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Congressional Attack (Part 2)

Last time we explored the details of the May 1856 beating of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner. The attacker was South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks who used a walking cane to repeatedly strike Sumner. Brooks was abetted by fellow Congressmen  Laurence Keitt and Henry Edmundson who prevented others from assisting Sumner while Brooks carried on the thrashing even after the cane broke into pieces.

See last week's AVA for the pro- and anti-slavery sentiments that led to the attack within the Senate chamber. In the aftermath, southerners supported Brooks' actions. While up north, the view proved a polar opposite.

In the House of Representatives, Massachusetts Congressman Anson Burlingame rose from his desk on June 21st to speak. “On May 22nd... a member from the House, who had taken an oath to sustain the Constitution, stole into the Senate, that place that hitherto been held sacred against violence, and smote him [Sumner] as Cain smote his brother.”

At that point Representative Keitt shouted from his seat, “That is false.”

Burlingame continued. “I will not bandy epithets with the gentleman. I am responsible for my own language. Doubtless he is responsible for his.”

Keitt interjected, “I am.”

Burlingame returned to his original intent. “One blow was enough, but it did not satiate the wrath of that spirit which had pursued him through two days. Again and again and again, quicker and faster, fell the leaden blows, until he was torn away from his victim, when the senator from Massachusetts fell into the arms of his friends, and his blood ran down the senate floor.”

Within days, Brooks responded by challenging Burlingame to a duel. The South Carolinian said he would face the Massachusetts lawmaker “in any Yankee mudsill of his choosing.”

A mudsill is a support, as on a bridge or building, literally resting at the base of the structure. In Brooks' terminology, the base aspect meant a place where people of the lowest social level congregated.

Burlingame accepted the opportunity to duel soon as he heard it. As the challenged party he was afforded the right to choose the weaponry and the location of the duel. He opted for rifles and the Navy Yard on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. The latter to avoid U.S. laws forbidding the practice of dueling.

At some point Brooks learned of Burlingame's reputation as a crack shot, particularly with a rifle. The South Carolina Congressman failed to appear on the north side of Niagara on the appointed date. He claimed it would be unsafe for him to ride through what he called “hostile country” to reach the dueling ground, meaning he would not pass through northern states.

Brooks tried to engage Massachusetts' other senator, Henry Wilson, in a duel, but that never came off either. 

Many prominent Southerners insisted that Sumner was faking injury, that Brooks had not hit him all that hard or often. Sumner suffered from what now might be called traumatic brain injury. He convalesced for three years. He did return to his Senate seat, which the Massachusetts legislature held open for him, in 1859. He suffered from something akin to post traumatic stress disorder for the remainder of his life. 

Northern representatives moved to have Brooks expelled from the House, but the measure failed. An attempt to censure Edmundson also failed.  Rep. Keitt, however, was censured for his role in the attack, including brandishing a pistol in the Senate chamber. Both Brooks and Keitt resigned their seats in the summer of 1856. The voters of South Carolina refused these indignities and returned both to Congress in special elections less than a month after their respective resignations. 

The slogans, “bleeding Kansas” and “bleeding Sumner” galvanized the new Republican Party. Though the Republicans lost the presidential election of 1856, the party took control of many state legislatures. This, in turn, proved a long term success since state legislatures picked U.S. Senators until the ratification of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution in 1913. For decades, staunch anti-slavery Republicans would dominate the U.S. Senate from the Civil War into the 20th Century. As that century wore on, Republicans more and more resembled the political party of big business. After the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act in the mid-1960s Republicans looked more like the Democrats of the 1850s than the party of Lincoln or Sumner.

Brooks was tried in a Washington D.C. Court for the assault on Sumner. He was convicted. The penalty: a fine of $300, but no jail term.

After the Presidential election in November 1856, in which he was re-elected, Brooks spoke on the floor of the House, calling for the admission of Kansas to statehood “even with a constitution rejecting slavery.” The sentiment assuaged many in the north and shocked several of his southern brethren.

In January 1857, Preston Brooks came down with a serious case of croup in his D.C. quarters. The respiratory infection first manifested as a cough that turned into a swelling inside his trachea. The Congressman's pain grew so intense that he reportedly tore at his own throat in an effort to alleviate his suffering. He died on January 27th, not yet reaching his thirty-eighth birthday.

Despite extreme winter weather, thousands of dignitaries and citizens alike attended the memorial service in the Capitol. Brooks' coffin traveled south by train into Virginia. It lay in state in the capitol building of Richmond while other cities and towns along the route planned for ceremonial stops. 

It was well into February before Brooks made his final journey into South Carolina for burial in the family plot in Edgefield. In that era presidential inaugurations took place on March 4th. This was not changed to January 20th until the 1930s.

In Preston Brooks' hometown newspaper, alongside the detailed story of the ceremony and service of Sumner's attacker being laid to his final rest, part of a column noted, “The Congress Convention has counted the votes for President and Vice President, and have declared [Democrats] Buchanan and Breckinridge elected. A question was raised concerning the vote of Wisconsin, but it was finally admitted.”

This referenced the fact that due to a blizzard the Wisconsin vote was not tabulated in the state capital until one day after the official deadline. Congress convened on February 11, 1857, to count the electoral votes, with Senate President Pro Tempore James Mason presiding. He was the grandson of one of the “founding Fathers,” George Mason, and assumed the lead role at the procedure due to the death of Vice President William King, who perished just six weeks after taking office in 1853. No replacement had been named in the intervening four years. 

Senator Mason proceeded with the traditional announcements of the vote counts by state. When Wisconsin's five electoral votes for Republican Presidential candidate John C. Fremont were about to be shared aloud, Virginia Representative John Letcher rose to object.

Mason stood a bit flummoxed for a short while before ruling Letcher out of order and concluded the electoral count. Though Wisconsin's tally would not ultimately matter in a count that Democrat James Buchanan won by sixty electoral votes, members of Congress can be sticklers of the finer points. Thus, Kentucky Senator John Crittendon (member of the Know Nothing Party that received more than twenty-one percent of the popular vote in November 1856) asked if Mason was taking upon himself “the privilege of determining a presidential election and saying who shall be President? I protest against any such power.”

South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler (Preston Brooks' relative) claimed that any such availing of “arbitrary power could make a President of the United States without an election.” 

Other senators and representatives acknowledged that Wisconsin's votes would not sway that particular election, but warned against setting a dangerous precedent. South Carolina's other senator, Democrat James Orr noted the obvious. “Suppose the result of the election would depend on the vote of that state.”

At one point Butler stated, “It is a power which in the time of temptation — and God knows when the time of temptation may arrive for someone to desire to be President to rule in this country — I would not like to trust too many people.” 

The lawmakers adjourned into the Senate chamber. Deliberations continued into the next day. They returned to the House floor decreeing that the Wisconsin votes would count, not because the presiding officer said so, but because “an Act of God” had prevented the electors from reaching Madison, Wisconsin at the appointed time.

(Justice being left-handed, all ballots are counted at

One Comment

  1. Brian February 3, 2021

    I really appreciate the AVA for a consistently high quality publication. Malcolm MacDonald’s Congressional Attack article grazes the topical while highlighting the historical. Well done. His writings stand shoulder-to-shoulder with so many of your other great contributors. Thanks for playing such an important role in making our local communities more civilized and sophisticated. I am grateful for this article as well as so many others. You give literary relief during trying times.

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