It was 1856 and the country was embroiled in a conflict over slavery in the territories. The Kansas – Nebraska Act was passed calling for popular sovereignty, which meant the inhabitants in the territory voted on whether they wanted slavery. This led to nasty border wars between free soilers and pro slavery adherents. This boiled over into the sack of Lawrence, Kansas on May 21, 1856. Lawrence was a free soul town, and was burned by pro slavery forces. Many of the pro slavery forces crossed the border from the slave state of Missouri.
This incensed noted Abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner. He was the leader of the Republican party, and gave a bitter speech denouncing the “murderous robbers from Missouri.” He entitled his speech, “The Crime Against Kansas”, and it was a fiery oration where he pulled no punches. He went on to call the attackers, “hirelings, picked from the drunken spew and vomit of an uneasy civilization.” It segued into personal attack of Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina. An example of this was the quote, “Senator Butler has chosen a mistress. I mean the harlot, slavery.” It was so bad, Senator Stephen Douglas whispered to a companion “that damn fool will get himself killed by some other damn fool.” This speech went on for two days.
Senator Butler had a distant cousin, Preston Brooks, who was a member of the House of Representatives. Naturally, he was not pleased about Sumner’s comments. The tradition of honor was strong in the South, and Sumner had definitely impugned the family honor. It could not stand.
Two days after Sumner gave his speech, Preston Brooks approached Sumner in his chamber. Sumner was working at his desk, and Brooks towered over him and declared, “You’ve libeled my state and slandered my white-haired old relative, Senator Butler and I’ve come to punish you for it.” He then raised his gold tipped cane and began beating Sumner about the head and neck. He struck Sumner so hard the cane shattered, but he kept beating him. Sumner instantly lost his sight, “I no longer saw my assailant, nor any other person or object in the room. What I did afterwards was done almost unconsciously, acting under the instincts of self-defense,” he recalled later. Sumner sank to the floor and was trapped underneath the desk. Brooks kept beating Sumner until was unconscious and Brooks was restrained.
Sumner sustained both significant physical and psychological damage from the attack. However, Brooks was not strongly punished, and was even considered a hero in the South. He was expelled from the House of Representatives, and went home to South Carolina. Replacement canes came in from all over the South, which enraged the North almost more than the caning itself. Sumner’s injuries were such that he was not able to return to the Senate for six years, however, the people of Massachusetts kept electing him. They left his seat empty as a protest against Southern hostility. The incident only served to highlight the growing rift between North and South in America.