Caned in the Senate
May 22, 1856 - It was on this day that Congressman Preston Brooks beat Senator Charles Sumner to a bloody pulp on the floor of the United States Senate.
Three days earlier, the abolitionist Sumner had given a long and colorful speech called the "Crime Against Kansas" in which he mocked Senator Andrew Butler from South Carolina for his support of slavery.
The Senator touches nothing which he does not disfigure with error, sometimes of principle, sometimes of fact. He shows an incapacity of accuracy, whether in stating the Constitution, or in stating the law, whether in the details of statistics or the diversions of scholarship. He cannot open his mouth, but out there flies a blunder.
Congressman Brooks vowed to avenge the insult. He determined that Senator Sumner was too low of a creature to merit a gentleman's duel, so a good old-fashioned caning was in order. He confronted Sumner in the Senate chamber during a break in proceedings.
Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.
As Sumner started to rise from his chair Brooks whacked him across the head with his gold-handled cane. The hapless victim cowered under his desk as the beating continued. Other Senators tried to intervene but they were held back by supporters of Brooks who cheered at the relentless assault.
Finally the cane splintered and the attack ceased. Brooks was so badly beaten, it would take 3 years for him to recover enough to return to work in the Senate. He would be plagued with headaches and panic attacks for the rest of his life.
Brooks would resign from Congress, but he became an instant hero in the south. The editors of the Richmond Enquirer gushed with praise:
We consider the act good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequences. These vulgar abolitionists in the Senate must be lashed into submission.
In the north, Brooks was derided as a barbarian. Massachusetts Congressman Aaron Burlingame called him "the vilest sort of coward" on the floor of the Senate. Brooks challenged him to a duel and Burlingame eagerly accepted.
Turns out Burlingame was a skilled marksman. This along with his enthusiastic acceptance of the challenge was enough to put the fear in Brooks. On the day of the duel, only Burlingame showed up.
Brooks died the following year from a nasty bout of croup.