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MarketInsight | A House Divided



On May 22, 1856, Congressman Preston Brooks strode onto the floor of the US Senate with malicious intent. Brooks was stalking Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. The Congressman from South Carolina and his accomplices waited as the chamber emptied and the ladies seated in the upper gallery went home. They did not want to offend their fragile feminine sensibilities.

Two days earlier, Sumner, an abolitionist and a Republican, had given a speech attacking slavery. The speech was incendiary. Sumner’s rhetoric was filled with offensive sexual imagery that inflamed the South. Senator Stephen Douglas listened in disgust and remarked, “That damned fool is going to get himself killed.” 

Stephen Douglas was one of the two sponsors of the legislation Sumner was riled up about, The Kansas-Nebraska Act. That compromise was the nation’s last feeble attempt to reconcile its irreconcilable differences. The sin of slavery would not be absolved in the halls of Congress. 

Two years later, in 1858, Douglas would run for reelection in Illinois against Abraham Lincoln. Douglas won. The two engaged in a series of famous debates that would captivate the nation. Lincoln’s prophecy that “a house divided cannot stand,” would galvanize one section of the country and horrify another. Two years later, in 1860, Lincoln and Douglas faced each other again, this time for President of the United States. Lincoln won. 

During his anti-slavery speech, Sumner attacked Senator Andrew Butler, the co-sponsor of the act. In addition to some untoward implications, Sumner made fun of Butler’s speech impediment. The South Carolina Senator had recently suffered a stroke that had slurred his speech. 

Preston Brooks was Senator Butler’s cousin. He considered Sumner’s remarks a slander against his family. His Southern honor demanded revenge. At first, he considered challenging Sumner to a duel, but rejected the idea because he considered the Republican from Massachusetts to be unworthy and no gentleman. 

Brooks decided to give the man a beating instead. He approached Charles Sumner at his desk in the nearly empty Senate and raised his cane. “Mr. Sumner,” he declared before bringing the cane down on the defenseless Senator, “I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.” 

Brooks beat Sumner mercilessly. Sumner hid under his desk. Brooks continued to lash the Northerner. The cane broke into three pieces. Brooks continued to throttle the bloodied Senator with the biggest piece. Eventually, Sumner attempted to flee up the aisle with Brooks and his slashing cane in close pursuit. When Sumner collapsed, Brooks grabbed him by the lapel and lifted his head so he could beat him some more.

The attack caused a national uproar. “Has it come to this?” a New York Paper asked. “Are we to be chastised as they chastise their slaves?” In the South, papers praised the attack. The Richmond Enquirer suggested Sumner should be beaten “every morning.” 

Southern Senators took to wearing pieces of the shattered cane on chains around their necks. Across the South, fans sent Congressman Brooks hundreds of canes. One was inscribed, “Hit him again!”

Five years later the country was at war. Some say we are still fighting that war today. 

Scott A. Grant is a local columnist, author, speaker, and historian. By day he is a fiduciary asset manager and president of Standfast Asset Management. He welcomes your comments or questions at


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