The Caning of Charles Sumner on the Senate Floor

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class, from

Katie: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sara: And I'm Sara Dowdy.

Katie: And Sara and I have decided that this is the fall of angry outbursts. We have been spending this morning Kanye-fying the HowStuffWorks homepage for each other. It's pretty entertaining.

Katie: And then we have Sarina Williams, and then of course South Carolina Congressman Joe - I'm going to let you finish. I like you, but I'm going to let you finish.

Katie: That one's for you Kanye. But probably the biggest angry outburst of the season has been that of Congressman Joe Wilson against President Obama during his speech on health care.

Katie: When he yelled, "You lie!" Which we were all abuzz for a few days about that one? And all the accounts of this have called it an unprecedented breach of protocol, but it reminded us of some other interesting events in history where protocol was severely breached!

Katie: And that would be the caning of Senator Charles Sumner by Representative Preston Brooks in May 1856. And before we get too much into the caning, it helps to know a little bit about background, and this violent beating was the result of a speech Sumner gave called, "Crimes against Kansas," from the Senate floor. And back in 1854, a couple years before he gave this speech, we have the Kansas territory which isn't a state yet, but it's the perfect candidate for statehood. And southerners thought the north was overwhelming them economically, and they were really wanting a new slave state. But unfortunately for them, that's impossible because of where the Kansas territory is situated. It falls outside of the boundaries permitted for slavery by the Missouri Compromise. So if Kansas becomes a state, under the Missouri Compromise, it's going to be a free state. And this really bothers a senator from Illinois, Senator Steven Douglas, who you might know for his later debates with Abraham Lincoln. Now, it's not like Senator Steven Douglas is really for slavery or particularly invested in this in a political way, it's more about his own business interests.

Katie: All about the money. Yeah, and his personal political ambition! So he knows that if the Kansas territory goes up for statehood, there's no way southern democrats are going to vote for it, because they're not going to allow another free state to enter the union. So he goes to them to make a deal. He needs their support anyway. He's planning on running for president in two years and needs some southern democratic support. But he goes to them and tells them he'll help them repeal the Missouri Compromise and get Kansas in as a slave state, and in return, he's going to get new territory to run his railroad through, which is what he's after all along, and bring in the money to his terminus in Chicago.

Katie: So they set up the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina, along with Senator Steven Douglas! And the Kansas-Nebraska Act provided for the territorial organization of Kansas and Nebraska under popular sovereignty. Basically, you could have a vote. And this ends up with Kansas being flooded by pro-slavery and anti-slavery people. These aren't folks who just, "Oh, wow, I never realized how much I wanted to live in Kansas." They're moving there for their political agendas. So the northerners actually move anti-slavery settlers into Kansas, and this really outrages pro-slavery people in Missouri who are upset that these Yankees are moving into Kansas to try to sway the vote. So they flood the state too. These are called the boarder ruffians, and a lot of violence happens, and the ruffians actually end up winning this rigged really kind of corrupt election.

Katie: And this period, this is all known as Bleeding Kansas because it is so incredibly violent. And this is setting the stage for the later caning. But people are getting in physical altercations about whether we should go with slavery or go against it. Which might remind you a little bit of the health care reform town halls right now? But they were getting in fights, they were pulling out their guns and shooting people. This was not an amicable debate, or even an angry political debate. This was a violent physical skirmish. We actually have a small civil war here. The anti-slavery people who don't accept the vote end up setting a provisional free state government, which is denounced by the president and just have all this violence. This is around the same time that john Brown, the radical abolitionist is killing people and by October 1856, you have about 200 people dead in Kansas.

Katie: So this brings us back, and it is May 19th, 1856, and Charles Sumner gets up to give a speech to the Senate, and he talks for two days in his Crimes on Kansas speech, and specifically calls out Stev en Douglas of Illinois, who we mentioned, and Andrew Butler of South Carolina who isn't present. So he can pretty much say whatever he'd like about Butler, and he does not spare any words. He charges him with, and I quote, "taking a mistress, who though ugly to others is always lovely to him, though polluted in the sight of the world is chased in his sight. I mean the harlot, slavery." So making fun of his image as a gentleman and someone who's chivalrous - Chivalrous southern gentleman.

Katie: Right, and saying he's captive to the charms of a prostitute called slavery. He also gave a history of the struggle and what's been going on with slavery in the country, and then a rundown of the types of apologies for slavery that people give. You know, the ones that are absurd, the ones that are infamous, the ones that are tyrannical. And the reaction to his speech is more than a little heated. Louis Cass of Michigan calls him "Un-American and un-patriotic," which again, probably sounds familiar with the political debate of the last year. James Murray Mason of Virginia calls him a liar and the new Kane. Douglas himself said that Sumner wanted to provoke them all into kicking him so he could get sympathy, and that he was repudiating the constitution. So Sumner fires back and says that Cass is disloyal to the founding fathers and the constitution. Sumner says Mason has "plantation manners," and he does not mean that as a compliment at all. And to Douglas, Sumner says, "the noisesome squat and nameless animal to which I now refer is not a proper model for the American senator. Will the senator from Illinois take notice?"

Katie: So things get nasty, but I like how they still have to follow rules and say, "Will the Senator from Illinois" instead of "that noisesome animal, Mr. Douglas." This speech really upset Representative Preston Brooks, who took it as an insult, not only to his home state of South Carolina, but to his kinsmen.

Katie: And he's so angry that he wants to fight Sumner, but he says that Sumner isn't a gentleman, so they're not on the same footing and he's not going to challenge him to a dual, which is what you would normally do in those circumstances. Instead, he's going to treat him "like the dog he is." So Brooks decides instead he will cane Sumner.

Katie: So the Senate has adjourned early on this day, May 22nd, and Sumner is still at his desk, which is bolted to the ground, which is important to note, because this is will turn out to be really bad. Actually, he's applying his franc to copies of the speech, which must have even further outraged Brooks when he approached him.

Katie: And Brooks shows up with his friends, at the Senate chambers, and comes up behind Sumner - doesn't warn him or anything - and just whacks him in the head with a gutta-percha cane and proceeds to beat him violently until Sumner is unconscious and covered in blood. Sumner makes weak attempts to defend himself, but if you're hit on the head with a cane unaware, what can you really do?

Katie: And he's sort of stuck at his desk, and eventually he crawls out of it and makes his way out, but Brooks is still hitting him until the man is unconscious and has to be carried out. And there were bystanders. No one does anything. Brooks walks out of the Senate at the end of it all.

Katie: And what happens? You might think he was horrible censured, but actually, the south is thrilled with Brooks. People send him inscribed canes because he actually broke his other one beating Charles Sumner. People throw dinner parties for him and give speeches in his honor.

Katie: My favorite quote is from the Richmond Inquirer, and I got this quote from a book by Anna Lawrence Dawes, that says, "We trust other gentlemen will follow the example of Mr. Brooks, that so a curb may be imposed upon the truculence and audacity of abolition speakers. If need be, let us have a caning or a cow hiding every day. If the worst come to the worst, so much the sooner, so much the better!" And then they basically went on to say that because these men, these anti-slavery people weren't gentlemen, you shouldn't treat them as such, and you should treat them as the "dogs they were."

Sara: But some people were sticking up for Sumner too. He became a hero in his own state, and one of his colleagues, Anson Burlingum, challenges Brooks to a dual. Calls him a coward for caning a man on the head! And Brooks ends up declining because the dual is at Niagara Falls, and people say Brooks, he's basically just a bully. He's afraid of anybody that might be a better shooter than him or he's bigger than him.

Katie: And other people speak from the senate floor about Brooks' attack, calling it "brutal, murderous, and cowardly." And the man who said that, Wilson, southerners proposed that he be beaten as well, and Speaker Orr had to talk them out of it. And they then challenged him to a dual, and he said no, so things just keep escalating.

Sara: They were keen on caning.

Katie: They were keen on getting really physical about this. But it did change public sentiment. It gave the north something of a personal cause to rally around, someone symbolic that could stand for all of the things they wanted to fight.

Sara: So the senate appoints a committee to look into the Brooks incident, and they hand it off to the house, and they can't get the two-thirds vote needed to expel Brooks.

Katie: Which is a bit surprising? It is surprising that they would accept caning of one of their own on the floor. That seems like it opens up a world of things you really don't want to happen in your workplace. But Brooks was censured. He ends up giving a speech where he's just trumping himself up, and he resigns and is fined $300.00. But he's reelected immediately. People of South Carolina just love this guy. And it doesn't do much good though because he dies of the croup in 1857, which is a bad respiratory ailment for those who haven't heard of it.

Katie: So there's a lesson here. If you cane someone until they're unconscious because you don't like their political views, you will die of the croup. You heard it here first. Meanwhile, Sumner is kept away from the Senate for three years due to his caning sustained injuries.

Katie: It was really serious. It wasn't like he just got hit. He got beaten senseless. But he's reelected to Massachusetts and serves for 18 years.

Katie: So I think we know who won that one, and it wasn't the man who died at the age of 37. No. And what of Kansas, which was the center of this debate anyway? It's eventually admitted as a free state in January of 1861.

Katie: And this is just a sign of the rising tensions that end up leading to the Civil War. And you can learn more about the Civil war and other topics on the homepage where you'll also find Katie's blog at For more on this, and thousands of other topics, visit Let us know what you think. Send an email to and be sure to check out The Stuff You Missed in History Class blog on the How Stuff Works homepage.