On May 22, 1856, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks entered the Senate Chamber, strode purposefully over to the desk of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, and beat him senseless with a gold-headed, gutta-percha walking stick. So forceful, and so numerous were his blows, that Brooks shattered his weapon. And so much the damage done to his victim, both physical and psychological, that Sumner was unable to resume his Senatorial duties for nearly three years.
Matter of honor for Brooks. Sumner had just delivered a two-day jeremiad, "The Crime Against Kansas," which was laced with insults against Brooks' home state and his kin, South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler. As for the need for 30 swings of the cane on a bloodied, helpless victim, anyone who understood the profound passion of offended dignity of the Southern Gentleman could explain it. Who, of Brooks' stature, wouldn't have acted the same way when faced with the same provocation?
Brooks' choice of a weapon said as much as his words. It was not an accident, not something grabbed in impulse. In the Southern Code, you dueled with an equal, but thrashed an inferior. Sumner, for all his refined manners, Harvard education, and the classical allusions in his speeches, was clearly a social inferior—a "Black Republican" of the worst type. Once Brooks settled on a course of action, he grappled with the choice of cane or bullwhip, but he never, ever, considered pistols.
Most of the South cheered. Fire-Eaters made similar threats against other Northern leaders, and Brooks mused, "It would not take much to have the throats of every Abolitionist cut." He became a sort of a pop hero, the very exemplar of chivalrous Southern manliness. Among his adoring acolytes were students from the University of Virginia, who sent him a golden-headed cane, inscribed, and etched with the image of a cracked human skull.
Many in the North were appalled; there was editorial thundering and mass meetings. Sumner was not only a martyr, but the act demonstrated, again, the lawlessness to which the South was willing to stoop to protect its barbarous Peculiar Institution. What Brooks did was merely an extension of a pattern of slave-state violence in support of depravity.
Such was the rhetoric, but it's important to put the speech and the caning in proper perspective. This is 1856. The Whig Party is fading into irrelevance, and the Democrats are fragmenting into sections. The Republican Party is barely two years old, made up of disaffected Northern and Free-Soil Democrats repelled by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, "Conscience Whigs," and odds and ends from the fringes. Lincoln, although he will be put forward and get a handful of votes for the Vice-Presidential nomination, is a regional figure. The debates with Stephen Douglas, and Lincoln's seminal speech at Cooper Union, which introduced him to influential New York and Northeast audiences, are still in the future. It is also before Dred Scott and before the feckless appeasement of the Buchanan Administration. It is a time of general discontent, when the proponents of compromise are struggling to find any solution sufficiently palatable to North and South to stave off disunion.
The caning is symbolic of the abyss between the sides, with radicals being permitted to define their respective regions. If Brooks was a caricature of offended Southern Honor, Sumner was a certifiably insufferable Northern elitist. He was pompous, condescending, morally superior, and hectoring. He happened to be right, both on Kansas, and the larger issue, as all the Abolitionists were right—slavery was an abomination that corrupted everyone who touched it. But his propensity for personal invective showed in "The Crime Against Kansas," and he paid for it. Sumner lacked something essential in his nature that would have made him far more effective as a legislator and a leader—a fuse. He was incapable of the smooth tact that William Seward could apply when he wanted to, or Daniel Webster's ability to seek common ground, or the detached empathy and remarkable tolerance of Lincoln. Sumner was a well-groomed bomb-thrower—in Carl Sandburg's words, "perhaps the most perfect impersonation of what the South wanted to secede from."
Read More: Preston Brooks Canes The Union .