The ‘Caning of Charles Sumner’ the Focus of a New Book

Posted April 26, 2010 at 4:01pm

As Democrats propose a series of wide-ranging reforms and Republicans try to beat them back, it has become popular to say that Capitol Hill is stricken with endemic partisanship and that we’ve reached the nadir in comity among Congressmen.

But take a look at a U.S. history book: Maybe 2010 isn’t the angriest time in Congress.

Perhaps the most famous example of down-and-dirty partisanship is the fabled caning of Sen. Charles Sumner. The brutal beating of the Republican from Massachusetts on May 22, 1856, by his South Carolinian colleague Sen. Preston Brooks (D) is now the stuff of legend.

Two days earlier, Sumner gave the impassioned speech “Crime Against Kansas,” in which he decried slavery and the popular sovereignty provisions of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act and scathingly and personally insulted the Senators who favored them, especially Brooks’ cousin Sen. Andrew Butler (D-S.C.).

Brooks approached Sumner on the old Senate floor as Sumner was signing copies of the widely circulated speech. The Southern Senator struck him repeatedly with his wooden walking cane, splintering the staff and leaving Sumner unconscious and so badly injured that he was unable to return to regular service in the Senate for four years.

The incident is revisited in Seton Hall University professor Williamjames Hull Hoffer’s new work “The Caning of Charles Sumner: Honor, Idealism and the Origins of the Civil War.”

Brooks’ attack on Sumner was a microcosm of the larger national sentiment that led to the outbreak of the Civil War four years later. It also “still speaks to us,” Hoffer writes. “It tells us about the dangers of turning words into violent action. It reminds us that sticks and stones do hurt our bones, and words may lead to sticks and stones.”

Sumner’s vitriolic address against slavery coupled with the honor culture of the South, which required Brooks to avenge his cousin’s good name, crystallized the decaying relations between the North and the South and set off a chain of events that led to the deadliest war in American history.

The sectionalism in the mid-1800s “did not begin with the reaction to the caning of Charles Sumner, but it certainly followed its trajectory and was a natural outgrowth of it,” Hoffer states. “One of the nation’s first mass media circuses played a critical role in magnifying and sustaining the controversy.”

Hoffer’s work is academic in tone, reading more like a dissertation than a short book. But it is amusing and thought-provoking in a way that could resonate in circles broader than just academia.

He covers a lot of ground in his 130 pages, not simply paraphrasing history from Dred Scott’s court case to President Abraham Lincoln’s election, but tangentially musing on what diagnoses modern doctors might have had for Sumner’s head wounds or how advances in printing technology helped the minute-long incident become sustained newspaper fodder.

Still, the history professor succeeds in neatly tying his treatise together at the end.

The historical context is necessary to fully appreciate the incident. It showed that the rule of law meant little when honor was at stake and that compromise on slavery was impossible. It also served as an analogy for the war that was to come and the reconciliation afterward.

Finally, in an age where we frequently lament the decline of civility in American politics, “it serves as a warning about how our words and deeds can have great consequences.”

Our history must constantly be reexamined, Hoffer says, so that we can learn from it.