• Mike Martinez

Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History—The Caning of Charles Sumner

As I discuss in my forthcoming book Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History, Charles Sumner was an arrogant, aloof, erudite United States senator representing the state of Massachusetts. To all who knew him, he was a fascinating public figure. Northerners saw him as a fierce, uncompromising opponent of slavery while southerners feared him as a threat to their way of life owing to his repeated calls for abolition of the peculiar institution. Love him or hate him, Charles Sumner was not a man to be ignored. He was unusually tall—standing six feet, four inches—with a commanding presence. A well-educated lawyer and proud of his intellect, he delighted in speech-making, and with little wonder. He was an exceptional orator. Flowery phrases and ferocious rhetoric, dripping with classical allusions and witty word play, spewed from his lips, apparently effortlessly. His voice was booming, its tone smooth and mellifluous. He was not a man who believed in temperate language, and he paid a steep price for his lack of moderation.

During a two-day period, May 19 and 20, 1856, Sumner stood in well of the United States Senate and excoriated a fellow senator, Andrew P. Butler of South Carolina. Like so many southern legislators, Butler defended slavery as a necessary feature of American life. Angry that southerners constantly threatened to rend the Union if their demands to protect slavery were not honored, the Massachusetts man ripped into Butler for supporting the odious Fugitive Slave Act, which required free state citizens to return escaped slaves to their southern masters. Demonstrating his superior education and verbal prowess, Sumner peppered his speech with sexual innuendo, portraying slavery as a harlot and Butler as her customer.

He called his speech “A Crime Against Kansas,” a reference to violent clashes between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces in the territories. The senator reminded his listeners that Kansas was “a soil of unsurpassed richness, and a fascinating, undulating beauty of surface, with a health-giving climate, calculated to nurture a powerful and generous people, worthy to be a central pivot of American Institutions.” Yet all was not well in this promised land. “Against this Territory, thus fortunate in position and population, a crime has been committed, which is without example in the records of the Past.” The crime, he charged, was unparalleled in history, for “the wickedness which I now begin to expose is immeasurably aggravated by the motive which prompted it. Not in any common lust for power did this uncommon tragedy have its origin. It is the rape of a virgin Territory, compelling it to the hateful embrace of Slavery; and it may be clearly traced to a depraved longing for a new slave State, the hideous offspring of such a crime, in the hope of adding to the power of slavery in the National Government.”

It was a devastating critique, but Sumner went further, personally attacking Senator Butler. “The Senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight, with sentiments of honor and courage,” Sumner bellowed. “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 of manner or hardihood of assertion is then too great for this Senator.”

This attack was especially vitriolic to a southern man who often spoke of honor and chivalry. Comparing Butler’s defense of slavery to a wanton, fallen fellow cavorting with a prostitute was too much for a southern gentleman to take. Yet the attack grew worse. Butler was known to have a speech impediment, and Sumner, who talked with enviable clarity and precision, mocked his fellow senator. He noted that Butler spoke “with incoherent phrases, discharged the loose expectoration of his speech.” Sumner dryly observed that Butler “cannot ope his mouth, but out there flies a blunder.”

Senator Butler was not present in the chamber when Sumner delivered his speech. Nonetheless, Sumner must have known that Butler or his allies would respond. They simply could not allow such a vicious verbal assault to go unanswered. In fact, anyone who heard the speech would have concluded that Sumner was inviting an angry response.

If he hoped to stir southern anger at the address, Sumner’s wish was fulfilled. Two days after the Massachusetts senator concluded his speech, Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina, Senator Butler’s cousin, marched into the Senate. Finding Sumner seated at his desk, Brooks angrily confronted the man. “Mr. Sumner,” he said, “I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.”

Satisfaction might be found on the dueling ground, but the South Carolinian was far too angry to engage in the back-and-forth negotiations necessary to arrange a duel, assuming Sumner would have agreed to it in the first place. Moreover, the congressman was not prepared to engage in verbal jousting with Sumner, who was known for his debating prowess. Physical violence was Brooks’ preferred method of resolving their dispute. Without preamble or warning, he swung a gold-handled down onto Sumner’s head, repeatedly smacking the startled senator.

Recognizing the danger at the last minute, Sumner tried to stand, but the first blow forced him back into his seat. Before Sumner could react, Brooks raised his weapon and struck the man again and again. Now bloodied and in pain, Sumner tried to stand a second time, but the desk was bolted to the floor and the blows prevented him from moving.

Eyewitness accounts differed on the sequence of events. Some onlookers recalled that Sumner eventually pulled the desk from the floor and got to his feet before he stumbled across the aisle and collapsed. Others insisted that Sumner lay prostrate in the desk, unconscious. Everyone agreed that Brooks continued striking the supine figure even after Sumner had lost consciousness. Brooks’ cane broke into pieces.

After recovering from a momentary shock, bystanders tried to intervene, but South Carolina Congressman Laurence M. Keitt prevented their intervention. Accounts vary. Keitt may have brandished a pistol as he screamed, “let them be!” A few senators said Keitt waved his own cane, but he did not have a pistol. Whatever the case, Keitt prevented his fellow senators from intervening until Brooks completed his assault.

To critics of the South, the incident proved that the façade of the genteel southern gentleman, a fellow obsessed with honor and reputation, was a carefully constructed myth. Lurking beneath the surface was a beast who was as barbaric toward his colleagues as he was toward his slaves. The notion that northerners could compromise with a bestial group of hellions was unthinkable following the Sumner attack. Many an observer living north of the Mason Dixon line recognized that civil war was a strong possibility after 1856.

Southerners viewed the matter quite differently. They were proud that Preston Brooks had defended his cousin’s honor. Charles Sumner was a self-righteous, arrogant, dangerously unstable man who had demeaned the South and her traditions in general, and Senator Butler in particular. Such attacks could not go unanswered. Learning that Brooks had broken his cane during the assault, admirers sent him replacements by the score. The Massachusetts senator had gotten what was coming to him.

Charles Sumner almost died that day, but he somehow managed to survive. Yet his recovery was long, slow, and painful. He probably suffered from what later generations called post-traumatic stress disorder. It would be three years before he returned to the Senate. Massachusetts kept his seat vacant until he could resume his duties. As he inched his way back to good health, Sumner could take solace in the realization that he had become a larger-than-life figure, a symbol of the anti-slavery sentiments of the abolitionist North.

When Sumner finally returned to Washington, D.C., the nation was closer to civil war than it had ever been. Representatives from North and South constantly traded vile epithets and apocalyptic warnings of impending bloodshed. The senator might have been cowed by his experience, fearful of launching into his usual fire-and-brimstone speeches of yesteryear, but he was not. Preston Brooks had unexpectedly died of croup early in 1857, but other extremists, dubbed the “fire eaters,” championed the southern cause. No shortage of would-be assailants existed in the South, but Sumner shrugged off all suggestions that he temper his remarks. He was not intimidated.

The senator delivered his speeches with the same vim and vigor as he had before the 1856 attack. “This is no time for soft words or excuses. All such are out of place,” he thundered in a speech delivered on June 4, 1860. He called the address the “Barbarism of Slavery.” Some northern critics of slavery, Abraham Lincoln among them, distinguished between the monstrous institution of slavery and the men who supported the institution. Moderates suggested that most southerners were good people at their core but misguided about the evils of slavery. They simply did not understand how the institution both destroyed the lives of slaves and reflected poorly on slaveowners. This view allowed southerners to escape the moral blame for supporting human bondage because they were, in essence, victims of their own ignorance.

Charles Sumner disagreed. Anyone who supported slavery was guilty of crimes against humanity. It was incumbent upon people of good will to assail the institution. “In undertaking now to expose the Barbarism of Slavery, the whole broad field is open before me. There is nothing in its character, its manifold wrong, its wretched results, and especially in its influence on the class who claim to be ‘ennobled’ by it, that will not fall naturally under consideration.” He said that he would accept no excuses. “Say, sir, in your madness, that you own the sun, the stars, the moon; but do not say that you own a man, endowed with a soul that shall live immortal, when sun and moon and stars have passed away.”

As the 1860s dawned and the nation faced a bloody civil war, Sumner joined a group of congressional leaders known as the Radical Republicans. Devoted to eradicating legal slavery in the United States, the Radicals emerged as critics of the newly elected Republican president, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln came into the presidency in March 1861 convinced that he could mollify southerners without engaging in a war. In his view, pro-Union citizens had been eclipsed by hot-headed secessionists, but they would come to their senses if given enough time. The Radicals, including Sumner, believed that Lincoln had naively misjudged the deteriorating situation in the South. The time for soothing the savage beast had long passed. Lincoln soon understood their point. The firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor in April 1861 demonstrated the Radicals’ prescience.

Charles Sumner knew as well as anyone—better than most—the savagery that existed in the South. He literally had the scars to prove it. Like most Americans, he had hoped that war would not erupt, but once it had, he believed that the time was right to remake the South. If southerners wanted war, they would have it. Afterward, they would be at the mercy of a self-righteous government that would not allow them to reenter the Union without abolishing slavery.

Sumner enjoyed an illustrious Senate career until his death in 1874. He reached the pinnacle of power the day after Lincoln’s inauguration when he became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a position he held for a decade. As a committee chair, he was one of the most powerful men in the United States. From this lofty perch, he cajoled the president to emancipate the slaves. Although Lincoln was not ready to take that momentous step at the outset, he eventually moved in that direction due in no small part to Sumner’s pressure.

Later, after the war, Sumner was involved in postwar Reconstruction, including the impeachment of Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson. As one of the final acts of his life, Sumner helped to enact what became the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which passed into law after his death. The law aimed to guarantee that every American would be provided with equal treatment in “public accommodations” such as inns, public conveyances on land or water, theaters, and places of public amusement regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. It was the last major civil rights statute enacted by the United States Congress until 1957. Unfortunately, the 1875 law was honored more in breach than in practice.

On March 11, 1874, Sumner suffered a fatal heart attack at his home in Washington, D.C. He was 63 years old. As the accolades poured in, he was celebrated for his many accomplishments during more than two decades in public life. The Preston Brooks affair, one of the events that precipitated the Civil War, was remembered as a major scandal as well as a turning point on the march toward a fundamental change in American life.

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© 2020 J . Michael Martinez