Attack on Senator Charles Sumner

Passions ran high in the years leading up to the Civil War. In one of the most violent events in the history of the Senate during this period, one of its members was subjected to a severe beating while seated at his desk on the floor of the old Senate Chamber. On May 19, 1856, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts had delivered a fiery speech condemning those who proposed extending slavery into the Kansas territory. Many of his attacks were aimed at senators from the south including Andrew Butler of South Carolina. Three days after the speech was delivered Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina (a relative of Senator Butler) entered the nearly deserted Senate Chamber where he found Senator Sumner working at his desk. Declaring the speech a "libel on South Carolina" Brooks fiercely and repeatedly beat the senator on the head and shoulders with his cane, which finally broke into pieces from the strain. Senator Sumner struggled to escape his assailant, who calmly left the scene after his cane broke. The south hailed Brooks as a hero while the north claimed Sumner as an abolitionist martyr. While Sumner recovered from his injuries (he was absent from the Senate for three years) admirers sent Brooks canes as gifts.