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Posted on Feb 3, 2009 in Strange Congress

Strange Congress: 1856, Preston Brooks vs. Charles Sumner

On May 22nd, 1856, Preston Brooks, a Democratic Congressman from South Carolina beat and severely injured Senator Charles Sumner, a Republican from Massachusetts with his gutta-percha (a type of tree) cane.

The story starts on May 19th of the same year, when Senator Sumner gave a rousing two-day speech of the floor of the United States Senate where he not only criticized then President Franklin Pierce, but also went even further to single out specific sympathizers of the pro-slavery-driven violence that was occurring in Kansas.

One of the individuals singled out by Senator Sumner was Senator Andrew Pickens Butler, a Democrat from South Carolina and a cousin of Preston Brooks.

Upon hearing of Sumner’s speech, the South Carolina Congressman, complete with his understanding of Code Duello (Southern Code of Honor), and his gutta-percha cane, entered the Chambers of the United States Senate with Congressman Laurence Massillon Keitt, a fellow South Carolina Democrat and Virginia Congressman Henry Alonzo Edmundson (also a Democrat) and approached Sumner.

Upon stating that he had read Sumner’s speech, Brooks began to viciously beat him in the head with his cane until it broke.

By the time Brooks was done with his attack, Sumner was left fading in and out of consciousness, which injuries that would keep him out of the Senate for three years.


While punishment was sought against Brooks, the two-thirds vote needed to expel him from House of Representatives couldn’t be reached. Even so, Brooks resigned from Congress on July 15, 1856, but later was quickly re-elected on August 1, 1856, where he served until his death on January 27, 1857.

Despite the physical and emotional trauman faced by Sumner, he returned to the Senate three years later and became a an outspoken leader for the Radical Republicans. Sumner remained in the Senate until his death on March 11, 1864 1874.

For more information on the Preston-Sumner Affair, please click here.

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