The Caning of Charles Sumner and the response by Anson Burlingame

I am a bit late to make this a “This Day in History” post, since the actual date in question was May 22nd, 1856.  Still, I wanted to talk about this subject since I have been reading about it and have also recently listened to a rather good podcast about it.  I have only recently begun listening to this Civil War podcast, but I find it quite good so far.  And blogging about history always cheers me up.  Besides, today (May 30th) IS the anniversary of the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.

Anyway, I have always found the story of the attack on Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts by Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina to be one of the most shocking incidents leading up to the Civil War.  Only in recent years did I learn the role Massachusetts Congressman Anson Burlingame played in the events that followed.  In my mind, Burlingame is sort of the hero of the story, much more so than Sumner, anyway.


It all began with the speech given by Sumner in the Senate on the subject of Kansas.  Kansas was at that time a territory, and it was being torn apart by conflict between the free soil settlers on one side and the pro-slavery settlers on the other.  Sumner had given a speech in the Senate over two days (May 19th and 20th, 1856) called “The Crime Against Kansas”.  In the speech he had singled out some other members of Congress, notably Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina, for rather harsh criticism.  Butler had recently suffered a stroke, and so was not present for the speech.  However, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, who was also a target of Sumner’s speech, was present, and was heard to mutter “that damn fool is going to get himself shot by some other damn fool”.

A Congressman from South Carolina named Preston Brooks, who was also a second cousin of Senator Butler, took Sumner’s speech as an insult to Butler, to their family, to South Carolina, and to the South and slaveholders in general.  He had originally intended to challenge Sumner to a duel, but then fellow South Carolina Congressman Lawrence Keitt convinced him that one only challenged one’s equals to a duel, and they considered Sumner lesser than themselves socially.  So Brooks decided a different approach was needed.  Sumner was a very large, formidable man, and so Brooks decided that it was best if he surprised Sumner from behind while Sumner sat at his desk in the Senate.

On May 22nd, 1856, Brooks entered the Senate chamber in the company of Keitt and another Congressman named Henry Edmundson, from Virginia.  Two years earlier, almost to the day. Edmundson had been arrested by the Senate’s Sergeant-at-Arms for trying to attack Congressman Lewis D. Campbell of Ohio.  And now, in the nearly-empty room, the three men walked up to Sumner from behind.  In a low voice, Brooks said

“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.”

Sumner began to stand, and Brooks began striking him about the head and shoulders with a gold-headed gutta-percha cane that he carried.

Brooks cane
Brooks’ cane is currently on display in the Old State House Museum in Boston, Massachusetts.

Sumner was trapped beneath his desk, which was bolted to the floor.  He was blinded almost immediately, and for whatever reason, did not push his chair back along the rails to which it was mounted.  Instead he ripped the desk from the floor as he tried to escape from Brooks.  When other members of Congress, such as Senator John Crittenden of Kentucky, saw what was happening, they tried to intervene but were blocked by Edmundson and Keitt, who brandished his own cane and a pistol to intimidate anyone who tried to help Sumner, yelling “Let them alone, God damn you, let them alone!”  Brooks eventually broke the cane over Sumner’s head, and continued to beat him with the piece he had left.  Sumner briefly lost consciousness.

Eventually Brooks was restrained, and Sumner was helped to a cloakroom where he was given several stitches, and then to his carriage by the Speaker of the House, Nathaniel Banks, and the other Senator from Massachusetts, Henry Wilson.

The response to the event was immediate and emphatic.  In the South, Brooks was hailed as a hero and was showered with gifts, including dozens of new canes, many of which were inscribed with slogans such as “Good Job” and “Hit Him Again”.  In the North, even people who had thought Sumner boorish were appalled at what had happened.  And people not only rallied around Sumner, but around the defense of the North and its principles.

Congressman Anson Burlingame had not made a lot of waves as a member of the House of Representatives, but his speech “Defence of Massachusetts” given a month later on June 21st, 1856 made him famous across the North.  Not only did he defend Sumner and their home state, he basically picked up where Sumner had left off, and attacked Brooks as well.

“Sir, the act was brief, and my comments on it shall be brief also. I denounce it in the name of the Constitution which it violated. I denounce it in the name of Massachusetts, which was stricken down by the blow. I denounce it in the name of civilization, which it outraged. I denounce it in the name of humanity. I denounce it in the name of that fair play which bullies and prizefighters respect…Call you that chivalry? In what code of honor did you get your authority for that? I do not believe that member has a friend so dear who must not, in his heart of heart, condemn the act. Even the member himself, if he has left a spark of that chivalry and gallantry attributed to him, must loathe and score the act. God knows, I do not wish to speak unkindly or in a spirit of revenge; but I owe it to my manhood, and the noble State I in part represent, to express my deep abhorrence of the act.”

Not knowing when to leave well enough alone, Brooks then proceeded to challenge Burlingame to a duel.  Burlingame not only expected to be challenged, but he had hoped that Brooks would take the bait.  And so he happily accepted, much to Brook’s surprise.

Brooks realized almost immediately that he had made a grave error.  As the challenged party, Burlingame could choose the weapons, distance and location of the duel.  So he picked the Canadian side of Niagara Falls as the place, and rifles at fifty paces as the weapons.  Burlingame had a reputation as a superb marksman, and at any distance up to fifty paces was considered a “dead shot”, so much so that a newspaper quoted his second as wondering whether Burlingame would intentionally aim for Brooks’ leg to cripple him or aim to kill him.  In fact, sharpshooting was basically one of Burlingame’s hobbies.   So Brooks was left with the choice of negotiating several hundred miles of territory where he was universally loathed (Northern papers called him “Bully Brooks”) in order to arrive at a duel that he almost certainly would not survive.  Needless to say, he started to have second thoughts about whether he should duel Burlingame at all.

The situation was a win-win for Burlingame.  He was hailed as a hero in the Northern press even without having to fight the duel.  But since Brooks had started to weasel his way out of it almost immediately, and Southerners had seen Brooks as a macho “man of action”, his reputation began to suffer.  By January of 1857 Brooks was dead of the croup, a few weeks before he could return to the House of Representatives.  Eventually Sumner would return to the Senate, although he suffered aftereffects of the attack for the rest of his life.  Burlingame would become Ambassador to China under President Lincoln in 1861.



2 thoughts on “The Caning of Charles Sumner and the response by Anson Burlingame”

  1. Excellent most interesting Geoff.I knew the story but not in the detail you provided.

    Thank You


  2. I know these stories well, but learned a few new things from your depiction. That Stephen Douglas said, “that damn fool is going to get himself shot by some other damn fool” adds an interesting dimension to the story. But the Douglas/Burlingame relationship has long been a mystery to me — how Burlingame vigorously condemns Douglas for his role in the caning, even naming him in his Defence of Massachusetts speech, and then came to stump for his campaign against Lincoln just a few years later. If you had some insight into that turn of events, I would be very interested.

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