Preston Brooks Canes the Union

by Michael Liss

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History is fractal. Zoom out, and you see grand themes, mass movements, stirring oratory, and profound ideas. Zoom in, and it is countless individual acts and choices, smaller moments that often seem to be just footnotes, but are, on closer inspection, immensely revealing.

On May 22, 1856, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks entered the Senate Chamber, strode purposefully over to the desk of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, and beat him senseless with a gold-headed, gutta-percha walking stick. So forceful, and so numerous were his blows, that Brooks shattered his weapon. And so much the damage done to his victim, both physical and psychological, that Sumner was unable to resume his Senatorial duties for nearly three years.

Matter of honor for Brooks. Sumner had just delivered a two-day jeremiad, "The Crime Against Kansas," which was laced with insults against Brooks' home state and his kin, South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler. As for the need for 30 swings of the cane on a bloodied, helpless victim, anyone who understood the profound passion of offended dignity of the Southern Gentleman could explain it. Who, of Brooks' stature, wouldn't have acted the same way when faced with the same provocation?

Brooks' choice of a weapon said as much as his words. It was not an accident, not something grabbed in impulse. In the Southern Code, you dueled with an equal, but thrashed an inferior. Sumner, for all his refined manners, Harvard education, and the classical allusions in his speeches, was clearly a social inferior—a "Black Republican" of the worst type. Once Brooks settled on a course of action, he grappled with the choice of cane or bullwhip, but he never, ever, considered pistols.

Most of the South cheered. Fire-Eaters made similar threats against other Northern leaders, and Brooks mused, "It would not take much to have the throats of every Abolitionist cut." He became a sort of a pop hero, the very exemplar of chivalrous Southern manliness. Among his adoring acolytes were students from the University of Virginia, who sent him a golden-headed cane, inscribed, and etched with the image of a cracked human skull.

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