History Trivia #2: Preston Brooks Comeuppance From a Northern Duelist

My last History Trivia post concerned the infamous caning of Senator Charles Sumner by Representative Preston Brooks on the floor of the U.S. Senate on May 22nd, 1856. I still had many questions after finishing that post, so I dug deeper.

Again, the basic story is Senator Sumner gave an abolitionist speech that insulted several pro-slavery politicians by name. One target of the speech was Andrew Butler, an elderly relative of Representative Brooks. Outraged, Brooks attacked Sumner with a cane two days later.

I wondered last time whether Brooks, a South Carolina aristocrat, considered challenging Sumner to a duel. I have since learned that Brooks absolutely considered challenging Sumner to a duel. Brooks had fought at least two duels as a younger man: he walked with a cane because a duel in 1840 left him with a hip wound. [3][8][13][17] One source claimed this wound was so bad it motivated Brooks to swear off dueling forever. [4]

Why did Brooks reconsider dueling just to punish Sumner, and why did he ultimately ambush the senator instead? To better understand, let’s first set the scene.

Congress in the 1850s was the most confrontational it has ever been. I overestimated its tradition of pacifism before: the decades before the Civil War saw at least 70 violent incidents between congressmen. They often carried pistols or bowie knives around the office. The voters seemed to approve: constituents sent guns to their elected officials as gifts. [11] The caning of Charles Sumner was the Capitol’s most infamous act of violence, but it was hardly the first.

This escalation in violence reflected the violence of the country they governed. The history of antebellum federal politics is the history of slavery compromises, and both sides were losing any desire to compromise. It would take a long book to summarize every move in that exhausting game, but the immediate source of tension in 1856, and the topic of Sumner’s speech, was Bleeding Kansas.

Since the Missouri Compromise in 1820, slavery had been illegal in new states north of the 36° 30′ latitude (aka, the 36th parallel), and this was generally tolerated. But then some politics happened, and in 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act gave Kansas and Nebraska the right to determine whether they would enter the union as free or slave states, through both were at “free soil” latitudes. Kansas was largely settled by non-slaveholders, but it shared a long border with slaveholding Missouri. Thousands of armed pro-slavery Missourians crossed the border and used voter fraud and intimidation to swing Kansas elections. Northern anti-slavery groups also encouraged settlers into Kansas, though evidently fewer and with less initial aggression. Many early elections were won by pro-slavery candidates, but their free soil opponents refused to recognize the new government and set up their own. By late 1855, these rival groups began a small but protracted war for control of the territory. [14][15]

Congress could hardly negotiate in good faith when each side knew the other was allied with vigilantes and terrorists in Kansas. The situation wrecked several long-standing political factions and encouraged fringe groups to pop up. The most successful was a brand new party called the Republicans, which was born in response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. [16] In only a few years, the Republican Party had become a small but considerable presence in both houses of Congress. 

By 1856, abolitionism was sufficiently mainstream for senators to give long, angry speeches attacking slaveholders by name||. Or at least it was mainstream enough for one senator: Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, leader of the Senate Republicans. Sumner was already notorious for making personal attacks in his anti-slavery speeches. One historian called him “the best-hated man in the chamber”. [4] The caning was inspired by his landmark “Crime Against Kansas” speech, wherein Sumner spoke for five hours over two days, describing the evil in attempting to admit Kansas as a slave state like he was lecturing slow-witted children. [9] The print version of the speech was 112 pages (he had copies prepared in advance for publication). [9] Sumner identified two senators as most responsible for the evil, Stephen Douglas and Andrew Butler, calling them “the Don Quixote and Sancho Panza of the championship of human wrongs*”. [4] 

I’m not going to sugarcoat this: Sumner was harsh. Among many other insults, he mocked Butler’s slurred speech and crooked posture, both of which were the result of a stroke Butler had suffered. [7] In other words, he mocked the ailments of a stroke victim on the floor of the Senate.

But the most often-quoted insult in the speech is the following:

“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.” [5]

I reject slang, but I can think of this in no simpler terms: Sumner was calling Butler a disgusting simp.

If we want to understand why Preston Brooks caned Charles Sumner, we have to keep in mind the audacity of Sumner’s five-hour diss track. Butler was old, sick and not present to answer the insults**. [8] Northerners cheered Sumner. Southerners were appalled. [7] But no one in Congress was more appalled than Preston Brooks***

When schoolchildren learn about the caning of Sumner, they probably assume Brooks retaliated because he was the most hardcore proponent of slavery, but Brooks was actually a moderate****. He claimed his personal connection to Butler drove him to violence. He had a history of that. When Brooks was at college, he once showed up at a jail with two pistols because he heard that his incarcerated brother was being mistreated. Due to this, plus “poor work habits”, the college withheld his degree. [4]

Brooks likely was motivated by family honor as he claimed, but that may not have been the whole story. One source argued, “There is also considerable evidence that Brooks felt compelled to do something to head off criticism back home, criticism that dated back to the US-Mexican War. Between whispers about his alleged cowardice in that conflict, coupled with voter dissatisfaction with his alleged moderation on slavery and sectional issues, Brooks had a lot to prove by the spring of 1856, and this was an opportunity to do just that.” [4]

(I feel some responsibility for his frustration is also owed to 19th century working conditions: namely, it was a hot week without air conditioning, and men of the time were often drunk.)

But whether for honor or opportunism, Brooks considered challenging Sumner to a duel. But this brings us back to our other question: why didn’t he duel? Different sources describe different rationales and orders of events, if they offer one at all. These include that Brooks would refuse on moral grounds and that he might report the challenge to the police, as dueling was illegal. [4][5] But the most consistent answer seems to be that his friend Representative Laurence Keitt convinced Brooks that Sumner deserved a beating for being a scoundrel. [3] 

I mentioned Keitt in my last post, how he guarded Brooks during the caning by brandishing a pistol to prevent interference. Despite Brooks being a seasoned duelist, he evidently consulted Keitt on whether a duel would be a proper response in terms of social etiquette. It was Keitt’s opinion that Sumner’s speech was so crass that he couldn’t be treated like a gentleman (i.e., dueled).

The men conspired long into the night before the attack, drinking and ranting. On the fateful day, Brooks was noted as disheveled and was presumably hungover. Brooks and Keitt waited for Sumner on the steps of Congress as the day’s business finished. But he didn’t appear. They entered the Senate chamber with another accomplice, Representative Henry Edmundson, who also had a history of violence. They found Sumner doing paperwork at his desk. I don’t know whether Brooks noticed, but Sumner was busy franking†† copies of his speech to send to his fans, adding insult to the existing insult. [3]

Brooks was itching to attack, but there were lady guests in the room, one in particular sitting near Sumner, and it went against Brooks’ morals as a Southern gentleman to commit his intended violence in the presence of ladies. To his annoyance, the lady was slow to leave, so he complained to the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms, arguing that women weren’t allowed in the Senate. The Sergeant-at-Arms refused to act: the Senate had adjourned, so the ladies weren’t interrupting anything. Furious, Brooks and his posse waited in the back for an hour until the ladies left. [3]

Finally Brooks and Keitt approached Sumner from behind. Many sources share that Brooks gave a justification speech§ before he started swinging. Brooks himself started this rumor, implying that he walked around to face Sumner in a manly fashion. But my best source doubts this. If Brooks had introduced himself before the attack, it seems likely Sumner would have stood to greet him, and Sumner was seated when hit. [3] 

Brooks would not want Sumner to stand and greet him. Sumner was tall and strong, and young for a senator. No doubt Brooks feared Sumner’s counterattack, even with the latter unarmed and outnumbered. If Brooks made any speech, he swung his cane well before he finished. [3][4] 

Brooks claimed to cane Sumner thirty times. Sumner’s desk was bolted to the floor, and his chair was fixed to the desk on a track. As he suffered blows, he struggled to stand but failed. Finally, he ripped his desk out of the floor and stumbled away, but soon he collapsed unconscious. The event lasted a minute. Sumner was carried away, bleeding profusely. [4]

Meanwhile, Keitt mostly managed to prevent interference from bystanders. Many senators present later remarked that they approved of the attack or didn’t care, and if it seemed like they were trying to interfere, it was to prevent Brooks from accidentally killing Sumner. [3]

After the event, Sumner was so injured that he was unable to return to his post until 1859. He went to Europe for painful medical treatments. Massachusetts decided to leave his seat empty rather than fill his vacancy. The empty seat was intended as a moral statement. [4] I haven’t found an explanation how this moral statement could have been worth the years of votes they were unable to cast. The attack was a major propaganda boost for the fledgling Republican Party. After Sumner returned, he served another 18 years. [5]

Brooks surrendered himself to the authorities and was released on bail that day. A local judge charged him a $300 fine, which he paid. Congress voted to expel Brooks, but the vote failed. Brooks voluntarily resigned to prove his support back home. His trust was well-founded: South Carolina reelected him in a landslide. [4] Replacement canes were sent to Brooks from all over the South, some inscribed with “Hit Him Again” and “Use Knock-Down Arguments.” Southern states named towns and counties after Brooks soon after the caning, notably Brooksville, Florida and Brooks County, Georgia. [2][4][7]

The two main perpetrators of the caning came to rough and sudden ends. Brooks died unexpectedly of croup in January 1857 before he could resume his seat. The telegram announcing his death stated “He died a horrid death, and suffered intensely. He endeavored to tear his own throat open to get breath.” [19] His confederate, Lawrence Keitt (pun-intended) was shot and killed leading a Confederate infantry brigade at the Battle of Cold Harbor in 1864. Their other friend, Henry Edmundson, died at home decades later.

Those of you with good memories may be wondering what I meant by the title of this post. Who was the “Northern Duelist”? Well, before Preston Brooks died of natural causes, he was almost shot.

Brooks was not the only one with violent friends. Sumner had a colleague from Massachusetts, Representative Anson Burlingame. Shortly after Sumner was caned, Burlingame delivered a very popular speech on the House floor condemning Brooks’ assault, branding him as “the vilest sort of coward”. 

In response, Brooks challenged Burlingame to a duel, stating he would gladly face him “in any Yankee mudsill of his choosing”. Evidently, Burlingame was more gentlemanly with his insults than Sumner to earn the honor of a duel, or perhaps Brooks felt he couldn’t get away with a cane ambush twice. 

Burlingame eagerly accepted the duel. As the challenged party, he picked the weapon and location. Burlingame was a well-known rifleman, and he selected rifles as the weapons and the Navy Yard on the Canadian side of the U.S. border in Niagara Falls as the location (in order to circumvent the U.S. ban on dueling). 

Brooks was unpleasantly surprised by Burlingame’s eager acceptance and by his reputation as a crack shot. He neglected to show up, instead citing unspecified risks to his safety if he were to cross “hostile country” (the northern U.S. states) in order to reach Canada.

This excuse evidently didn’t hurt Brooks’ popularity, as he remained a hero in the South. Burlingame’s valor made him very popular throughout the North. [18]

* I’ve noticed Don Quixote is a wildly popular reference for 18th and 19th century Americans. This deserves further investigation. If anyone has insights, please comment.

** Sumner’s insults to Butler may have been harsh, but the two senators attacked each other routinely, and Butler wasn’t much gentler. He described abolitionists and temperance supporters as “the cankers and fungi of society”, and he made allusions that Sumner had liaisons with black women. [4][13]

(Slaveholders often accused abolitionists of seeking interracial marriage, and abolitionists often accused slaveholders of keeping slaves for sex (which was true). Miscegenation was a powerful taboo that both sides used for rhetorical ammunition.)

I wonder, if Butler had been present to hear and answer the “Crime Against Kansas” speech, would Brooks still attack Sumner? Perhaps Sumner would have appeared less of a knave, insulting Butler to his face. At the very least, we can presume Butler, the aggrieved party, had the authority to veto any violent retaliation. If Butler was less of a hothead than Brooks, he may have taken the high road and left Sumner unharmed. 

In reality, the attack was a tremendous propaganda boost to the nascent Republican Party. If Sumner isn’t caned, how would history look different?

*** Interestingly, sources disagree on the exact relationship between Brooks and Butler. Some claim Butler was Brooks’ “uncle” or “cousin”. [2][5][7][8] Other sources hedge with “relative” or “kinsman”. [1][4][5] The most convincingly specific answer I found was that Butler was a cousin of Brooks’ father, which I believe makes them cousins once removed. [3]

**** Other, presumably more radical southern Democrats did make threats after the speech, enough for Sumner’s friends to insist on escorting him home. 

Brooks had stalked Sumner for two days after the speech, hoping to accost him on the Capitol grounds, but the Massachusetts senator unknowingly evaded these challenges.

Of course, while Brooks was a moderate Southern Democrat, the moderates of the 1850s were still vehement slavery boosters. In 1854, Brooks stated, “The institution of slavery, which it is so fashionable now to decry, has been the greatest of blessings to this entire country.” [4] 

I’d rather not research right now what pro-slavery radicals had to say, but I’m imagining the Knights of the Golden Circle planning new wars across Latin America. According to Atun-shei’s recent film, some Confederate elites seriously proposed a monarchy. [6]

† Keitt would later be responsible for starting one of the biggest brawls in Congressional history when he fought Pennsylvanian Republican Galusha Grow on February 6, 1858, again over the status of Kansas. [10] This following is a direct quote from a source:

At about 1:30 A.M., when some of the members were quite visibly drunk, Galusha A. Grow, Republican of Pennsylvania, wandered aimlessly across the floor to the Democrats’ side. Sober but testy as a result of the hour, Grow took exception to a motion offered by a Democratic rival. Immediately Laurence Keitt, a Democrat from South Carolina, who was half asleep at his desk, roused himself enough to order Grow back to his own side of the House, in the bargain calling him “a black Republican puppy.”

Bitterly angry, Grow replied, “No negro-driver shall crack his whip over me.” Struggling to his feet, Keitt shouted, “I’ll choke you for that,” and made for Grow’s throat.

In moments the floor was a sea of writhing bodies, a dozen Southerners pummelling—or being pummelled by—a dozen Northerners. The Speaker shouted and rapped for order, and the sergeant at arms, thinking he could make a difference, rushed among the combatants showing the House mace. One representative picked up a heavy stoneware spittoon and rushed into the fray. Several Quakers urged calm and peace.

In about two minutes it was all over, brought to a risible conclusion when Cadwallader Washburne of Illinois grabbed William Barksdale of Mississippi by a forelock in order to punch him in the face, let go a roundhouse right, and missed—because Barksdale ducked, leaving Washburne with Barksdale’s wig in his left hand. Since nobody in the chamber had known the Mississippian was bald and because the humiliated Barksdale restored the hair piece wrong end to, nearly everyone stopped fighting to gape and then roar with laughter. As the official record has it, “the good nature of the House” was instantly restored. [12]

†† Legislators have the privilege of sending mail for free (at taxpayer expense). This is called Congressional or “Franked” Mail. The procedure to stamp the mail this way is called franking.

§ “Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech with great care, and with as much impartiality as I am capable of, and I feel it my duty to say to you that you have published a libel on my State, and uttered a slander upon a relative, who is aged and absent, and I am come to punish you.” [17]

‡ Facts about the cane:

  • Weirdly, some sources describe it as a light cane, and some as a heavy cane. I wonder whether the difference comes from political biases in the perceived righteousness of the attack.
  • It was a gutta-percha cane. Gutta-percha is a natural plastic derived from the latex of trees from Malaysia. Pliable when heated but relatively hard and somewhat flexible at ordinary temperatures, in the 1850’s it was used for, among other purposes, the manufacture of relatively inexpensive canes. [4] I find it interesting there was a cheap consumer product with a supply chain stretching to Malaysia in that era.
  • The head of the cane was gold. The cane broke during the attack, but Brooks made sure to recover the golden head before he escaped. [3]
  • Brooks hurt himself with the cane, scratching his face on a backswing. He needed medical attention before he left the Capitol. 

|| Abolitionists had always denounced slavery on moral, religious, and economic grounds, and these arguments were more popular than ever by the 1850s, but their movement also swelled whenever the North believed the South was forcing them to support slavery or cheating to protect it. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 probably did more for the abolitionist movement than any hundred pamphlets.

[1] https://history.house.gov/Historical-Highlights/1851-1900/South-Carolina-Representative-Preston-Brooks-s-attack-on-Senator-Charles-Sumner-of-Massachusetts/

[2] https://www.ushistory.org/us/31e.asp

[3] Hoffer, Williamjames Hull (2010). The Caning of Charles Sumner: Honor, Idealism, and the Origins of the Civil War. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, pg. 7-9. https://books.google.com/books?id=_NPbXpW9fTEC&pg=PA7#v=onepage&q&f=false

[4] https://www.essentialcivilwarcurriculum.com/the-brooks-sumner-affair.html

[5] https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/The_Caning_of_Senator_Charles_Sumner.htm

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XjsxhYetLM0

[7] https://web.archive.org/web/20110927163237/http://bama.ua.edu/~ratli003/102/203sample.html

[8] https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/southern-congressman-attacks-northern-senator

[9] https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/The_Crime_Against_Kansas.htm

[10] https://history.house.gov/Historical-Highlights/1851-1900/The-most-infamous-floor-brawl-in-the-history-of-the-U-S–House-of-Representatives/

[11] https://www.history.com/news/charles-sumner-caning-cilley-duel-congressional-violence



[13] https://scholarworks.umass.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1026&context=afroam_faculty_pubs

[14] https://www.history.com/topics/19th-century/bleeding-kansas

[15] https://civilwaronthewesternborder.org/encyclopedia/jayhawkers

[16] https://prospect.org/power/republican-party-began/

[17] https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/caning-charles-sumner

[18] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anson_Burlingame

[19] https://books.google.com/books?id=jy1TAAAAcAAJ&pg=PA271#v=onepage&q&f=false

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