The most dramatic assault in Congressional history happened on May 22, 1856 but, of course, we can't start there.
Charles Sumner was born in Boston in 1811 and was educated at the Boston Latin School - an elite school founded in 1635 whose notable alumni include Samuel Adams, John Quincy Adams, Henry Ward Beecher, Leonard Bernstein, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John F. Fitzgerald (JFK's grandfather), Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Hutchinson, Cotton Mather, and numerous other politicians, priests, painters, and physicians.
Sumner graduated from Harvard in 1830 and from Harvard Law School three years after that. Sumner began practicing law in 1834 and also lectured at Harvard Law. The Whigs nominated him for Congress in 1846, but he declined the nomination and was one of the founding members of the new Free Soil Party - a precursor to the then-Republican Party that was anti-slavery and pro-protective tariffs for the U.S. economy - and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1850 as a Free Soiler (such an unfortunate term) and re-elected in 1856 as a Republican, seeing as how the Free Soil Party merged with the new Republican Party. Sumner was an outspoken abolitionist, calling for equal rights for Blacks, and opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
Preston Brooks was born in Roseland, part of Edgefield County, on the Georgia/South Carolina border, just north of Augusta, in 1819. Edgefield County...well...so, it wasn't the friendliest place in the world. You could say there was a history of violence with young Preston Brooks. In 1840 the editor of the Edgefield Advertiser was a young man named Louis T. Wigfall. Wigfall had wasted his somewhat moderate inheritance on gambling, liquor, and prostitutes, and thought that politics was a fine place to hone his oratorical skills (history rhyming again). In his brief tenure as the Advertiser's editor, Wigfall - supported South Carolina's Unionist candidate for governor, John P. Richardson, in 1840 despite the Advertiser being a Nullifier newspaper.
(Quick aside: South Carolina was big mad about the 1828 Tariff - known as the Tariff of Abominations in the South - and as a result threatened to secede from the United States in the "South Carolina Exposition and Protest." Anonymously written, everyone sort of figured out that John C. Calhoun had written it. Problem being that Calhoun was Andrew Jackson's vice president. The vice president was actively arguing to split apart the Union. Jackson, through the Force Bill, and through Jackson threatening to personally lead the military into South Carolina and "hang every leader...of that infatuated people...by martial law, irrespective of his name, or political or social position." While South Carolina backed down with the quickness, there were still Nullifiers - so called due to their stance to nullify the Tariff of 1828.)
Anyhow, in 1840 Preston Brooks took issue with Wigfall over his editorial support for the gubernatorial campaign of the anti-nullification Richardson which naturally led to a duel that injured them both - causing Brooks, who was shot in the hip, to use a walking stick for the rest of his life. That's an important detail. Wigfall left South Carolina in 1848 for Nacogdoches, Texas to practice law and would go on to become a U.S. Senator in 1859, but was expelled from the Senate when he expressed support for the Confederacy. Wigfall served in the Confederate Senate as a representative from Texas and would be Jefferson Davis' military aide before he resigned.
Brooks was expelled right before graduating from the institution that would become the University of South Carolina for threatening police officers with firearms. This did not prevent Brooks from getting elected to the South Carolina State House of Representatives in 1844, nor did it prevent him from becoming a practicing attorney in Roseland in 1845. Brooks was also a captain in Company D of the Palmetto Regiment in the Mexican-American War.
In 1853 Brooks was elected to the 33rd United States Congress as a hardcore pro-slavery Democrat in the House of Representatives (again, please do keep in mind that Republicans and Democrats gradually switched platforms over about 100 years). This was a fractured, contentious session of Congress, what with the debate over slavery in Kansas and Nebraska. Three years later in March 1856 Brooks would write, "The fate of the South is to be decided with the Kansas issue. If Kansas becomes a hireling [i.e. free] State, slave property will decline to half its present value in Missouri...and abolitionism will become the prevailing sentiment. So with Arkansas; so with upper Texas."
Fast forward to the floor of the Senate on the afternoon of May 19, 1856. The gallery was choked with spectators, despite the 90-degree temperatures inside the building. Charles Sumner rose to give a speech that he had tried for two months - dating back to Brooks' essay - to schedule, titled "The Crime Against Kansas." It took him five hours over the course of two days, from May 19 to May 20, to deliver the speech. Part of the 112-page speech (of which he memorized every word) went as such:
I fearlessly assert that the wrongs of much-abused Sicily, thus memorable in history, were small by the side of the wrongs of Kansas, where the very shrines of popular institutions, more sacred than any heathen altar, have been desecrated...where the ballot-box, more precious than any work, in ivory or marble, from the cunning hand of art, has been plundered...and where the cry, "I am an American citizen," has been interposed in vain against outrage of every kind, even upon life itself. Are you against sacrilege? I present it for your execration. Are you against robbery? I hold it up to your scorn. Are you for the protection of American citizens? I show you how their dearest rights have been cloven down, while a Tyrannical Usurpation has sought to install itself on their very necks!
(This is where it gets real)
I must say something of a general character, particularly in response to what has fallen from Senators who have raised themselves to eminence on this floor in championship of human wrongs. I mean the Senator from South Carolina (Mr. Butler), and the Senator from Illinois (Mr. Douglas), who, though unlike as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, yet, like this couple, sally forth together in the same adventure. I regret much to miss the elder Senator from his seat; but the cause, against which he has run a tilt, with such activity of animosity, demands that the opportunity of exposing him should not be lost; and it is for the cause that I speak. The Senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight, with sentiments of honor and courage. Of course 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. For her, his tongue is always profuse in words. Let her be impeached in character, or any proposition made to shut her out from the extension of her wantonness, and no extravagance or manner of hardihood of assertion is then too great for this Senator. The frenzy of Don Quixote, in behalf of his wench, Dulcinea del Toboso, is all surpassed. The asserted rights of Slavery, which shock equality of all kinds, are cloaked by a fantastic claim of equality. If the slave States cannot enjoy what, in mockery of the great fathers of the Republic, he misnames equality under the Constitution in other words, the full power in the National Territories to compel fellowmen to unpaid toil, to separate husband and wife, and to sell little children at the auction block then, sir, the chivalric Senator will conduct the State of South Carolina out of the Union! Heroic knight! Exalted Senator! A second Moses come for a second exodus!
The direct blows of Sumner's speech were leveled at South Carolina Senator Andrew Pickens Butler - who wasn't even in the Senate that day to hear the speech due to the fact that he was recovering from a stroke. Butler owed his political career largely due to his alliance with John C. Calhoun, Andrew Jackson's vice president who initially proposed South Carolina's secession from the Union. But it's worth mentioning that Sumner also aimed his words at Stephen Douglas, who leaned over to a colleague during the speech and said of Sumner, "That damn fool will get himself killed by some other damn fool." Sumner had already referred to Douglas as a "brutal, vulgar man without delicacy or scholarship [who] looks as if he needs clean linen and should be put under a shower bath...a noise-some, squat, and nameless animal...not a proper model for an American senator." Two years after Sumner's speech, in his re-election campaign, Douglas would square off against his Republican challenger in a series of debates over, in a lot of cases, slavery and
economic anxiety states rights. His opponent? Abraham Lincoln. While Douglas was elected by a 78-22 margin in 1852, he beat Lincoln just 54-46 in 1858 and launched Lincoln as a national political force.
The day after Sumner's speech, May 21, pro-slavery forces burned down the Free State Hotel and destroyed the printing presses of the free-state newspaper Herald of Freedom, in what is known as the Sack of Lawrence. Three days after that an abolitionist named John Brown and his sons (and others) killed five pro-slavery men on Pottawatomie Creek.
Two days after Sumner gave his speech, one day after the Sack of Lawrence, and two days before the Pottawatomie Massacre, Sumner, 45 years old, 6'2" / 185lbs, was sitting at his desk on May 22, 1856 "signing his postal frank to envelopes containing copies of the printed speech" minutes after the Senate had adjourned for the day when Rep. Preston Brooks - who, wait for it, was Senator Butler's cousin - walked in to the Senate. Brooks wanted to challenge Sumner to a duel. Fellow South Carolina Representative Laurence Keitt talked Brooks out of it, saying that Sumner wasn't a gentleman worthy of the honor of a duel. Instead, he picked a metal-topped cane that, at the time, was also used to discipline misbehaving dogs. Do remember that Brooks needed to use a walking stick because he got shot in the hip in the duel with Wigfall 16 years earlier.
Brooks was walking with Keitt towards Sumner's desk when he came across the Senate's principal executive clerk Colonel Joseph H. Nicholson, who asked "How is Colonel Brooks today?" to which Brooks responded, "Well, I thank you." Brooks then inquired about the presence of a lady in the Senate lobby, and whether or not she could be removed from the scene, presumably to avoid doing what he was about to do in front of a woman, after which he walked over to Sumner's desk, leaned over and said:
Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech carefully, and with as much calmness as I could be expected to read such a speech. You have libeled my state, and slandered my relation, who is aged and absent [Note: Senator Butler was 60, but would die the following year], and I feel it to be my duty to punish you for it.
Then Brooks slammed the metal part of his cane on Sumner's head. And then he did it again. And again. Nicholson:
I think several blows had been inflicted before Senator Sumner was fully in possession of his locomotion, and extricated from his desk, which was thrown over or broken from its fastenings by the efforts of the Senator to extract himself.
Sumner had been trapped by his own desk. He broke his desk trying to get up and Brooks followed him around, smashing Sumner's head "with as much quickness as was possible for any man to use a cane on another whom he was intent on chastising," Nicholson testified in the Senate investigation, estimating that Brooks' attack was 10-12 blows of such force that his cane broke into pieces. Sumner collapsed near the desk of Vermont Senator Jacob Collamer and had to be carried away, unconscious, while Brooks simply and calmly walked out of the Senate, unobstructed by stunned onlookers.
We consider the act good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequences. These vulgar abolitionists in the Senate are getting above themselves. They have been humored until they forget their position. They have grown saucy, and dare to be impudent to gentlemen!...The truth is they have been suffered to run too long without collars. They must be lashed into submission.
When John May and Joseph Hale each donated 15 acres of land for the seat of government in Hernando County, Florida (north of Tampa) in 1856, it was named "Brooksville," in honor of Preston Brooks. In 1858 the Georgia legislature named a county on the Georgia/Florida border after him.
Brooks was fined $300 in a DC court for assault. Anger spread throughout the House of Representatives, who called for Brooks' expulsion. On July 14, 1856 - two months after the assault on Sumner - the House voted on whether or not to kick Brooks out of the House of Representatives. While 121 members voted in favor of removing Brooks, 95 voted against it - about 23 votes short of the 2/3 majority required. They did, however, successfully censure Rep. Keitt.
After the vote in the House of Representatives, Reps. Brooks and Keitt resigned their seats in the House of Representatives, but not out of any remorse or guilt, with Brooks saying, "I should have forfeited my own self-respect, and perhaps the good of my countrymen, if I had failed to resent such an injury by calling the offender in question to a personal account." Also, "They have written me down upon the history of the country as worthy of expulsion, and in no unkindness I must tell them that for all future time my self-respect requires that I shall pass them as strangers."
This meant that a special election was called to fill Brooks' and Keitt's vacant seats at the end of July. In a vote showing that South Carolinians weren't turned off by the assault on Senator Sumner, both Brooks and Keitt were elected and retook their places in the House of Representatives by the beginning of August.
Senator Sumner didn't fare as well. It took him three years to fully recover from the caning at the hands of Rep. Brooks. He returned to the Senate off-and-on, his vacant desk serving as a powerful reminder of the path Congress was headed towards in the coming years. Eight months after the attack, the Massachusetts State Legislature held its election for Sumner's seat (Senators were elected by State Legislatures, not the people of the state, until the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913), who unanimously re-elected Sumner to his seat. The New York times wrote:
The reelection of Mr. Sumner marks (Massachusetts') appreciation of his faithfulness in the discharge of his duties and of his fearless defense of her free principles, while the unprecedented unanimity which has attended that election is an emphatic condemnation of the cowardly and brutal assault of which he was made a victim. It may be said with truth that Mr. Sumner goes back to the Senate with the sympathy and support of the whole people of Massachusetts.
Sumner returned to the Senate full-time in 1859 and became a champion of equal rights for Blacks. He was one of the first congressmen to link the Civil War and the full abolition of slavery, writing that slavery was "the mainspring of Rebellion," and calling for the government to "simply throw (Slavery) upon the flames madly kindled by itself, and the Rebellion will die at once." When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Sumner approved but also complained that it didn't go far enough.
In order to get Senate approval for what would end up as the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, Sumner organized a coalition with abolitionists and members of the Women's National Loyal League (sometimes the order of "National" and "Loyal" are flipped), which was created by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. The League had a campaign to collect one million signatures on a petition for a Constitutional amendment calling for the abolition of slavery. To receive the petition, Sumner asked the Senate to create a special committee, which was approved with Sumner as the chair. On February 9, 1864 Sumner entered the Senate chamber flanked by two tall Black men carrying steamer trunks full of petitions to abolish slavery. Sumner then gave a speech entitled "The Prayer of One-Hundred Thousand" in which he said the petitions represented "a might army, one hundred thousand strong...They ask for nothing less than universal emancipation."
In 1870 Sumner introduced a civil rights bill - a bill he considered to be his most important piece of legislation - guaranteeing all citizens "equal and impartial enjoyment of any accommodation, advantage, facility, or privilege." The bill failed, in part, because Sumner was so outspoken in his beliefs, so unwilling to compromise, that he ended up alienating many of the Radical Republicans. Sumner clashed with President Grant over the annexation of the Dominican Republic and lost the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee as a result.
Still a member of the Senate, Sumner had a heart attack in 1874. With Frederick Douglass at his bedside, Sumner pleaded with him about the civil rights bill, saying, "Don't let the bill fail. You must take care of [my] civil rights bill." He died on March 11, 1874 and he laid in state in the Capitol Rotunda. When lying in state at the Massachusetts State House, members of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment - popularized in the movie "Glory" - stood guard. The Springfield Republican lamented:
The noblest head in America has fallen, and the most accomplished and illustrious of our statesmen is no more.
The Senate did pass an amended version of Sumner's prized legislation - the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The bill was more watered-down than Sumner's bill, and it only passed when supporters agreed to drop the provision banning segregated schools. Eight years after its passage the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional, saying that Congress could regulate the behavior of States, but not individuals, setting up a showdown culminating in the Plessy v. Ferguson case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was legal, provided the accommodations were "separate but equal" - a ruling that most assuredly would have devastated Sumner.
Rep. Preston Brooks did not fare as well as Sumner. On the evening of January 27, 1857 - about six weeks before the new congressional term was to begin - Brooks caught a severe case of croup and died, violently. The telegram announcing his death read, "He died a horrid death, and suffered intensely. He endeavored to tear his own throat open to get breath." The Washington Evening Star wrote, "No man ever in Congress has been more universally and sincerely beloved here, for no other has been endowed with a nobler nature or more lovable traits of character." Preston Brooks was 37 years old.
Rep. Laurence Keitt was re-elected in 1858 and 1860, and resigned to serve in the Confederate House of Representatives, after serving as a delegate in the South Carolina secession convention. Keitt was the Colonel of the 20th South Carolina Regiment of Volunteers and eventually rose to the rank of Brigadier General. On June 3, 1864 Keitt was shot from his horse and killed at the Battle of Cold Harbor. Laurence M. Keitt was 39 years old.
The Civil War had been coming since the Constitution itself was ratified, things just sped up in the 1850s, and the caning of Charles Sumner showed the country that war was on its way.