Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Senator From South Carolina Objects

Politics in America has been and always will be breeding ground for heated debates. Since it was founded the House of Representatives has hosted an unknown amount of debates and personal feuds but none as memorable than that between Senators Charles Sumner & Preston Brooks. The event that happened on the floor of the House took place during a 1856 session. It would go on to become the one and only time a U.S. Senator attacked another Senator over a debated issue.

When thinking of our governments past I like to think of it as nothing but sophisticated and educated men arguing the issues of the day in a gentlemanly and honorable way. However, I am reasonable and know that is not usually the case. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was a young, good looking, hot shot, anti slavery layer from Boston. It started during a speech on May 20 called "The Crime Against Kansas." In the speech Senator Sumner blasted southern leaders who defended the institution of slavery. Sumner targeted leading slavery advocates like Stephen Douglas and Andrew Butler. The speech caused quite the uproar in the House as, Sumner, who was a well known orator used the imagery of a forced sexual relation to slavery. His three hour speech not only implied that slavery was used to control black women and humiliate black men, but he also poked fun at southern mannerisms especially those of Senator Andrew Butler. Now it wouldn't be for a few days before all hell broke loose on the floor, and surprisingly Senator Butler, the focus of the argument, wouldn't even be involved.

So before I explain this picture let me explains what happens. After Sumner's speech, fellow Senator Preston Brooks was still a little steamed to say the least. Brooks who was actually the nephew of Senator Andrew Butler, wanted revenge for the tongue lashing dealt by Sumner. At first he thought of handling it in the gentlemanly fashion of the day, by challenging Sumner to a duel. But after seeking advice from fellow South Carolinian, Senator Laurence M. Keitt, Brooks decided it was much more fitting to "punish" him in a public forum, the House floor. Two days later Brooks and Keitt walked into the Senate chamber and approached Sumner. He then brought forth his grievances with Sumner,

 "Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine..."

 Brooks never finished his sentence because as Senator Sumner rose from his desk to add his two cents, it was then that Brooks started beating him with his cane. Sumner then fell to the floor and hide under his desk, yet Brooks kept the assault up. Sumner then attempted to make an escape but could only stumble a few feet before collapsing. Covered in blood several other Senators ran to his aid. However, Keitt was standing in there way brandishing a pistol saying, "Let them be!." Brooks then continued beating Sumner until his cane was broken into two pieces. After his weapon was no longer of use to him, Keitt and himself strolled right out of the Senate.

 As you can imagine the action of Brooks spread across the nation and received mixed reactions. In the North he was as evil as the issue of slavery, but in the South he was treated as a hero on the scale of George Washington. He was actually sent hundreds of new canes to replace the one he left in pieces in Washington D.C.  As for the Senate, their was an attempt to expel Brooks, which failed. Yet in true Rebel style Brooks retired his seat only to be re-elected to it in the following election. Other Senators and Representatives started to take precautions when heading to D.C. Most now carried concealed weapons: knives, revolvers and small pistols. Brooks would ultimately was fined $300 and would die in 1857. Sumner returned to the Senate the three years after the attack, but would suffer the rest of his life from what we call today PTSD. Since that fateful day in May of 1856, not other elected representative in American History has attacked another, physically that is. The memory of the attack by Brooks is a key example of the lead up to the Civil War. It exposes the sentiment of the both North and South, pro and anti slavery. It is an interesting piece not only in American History but in the History of American Government. Today, there is no reminder of the events of May 22, not in a History textbook or even at the capital itself. Yet is another great micro example of the major issues of the day.

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