Preston Brooks entered the United States Senate chamber, clutching a gutta percha walking cane topped with a gold knob. The cane stood approximately waist high next to the thirty-six-year-old South Carolinian.
Alongside Brooks stood Laurence Keitt, a fellow South Carolinian, and Henry Edmundson. Keitt possessed a pistol. They waited for the gallery to clear that afternoon. The three had decided beforehand that no ladies be present. The Senate was not in session, but some of the senators worked at their desks.
When the gallery emptied, the three men strode down the aisle to a spot slightly behind the desk of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner. The forty-five-year-old solon sat silent, absorbed in his writing. Brooks stepped alongside him. “I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine."
Sumner made an attempt to rise; however, Brooks drew the cane back and swung it down across the side of the Massachusetts senator's head. Sumner slumped into his seat. Whipping the cane down, again and again, Brooks swung so fast and ferociously that he clipped the side of his own face once with the recoil.
Senator Sumner lay trapped, his legs pinned beneath a desk bolted to the floor. The first or second blow hit his brain so hard that he lost his sense of vision. Blood poured over his face. Finally, like a caged animal, he instinctively unleashed all his reserved strength and blindly tore the desk from its moorings.
He staggered up the aisle, arms outstretched in a defensive, seeking posture. Brooks continued caning him on top of the head, across the face and shoulders. The cane snapped in two, but Brooks grabbed a broken end and bashed Sumner with the gold knob. Sumner stumbled to a knee, and to some appeared to be in a state of convulsion. “Oh Lord,” he muttered. “Oh, oh.”
Brooks later claimed that his victim bellowed like a calf. The South Carolinian caught hold of Sumner's lapel, lifted him onto both feet and continued hitting him with the gold knob.
By then, other senators and some members of the House of Representatives attempted to intervene. The heavy set Edmundson blocked their way and admonished them to leave Brooks and Sumner to themselves. Keitt brandished a walking stick of his own as well as a pistol. “Let them be! Let them alone, God damn you, let them alone!”
The cane continued to break off into barely more than a golden nub as Brooks struck Sumner over and over. Representatives Ambrose Murray and Edwin Morgan finally pushed through and pulled Brooks away. Murray, a Senate page, and the Sergeant at Arms lifted Sumner to his feet. Somehow, he had regained consciousness. They escorted the Massachusetts lawmaker to a cloakroom for preliminary first aid, including stitches. With the Speaker of the House, Nathaniel Banks, and Senator Henry Wilson lending assistance, Sumner made his way to a carriage then to his lodgings where a doctor soon followed.
Brooks wiped the sweat from his brow and walked out of the Senate chamber as if he had just been for a vigorous hike, otherwise unperturbed. He did require medical attention later for the cut his own cane had inflicted above his right eye. Edmundson gathered all the pieces of the shattered cane.
The year was 1856. Brooks, Keitt, and Edmundson were members of the House of Representatives. The United States remained torn over the issue of slavery, particularly whether or not to allow the practice in new states as the nation's boundaries expanded westward across the continent. The issue had been forestalled in 1820 under a law called the Missouri Compromise. That legislation prohibited the admission of any further slave states north of the thirty-six degree, thirty minute parallel of latitude, with Missouri being the exception.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, authored by Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas among others, ripped the Missouri Compromise asunder. Douglas hoped that creating the separate territories of Kansas and Nebraska from the land acquired in the Louisiana Purchase would further westward expansion and help in the development of a transcontinental railroad connecting the new (1850) state of California with the rest of the country. The primary result of the Kansas-Nebraska Act was a rush of pro- and anti-slavery “settlers” into Kansas. Many armed conflicts, with grievous injury and deaths, ensued. Douglas had hoped that his concept of “popular sovereignty,” meaning a vote by the new residents, would permanently solve the slavery question in these fledgling territories. By 1856, one of those territories was commonly called “bleeding Kansas.”
Three days before Preston Brooks' attack on May 22, 1856, Charles Sumner took to the Senate floor, speaking at length against the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The speech ran over from May 19th into May 20th. In his remarks, Sumner singled out Senator Douglas and Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina, authors of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Butler and Congressman Brooks were relatives. Sumner stated, “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 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. For her his tongue is always profuse in words. Let her be impeached in character, or any proposition made to shut her out from the extension of her wantonness, and no extravagance of manner or hardihood of assertion is then too great for this senator.”
Butler had recently suffered a stroke, which slurred his speech. Sumner went there in his oration. “[He] touches nothing which he does not disfigure with error, sometimes of principle, sometimes of fact. He cannot open his mouth, but out there flies a blunder.”
Sumner's reference to slavery as a mistress was no flippancy. At the time slaveholders made statements to the effect that abolitionists only wanted an end to slavery so they could take a black woman as a wife or mistress. Abolitionists, aware of slave masters taking advantage of their slaves sexually, referenced those actions in public statements.
Thus, the issue of slavery in the western territories and states took on an intensely personal tone. For Preston Brooks it was too much to forebear. Hence, the whispered comment to Sumner immediately before the caning. “I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine."
Reaction to Preston Brooks' caning of Charles Sumner depended on where one resided. A U.S. Senator from the South said that he approved of Brooks' act. Henry Wilson, of Massachusetts, stated on the floor of the Senate that the assault was base, brutal, and cowardly. To which Sen. Butler responded, “You are a liar.”
At the end of May 1856, the Charleston Daily Courier editorialized about Sumner's speech, “We venture the assertion that no parallel to these vituperative outbursts of Sumner can be found in the annals of Congress.”
The Liberator of Boston printed the entirety of Sumner's speech, calling it a majestic oration “on the invasion and subjugation of Kansas by Executive perfidy and Missouri border ruffians.” That newspaper labeled Preston Brooks' attack as a “brutal and dastardly outrage.”
The editor of the Richmond Enquirer extolled Brooks' deed as “good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequences.”
Two results stemmed from the cane splintering into many pieces. From all over the south, Brooks received hundreds of new canes, at least one of which bore the inscription, “Hit him again.”
The original cane's gold head, retrieved by Edmundson, eventually ended up displayed in the Old State House Museum in Boston. More immediately, the other pieces Edmundson gathered up were mostly fashioned into chains that Southern lawmakers wore around their necks in solidarity with Brooks.