Today in History: Southern Congressman Beats Northern Senator with a Cane (1856)

The beating of Charles Sumner. Bostinos

April 12, 1861 may have been the official start of the American Civil War, but in reality, the tensions between the Northern anti-slavery movement and the Southern pro-slavery movement had been brewing for almost 100 years before the outbreak of violence.

Despite owning slaves Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, was a lifelong opponent of slavery, once calling it a “moral depravity.” He wasn’t alone, however, as several “founding fathers” agreed with him.

What followed the founding of the United States was a century of compromises that would eventually lead to the outbreak of the deadliest war in American History.

The Missouri Compromise of 1820 plainly stated that any new states or territories that were added to the union from lands of the Louisiana Purchase would be free states. Missouri would be added as a slave state, while Maine would be added as a free state.

What it comes down to is representation in congress. Their goal was to keep as much balance between the pro- and anti-slavery factions within the legislature as possible. Southerners argued that any new state should be able to choose to be free or not, while the North argued that the Federal Government had the right to mandate for all new states the issue of slavery. If the balance went to far in either direction, the policies associated with those factions would become more dominant.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 threw the Missouri Compromise out, and allowed for new states to vote on the issue of slavery. While the Missouri Compromise had calmed the tensions somewhat, the Kansas-Nebraska Act re-inflamed them within Congress.

Charles Sumner. thefamouspeople.com

In 1856, the debate between anti-slavery and pro-slavery members of congress was reaching a fever pitch. On May 19th and 20th, Senator Charles Sumner issued a speech that was extreme even for most anti-slavery advocates. He said: “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 desire for a new Slave State, hideous offspring of such a crime, in the hope of adding to the power of slavery in the National Government.”

His speech was met with contempt on the part of the Southern caucus, and with a bit of disdain on the part of the Northerners. His speech was seen as extremest, and most distanced themselves from Sumner quite a bit. One of the things Sumner did during the speech was attack Senators Stephen A. Douglas and Andrew Butler, both authors of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

He said, “The senator from South Carolina [Douglas] has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight with sentiments of honor and courage. 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.”

Preston Brooks. Wikipedia

This led Butler’s cousin to violence. Preston Brooks was a member of the House of Representatives. On May 22, 1856, Brooks attacked Sumner with his cane, beating him severely. It would take Sumner three years to recover.

The Aftermath was predictable on both sides. Brooks was seen as a hero, beating down the Northern forces that wanted to take away their freedom. Sumner was, despite the earlier reaction to his speech, seen as a martyr for the cause. The attack on his person led to mass protests from Boston to Cleveland. He would be reelected even though he wasn’t able to take up his office again until 1859.

Butler, was nearly censured by the House, but resigned before that could happen. Despite that, he would be re-elected to the House a year later.

Between 1856 and 1861, the tensions between the North and the South would continue to grow. The days of compromise were over, and it would take a massive war for the issue to finally be solved.

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