Research for February 20

Secondary Source – Background on the Brooks-Sumner Incident:

Sumner’s Speech:

“…because Sumner had two days previously delivered a philippic entitled ‘The Crime Against Kansas.’ Coming to the Senate in 1851, Sumner had compensated for a lack of legislative aptitude by using the Senate as a sounding board from which to arouse public opinion by delivering a series of carefully planned and remarkably vituperative speeches against slavery. ‘The Crime Against Kansas’—florid, polished, and vitriolic—was the most abusive of these somewhat theatrical productions. Alternating between pompous rectitude and studied vilification, Sumner had assured Senator Douglas that ‘against him is God’ and had characterized Senator Andrew P. Butler of South Carolina as a ‘Don Quixote who had chosen a mistress to whom he has made his views, and who… though polluted in the sight of the world is chaste in his sight—I mean the harlot, slavery.’” (p. 209-210)

The Attack Itself:

“Senators had found the oration almost uniquely offensive, but none of them had taken it quite as seriously as Representative Brooks, who was related to Butler and who felt the obligation of the southern code to retaliate for an insult to his elderly kinsman. Knowing that Sumner would not accept a challenge, Brooks had hesitated as to the course he should follow, but his decision was now formed. Armed with a gutta-percha cane, and finding Sumner seated at his Senate desk, he first accosted the Massachusetts senator, saying that his speech was a libel upon South Carolina and upon Butler, and then he began to rain blows upon Sumner’s head with the cane. Sumner, struggling to get to his feet, wrenched loose his desk, which was screwed to the floor. Brooks continued to strike, although the cane, which was a light one, broke after the first five or six blows. After an interval that was much shorter than it must have seemed, someone—apparently Representative Ambrose S. Murray—seized Brooks to restrain him. Sumner had collapsed with a bloody head on the Senate floor, and there was controversy afterward as to whether Brooks continued to hit him after he was down.” (p. 210)

From The Impending Crisis by David M. Potter

Secondary Source – Newspaper Coverage of the Brooks-Sumner Incident:

“Republican newspapers, in the months and years that followed the incident, described Sumner as a tough, manly, and heroic victim of a cowardly attacker. In the northern Democratic and southern press, however, he was pictured as the cowardly receiver of a much-deserved thrashing whose three-year absence from the Senate was proof of cowardice and/or evidence of sinister behavior.

The rhetoric of newspapers, north and south, Whig, Republican, and Democratic, evoked images of civilized or barbaric men, of courage and cowardice, of manliness or timidity, of defense of honor or promotion of reckless violence and of the championing of republican liberty or despotic destruction of that liberty. The incident had set the dispute over slavery in the territories in a different context. This was not just a quarrel between greedy settlers in a new land or a contest between rival politicians. More serious than that, it was about the American character and the fate of the Republic, and it was played out for the American people in the newspapers that were the primary source of information for most readers. The words used by Sumner and other politicians and their antagonists and the words in the newspapers perhaps symbolized a change in communication patterns.” (p. 48)

From Fanatics and Fire-Eaters: Newspapers and the Coming of the Civil War by Ratner & Teeter

Primary Source – Southern Newspaper’s View of the Brooks-Sumner Incident:


From the Richmond Whig:

“A GOOD DEED.—As will be seen by telegraph, Mr. Brooks, of South Carolina, after the adjournment of the Senate on yesterday, administered to Senator Sumner, the notorious and foul-mouthed Abolitionist from Massachusetts, an elegant and effectual caning. We are rejoiced at this. The only regret we feel is, that Mr. Brooks did not employ a horsewhip or a cowhide upon his slanderous back, instead of a cane. We trust the ball may be kept in motion. Seward and others should catch it next.”

Article Published in New York Daily Times, May 26, 1856

Background on the Richmond Whig:

“Founded in Richmond, Virginia in 1842, the Richmond Whig was the primary organ of the Whig Party in Virginia. It was one of four daily papers in the city and remained loyal to the Whigs during secession, although the party was largely defunct. The paper was therefore more critical of Jefferson Davis and his administration from the get-go of the Confederacy, perceiving Davis’ mistrust of Whigs in the Confederate army and elsewhere.

The Richmond Whig continued to print in several different iterations through the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction; it ceased publication in 1888.”

Description from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 

Northern View of the Brooks-Sumner Incident:


“There is but one grade below that of ruffianism, and that is held by those who volunteer to become its apologists. We have heard a great many men, of all ranks and classes, of all shades of political opinion and of personal temper, speak of the assault made upon Senator Sumner by Preston S. Brooks of South Carolina, and not one of them has failed to brand it as an outrage for which no palliation can be offered and for which no punishment could be too severe.”

… “We have yet to learn that ‘flowery adjectives’ or classical allusions, however far-fetched they may be, can be tortured into personal insults. If every Senator who employs them is to be beaten over the head with impunity therefor, there would be few whole crowns, we suspect, in that distinguished body. And in likening various Senators to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza… Mr. Sumner was speaking solely of their political conduct, and made not the remotest allusion to their personal character. He did not transcend in this particular the ordinary limits of Parliamentary courtesy. His speech was sarcastic and severe—but not upon the personal character of a single Senator. He criticized sharply and severely the political action and the political speeches of Senators—and this he had a perfect right to do. But he made no allusions to Mr. Butler, or to South Carolina, which anybody had any right to resent as personally offensive.”

Article Published in New York Daily Times, May 26, 1856