Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Flashback Moment: Sumner's Caning

Political rhetoric is as American as apple pie and baseball. Hopefully our legislators today have learned lessons from the past, but with all of the partisan bickering in the halls of Congress these days it is not inconceivable that the events of May 22, 1856 could occur again.

In the 1850s, as the nation unknowingly approached civil war, members of the halls of our national congress often arrived to work armed with knives and pocket pistols instead of pens and ink. On May 22, 1856 tension and bad blood came to a boil in the United States senate chamber.

Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner had made a name for himself by stepping on toes, irrespective of party or section allegiance. Sumner saved his best rhetoric to fight slavery, especially the threat of slavery's spread to the western territories. In the past he has made passionate speeches against the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and its encompassing omnibus bill "The Compromise of 1850." Just a few years later Sumner's bombastic nature would come back to bite him. In speeches on May 19 and 20, 1856, Sumner called the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which established the rule of popularly sovereignty, a "crime against Kansas" and verbally whipped Senators Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina. Douglas, a short heavyset man, Sumner said, was a "noisome, squat and nameless animal," and he accused Butler, who was a slaveholder and had speech impediment, of taking "a mistress...polluted in the sight of the world...I mean, the harlot, slavery," and ridiculed Butler's stammering speeches. These were powerful insults, even in the late 1850s. Sumner had damaged Douglas's and Butler's honor; something not to be taken lightly.

On May 22, Butler's nephew, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks, along with fellow South Carolina Congressman Lawrence Keitt, approached Sumner at his senate desk and berated Sumner for dishonoring Brooks's kinsman Butler. Brooks did not allow Sumner to reply, instead he beat Sumner with his walking cane. Sumner attempted to take refuge under his desk but Brooks continued to swing the cane until he had broken through the desk and beat Sumner unmercifully. After several moments and blinded by his own blood, Sumner lay slumped on the floor. Brooks finally stopped swinging when his cane snapped. Then when other Senators moved in to help the unconscious Sumner, Keitt drew a pistol and kept them at bay.

In the North the attack was decried. In the South it was celebrated. In fact, Brooks received a number of canes as gifts to replace the one he had broken on Sumner. Sumner, in deed, was badly injured in the assault, and did not return to his Senate post for three years, although many believed he could have returned much earlier. In the fall of 1856, the Massachusetts legislature reelected Sumner, now a Republican, and he served until his death in 1874. During Reconstruction he was considered one of the top three "Radical Republicans," along with Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania and Benjamin Wade of Ohio.

This incident was just one more log on the fire of sectional discord. It further polarized the North and the South over the ever increasing burden of slavery. Other later incidents such as the Dred Scott Decision the following year, and John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry three years later, would push America to the edge.

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