Has Been Messy for Awhile: The Caning of Charles Sumner

  1. Interesting story. I don’t think we’re more civil today and > knowledge of this story may provoke other similar incidents in the present climate

    Like

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