Sketch of the infamous caning. (WikimediaCommons)

On May 22nd, 1856 Charles Sumner sat at his desk in the near empty Senate Chamber of the Capitol Building, doing nothing but applying stamps to a few envelopes. (Hoffer, William James Hull The Caning of Charles Sumner, Baltimore, MD. John Hopkins University Press, 2010, p. 7). He was planning on mailing out copies of his recent speech, given just a few days before, to his numerous supporters back home in Massachusetts. Distracted by this task he failed to notice Preston Brooks, a Congressman from South Carolina, walk up to the desk, and raise a gold capped cane above his head. (Hoffer, P.7) Brooks proceed to lash Sumner with such force and repetitiveness that the cane would shatter into an unrecognizable mess, save for the gold head that Brooks kept as a momento of the occasion.

To our modern perspective, this event seems unthinkable. While even the most casual observation of today’s Capitol would make clear that disagreements and emotion filled arguments are common place, the idea of a violent assault like that of Senator Sumner is still impossible to fathom. What made this event possible? What kind of person was Sumner? What about him could possibly lead to this outburst?

Young Charles Sumner (WikimediaCommons)

Sumner was born in Massachusetts in 1811 at a time of great change in America. The country was expanding westward as it was wont to do for the next century. The issue of slavery, which had been festering since before the revolution, grew in controversy in tandem with the growth of the nation. Massachusetts was gradually becoming the home of ever more outspoken abolitionists and anti-slavery forces. For Sumner, however, this potent and controversial issue had not yet taken hold in his youth. His first ever view of slaves came on a train ride to Washington, D.C. In his journal he would write that he felt only disdain. “They appear to be nothing more than moving masses of flesh, un-endowed with anything above the brutes” (Mccullough, David. The Greater Journey: Americans In Paris. New York, Simon and Schuster,  P.131). His views would change, however, and he would become one of the great voices articulating the cause of abolition and the rights of blacks in the 19th century.

Camille Pissarro’s-Boulevard Montmartre at Night 1897 (WikimediaCommons)

In his twenty-sixth year Sumner left his home and journeyed to Paris where his life would be forever changed. As with many other American travelers to France, he spent over a month on the harrowing seas to make landfall at Le Havre. (Mccullough P.20) Unlike many of those companions, Sumner immediately fell in love with the history and ancient effect of the country. (Supra) Where others saw mud and filth he saw a character and a quality impossible to find at home. (Mccullough, P.121). Though, arriving in Paris in December as Sumner did was a dismal proposition for many. Not recognizing that the “City of Light” lay on the same parallel as Newfoundland, the final month of the year found the days so short that Paris could have been more aptly named the city of dark. (See, Mccullough, P.121)

The Sorbonne Paris (WikimediaCommons)

Unbearable cold permeated every experience in Sumner’s early months in Paris but he overcame this by engulfing himself in his studies and experiencing all he could in Parisian culture. He studied rigorously at the Sorbonne- “Natural History, Geology, Geography, Egyptology, Greek History, History of the English Parliament, Philosophy, Latin Poetry, Criminal Law, and Byzantine Emperor Justinian”. (Mccullough, P.30). He mastered French so quickly that in a month he was understanding the French lectures and within six weeks he was taking part in conversations with the native teachers and students. (Mccullough, P.59)

Vitor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”

When not engaged in his studies, Sumner spent his few available hours devouring the culture of the City, which he knew was available nowhere else in the world. He was “awakened” by the works of Raphael and Leonardo during his visits to the Louvre. (Mccullough, P. 47). After walking the length of the Siene to the Ile de la Cite he would climb the 400 steps to the top of Notre-Dame Cathedral and view the Paris described so vividly in the 1833 novel Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo. (Known in America as the Hunchback of Notre Dame.) He visited the packed Paris Theaters and Operas. And was taken away by the singular performance of Marie Taglioni of the French Ballet. (Mccullough, P.49).

Marie Taglioni of the French Ballet (WikimediaCommons)

More than the culture and education, however, Sumner took from his time in Paris a new perspective and new attitude. Having been exposed to new ideas, art he never knew existed and people he could never otherwise encounter, the Massachusetts native could not help but develop into a more worldly and better rounded human being. One experience as much as any other demonstrated the influence of change held in the city he fell in love with. While at the Sorbonne, Sumner attended a lecture delivered by Adolphe Mare De Caurroy on The Philosophy of Heraclides. More than the lecture, what struck the future senator was the presence of a handful of black men in the audience. It was entirely natural and they were accepted as any other member in the crowd. In contrast to his youthful impressions on the train to Washington D.C, Sumner saw in these men a window into the nature of race. Where before he may have seen blacks as having been naturally separate from whites with no special endowments “above that of brutes”, he could now see that distinction as arbitrary and not natural at all. Of this experience he would note in his diary that “…it must be then that the distance between free blacks and whites among us is derived from education, and does not exist in the nature of things.” (Mccullough P.31). It cannot be said that this moment was of earth shattering revelation to Sumner but it was the beginning of a sentiment that would lead to Sumner’s life work as an abolitionist and champion of civil rights.

“…it must be then that the distance between free blacks and whites among us is derived from education, and does not exist in the nature of things.”- Charles Sumner

Sumner would return to America in 1840, where he settled back in Boston as a lawyer and a professor at Harvard. Quickly he would establish himself in eminent social circles and as an orator. After the annexation of Texas in 1845 he would begin to take action on the racial sentiments that began in Paris by joining the anti-slavery movement in Boston. In 1855 he represented Sarah Roberts, a five year old African-American girl, who was denied enrollment at an all white elementary school. Sumner fought a losing battle against segregation 100 years before Brown v. Board of education and six years before the start of the civil war.

He would spend much of his antebellum career bouncing between political parties in Boston. After denouncing the Mexican-American war he became a leader of the Conscious Whigs wing of the Whig Party. He later helped organize the Free Soil party for whom he would become Senator in 1851 (part of a coalition government with state Democrats). He was elected to the seat previously held by Daniel Webster, which marked a sharp change in the political structure of the country. For while Webster had devoted his senate life to compromise and maintaining the fragile Union, Sumner represented a growing movement that sought no compromise and knew the nation could only survive by the absolute expulsion of slavery.

“House of Representatives” painting by Samuel Morse. The standing figure is Sen. Daniel Webster who Sumner replaced. Wikimedia Commons.

The compromise of 1850 had been agreed upon before Sumner made his way to the Senate floor but he still called for its repeal. By 1852 the freshman senator had denounced the act with his speech “Freedom National; Slavery Sectional“. He would continue in this vain throughout his first term, attacking the institution of slavery whenever called for. Then, in 1856, he delivered his seminal oration denouncing the Kansas-Nebraska act; it would become known as his “Crime Against Kansas” speech.

Printed Text of Sumner’s “Crime Against Kansas” Speech

The speech was long, over 100 pages, and all memorized by Sumner. He called for the immediate admission of Kansas as a free state and denounced slavery and slave holders. He then attacked the authors of the act- Stephen Douglas, the Senator from Illinois who would defend this act in historic debates with Abraham Lincoln, and Andrew Butler, Senator from South Carolina.

“The Senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight with sentiments of honor and courage. Of course he has chosen his mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, 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 his tongue is always profuse in words. Let her be impeached in character, or any proposition made to shit her out from the extension of her wantonness, and no extravagance of manner or hardihood of assertion is too great for this senator”- Charles Sumner in “Crime Against Kansas” Speech

Sumner mocked his opponents and compared the two Democrats to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza taking on similar adventures. He compared Butler’s position on slavery with Quixote’s dillusions of Dulcenea, claiming that Butler had an ugly mistress (slavery) whom he would defend no matter the cost. Sumner continued to accuse Butler of discrediting all before him who stood for “liberty” and “truth”. His attack continued onto the state of South Carolina itself hinting that the State’s history should be blotted out of existence because of its representatives and its push to expand slavery.

The words were levied for effect and greatly challenged the people of the south. Douglas himself is reported to have said “this damn fool Sumner is going to get himself shot by some other damn fool”. One person in particular was sent into a rage. He was from South Carolina but word did not need to travel that far to reach him, in fact it only had to travel to the other end of the Capitol Building. Preston Brooks was a representative from South Carolina and a cousin to Andrew Butler. (Hoffer, 3) He was not in attendance at Sumner’s speech but he heard the text soon enough. Three days after the speech, Brooks set his mind on getting satisfaction from Sumner and decided to confront the man in the Senate Chamber.

Preston Brooks of South Carolina

He approached the Massachusetts man from behind in the near empty room (Hoffer, 4). Sumner, a tall man at 6’4″, sat at his desk where his lengthy legs fit so precariously under his desk getting up proved difficult under the best of circumstances (Hoffer, 4). Sumner appeared not to have noticed Brooks’s approach and, despite the attacker’s later claim that he announced his intentions at once, he proceeded to pummel Sumner with the cane, giving the taller man not even half a chance to stand up and defend himself. Brooks himself reported to have hit Sumner thirty times, maybe more. It is known that the cane broke in the process of the beating and that Sumner’s desk did not survive the ordeal either; his size not permitting an easy escape, the desk was torn from the bolts holding it to the floor and it, along with Sumner, collapsed in a heap on the ground.

Eventually Brooks was held back by another Senator but not before excessive damage had been inflicted (See, Hoffer, 9). Brooks’s justification for the beating was one that divided an institution that was always divided about something. He claimed he was defending his honor, his family’s honor, and the honor of his home State (See, Hoffer, 13). The words uttered by Sumner could not be let to pass without a severe response. This is what the Code Duello demanded (See, Hoffer 13,14). These are the set of rules, varying from culture to culture, for combat that govern any challenge to one’s honor. Or rather they were the rules that were held in such esteem by the American aristocracy in the late 18th and early 19th century. This is the code that led to numerous maimings and deaths during that time period. One such death was that of Alexander Hamilton, founding father and the first Secretary of the Treasury. One such maiming was that of Preston Brooks himself who carried the cane, in part, because he had been injured in a duel in his youth and had some difficulty walking (Hoffer, 14).

A version of the “Principles of Duelling” (Code Duello)

Those who believed in and lived this code came down squarely on the side of Brooks. His honor had been questioned and he had to respond to protect it. For others this was a brutal and shameless and sneaky attack on an older man who had no chance to defend himself. For these people, the code claimed by Brooks was nonsense. What counted was the law itself, made my men to be followed by men. Just as important, this law applied to everyone no matter what their status or background or, yes, race. There was no great code that allowed certain individual’s to violate the law, for example assaulting a member of the U.S. Senate, in the name of defending their “honor”.

For these people there was something inherent in this code duello that clashed irreconcilably with the American creed where “all men are created equal” (See Hoffer, P.14-30). To follow this code was to accept and believe that certain people were inherently superior to others. The code requires this because only certain people (the aristocratic, white, property owning males of the nation) See Hoffer. 14-30), had honor. If a slave or a woman or destitute man of ill repute had attacked the senator than the code would not apply for these people had no honor to defend. For Sumner’s supporters this entire idea was undemocratic and unAmerican. The two sides would clash over what the proper response should be to Brook’s actions. Some felt he was a hero, others moved to have him removed from the House and thrown in jail for such a criminal act.

In the end Brooks was fined $300 and the attempt to formally remove him from office failed. He voluntarily left office and his state held a special runoff election as a referendum on his actions. Brooks’s constituents sent him right back to office having shown complete support for his assault on Sumner. But the story of the beating is about more than Congressman Preston Brooks. It is one of the many microcosms of the war that would begin in less than six years. The two sides — pro-slavery vs. abolitionist, federal power vs. state power, aristocratic hierarchy vs universal equality– had fought before and they would fight again in the years to come (Hoffer P.14-35). For one side the issue was about superior vs inferior. The white person was superior to all other races, the man was superior to the woman, the wealthy inherently superior to the destitute. True equality was an illusion that should not be made or respected by the law. For the other side equality before the law was essential because equality before god was a self evident truth.

Painting of “Bull Run”. The first major battle of the American Civil War.

To varying degrees this was the dichotomy  that led to the bloodiest war in American History. Certainly not everybody involved fell squarely into these two camps. Some fought solely for preservation of the union and others fought entirely because they felt their first duty was to their state which had been invaded by an outside force. Slavery, freedom, equality, and hierarchy need not have played into these peoples minds. But while understanding the motives of these people is important in understanding the war theirs were not the issues that were so hotly debated for decades. They were not the contested questions that motivated the decision makers and men of import. And they were not the problems that could only be solved by the deaths of thousands. For that, one must look at the one of the core debates that this country has always been about and it was this core debate that can be found in the caning of 1855. Equality vs inherent superiority.

Charles Sumner’s recovery took a long time. (Mccullough, P.225-31).  For even when his physical wounds healed he continued to suffer psychological pain. For a time, every time he would return to the Senate he would grow tired and fatigued (Mccullough P.225-31). Many feared that the strain of his work would be his demise. To save his sanity and his physical stamina Sumner returned to the respite of his youth. He went back to Paris. Upon his arrival he was treated as a hero from a people who shared his sentiments and beliefs and philosophies. They provided the recuperative environment he needed to return to the fray.

The Emancipation Proclamation

Coming back to the United States in 1859 Sumner picked up where he left off and resumed his attacks on slavery and slave holders. When the war broke out in 1860 he fought to keep the fight against slavery at the forefront of the mind of the people of the north and the mind of the president. While initially resistant to the idea of emancipation in a effort to keep boarder states from joining the confederacy, President Lincoln grew ever more influenced by the moral arguments of the abolitionists. Lincoln described Sumner as “my idea of a bishop” and consulted with the Senator when finally coming to draft the Emancipation Proclamation. Just as important, Sumner would be instrumental in keeping England and France from joining the war on the side of the south. Throughout the conflict he would devote himself to the union and the cause of emancipation.

In 1865 the war ended but Sumner’s resolve and fight for the principles he found in his youth in Paris continued. He fought for civil and voting rights for freed slaves to varying degrees throughout reconstruction of the south. At a time now known as much for Southern exploitation and Northern Corruption, Sumner continued his struggle for equality and freedom before the law. This fight was not only for former slaves but immigrants and other groups as well. He proposed multiple bills that would prohibit the use of “White” in immigration laws as a way of ensuing those laws protected Chinese immigrants in the same way they applied to Europeans. And in one final effort in his struggle of legal equality he co-authored the 1875 Civil Rights Act that, although it would eventually be made toothless by the courts, would be the only civil rights bill until the 1950s.

Sumner devoted his life to a battle that is still being fought today. He would die of a heart attack in 1874 but his story lives on as testimony to two everlasting principles. The first is the belief system of freedom and equality that embodies the absolute best in this country and humanity as a whole. The second is that life is about growth and self betterment, a never-ending development and refinement of principles and defending those principles to the last.

Charles Sumner Statue at Harvard