May 22

This Day in History

Civil War

May 22, 1856:

Southern congressman attacks Northern senator

Southern Congressman Preston Brooks savagely beats Northern Senator Charles Sumner in the halls of Congress as tensions rise over the expansion of slavery.

When the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was passed, popular sovereignty was applied within the two new territories and people were given the right to decide the slave issue by vote. Because the act nullified the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the debate over slavery intensified. Northerners were incensed that slavery could again resurface in an area where it had been banned for over 30 years. When violence broke out in Kansas Territory, the issue became central in Congress. On May 19, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, an ardent abolitionist, began a two-day speech on the Senate floor in which he decried the "crime against Kansas" and blasted three of his colleagues by name, one of whom—South Carolina Senator Andrew P. Butler—was elderly, sick, and absent from the proceedings.

Butler's cousin, Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina, who had a history of violence, took it upon himself to defend the honor of his kin. Wielding the cane he used for injuries he incurred in a duel over a political debate in 1840, Brooks entered the Senate chamber and attacked Sumner at his desk, which was bolted to the floor. Sumner's legs were pinned by the desk so he could not escape the savage beating. It was not until other congressmen subdued Brooks that Sumner finally escaped.

Brooks became an instant hero in the South, and supporters sent him many replacement canes. He was vilified in the North and became a symbol of the stereotypically inflexible, uncompromising representative of the slave power. The incident exemplified the growing hostility between the two camps in the prewar years.

Sumner did not return to the Senate for three years while he recovered.

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