Thursday, January 6, 2022

Preston Brooks, Who Beat Charles Sumner

I've heard about the U.S. Senator who was caned on the floor of the Senate before the Civil War, but I've never looked into it until now.

It's not the same as January 6, 2021, but it sure has some similarities.

The U.S. Representative from South Carolina — Preston Brooks — who beat the Massachusetts Senator — Charles Sumner — in May 1856 never apologized. He was not removed from his seat. He did resign, but was reelected two weeks later in a special election. He was then reelected in the regular election November the same year.

Senator Sumner was severely injured in the attack: he was unable to return to his seat in the Senate for three years. Brooks had continued beating Sumner until his heavy gutta-percha cane broke.

What was Brooks's excuse for attacking Sumner? Because Sumner had made a speech about the Southern states' attempt to make Kansas into a slave state. Sumner's rhetoric in the speech was purposely inflammatory, though (it sounds like) no more so than the rhetoric used by pro-slavery politicians. One of the leaders of the South's Kansas effort was a Senator who was also Brooks's first cousin once removed. So Brooks — who had a history of dueling — took it upon himself to put Sumner in his place by beating him like a dog. 

People in the North saw the attack with revulsion, while white Southerners lionized Brooks, sending him commemorative canes and making relics out of the original weapon. Along with returning him to his seat, these actions show the alternate reality the Southerners lived in, where almost killing a man was a good thing. 

Just as attacking the U.S. Capitol and its police on January 6, and voting to overturn the states' electors, is now considered good (or not worth worrying about) by the Republican Party. 

The only good thing about Preston Brooks is that he died of croup at the age of 37, a few months before he could take his seat in Congress again in 1857. According to his Wikipedia page (linked above), "The official telegram announcing his death stated 'He died a horrid death, and suffered intensely. He endeavored to tear his own throat open to get breath.'"

There's a town in Florida and a county in Georgia named for him.


Image: J.L. Magee's famous political cartoon of the attack on Sumner.


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