The Caning of Senator Charles Sumner

A statue at the Boston Public Garden is a reminder of the political violence that our nation experienced leading up to the Civil War. On May 19 and 20, 1856, Senator Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts antislavery Republican, delivered a long speech denouncing the power that slave owners held over their elected representatives.

Statue of Charles Sumner in Boston Public Garden

The Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854, which was proposed by Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois to appease Southern Congressmen, established popular vote by the territory’s settlers to determine whether to allow slavery. The Act repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had forbidden the practice of slavery in all U.S. territory north of 36°30′ latitude and west of the Mississippi River, except in the state of Missouri.

After the act passed in the Senate by a vote of 37 to 14, it moved on to the House of Representatives, where on May 12, 1854, a filibuster led by Ohio free-soiler Lewis Davis Campbell almost resulted in armed combat. Weapons were burnished, and Henry A. Edmundson, an armed Virginia Democrat, had to be strained when he attacked Campbell, unbuttoning his vest to reach for a gun.

In his “Crime Against Kansas” speech on May 19, 1856, Sumner characterized Stephen Douglass as a “noise-some, squat, and nameless animal,… not a proper model for an American senator,” and charged Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina, an ardent advocate of slavery, with taking “a mistress . . . who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight…. I mean, the harlot, Slavery.”

Shortly after the Senate adjourned on May 21, Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina, a distant cousin of Butler, entered the nearly-empty chamber accompanied by Congressman Edmundson. Approaching Sumner, Brooks yelled out, “I have read your speech, a libel on South Carolina.” and began slamming his metal-topped cane onto Sumner’s head for over a minute, knocking him temporarily unconscious. When other Senators attempted to help Sumner, they were blocked by Brooks’ co-conspirator, South Carolina Representative Laurence M. Keitt, who brandished a pistol and shouted, “Let them be!” As the bloodied Sumner was carried away, Brooks walked calmly out of the chamber.

The news carried by telegraph, and graphic descriptions in the next day’s newspapers portrayed the two men as heroes in their respective states. The Richmond Daily Whig proclaimed, “A most glorious deed!  Mr. Brooks, of South Carolina, administered to Senator Sumner, a notorious abolitionist from Massachusetts, an effectual and classic caning.  We are rejoiced.  The only regret we feel is that Mr. Brooks did not employ a slave whip instead of a stick.

Assault on Senator Charles Sumner in the Senate Chamber
Imacon Color Scanner

The next day the House passed a resolution to form a select committee to investigate the assault, which reported it as “a most flagrant violation, not only of the privileges of the Senate and of the House,… but of the rights of his constituents and of our character as a nation.” In July the House voted on a resolution to expel Brooks, but failed to reach the two-thirds necessary to remove him from office. Protesting the vote, Brooks resigned his House seat but was returned in a special election and sworn in on August 1, 1856.

Senator Charles Sumner convalesced slowly and never completely recovered, but returned to the Senate in 1859 where he remained for 18 years. He served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1861 to 1871, and is recognized for his tireless efforts to abolish slavery. Sumner was among the first members of Congress to argue in favor of the Civil War to end slavery and save the Union.

When Senator Sumner died of a heart attack in 1874, he was widely eulogized as his body lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda. In the years following his death, Sumner’s legacy and renown increased. A bust of Charles Sumner is mounted in the U.S. Senate, cloaked in a Roman toga to symbolize his greatness.

Statue of Charles Sumner in Cambridge by sculptor Anne Whitney
Sculptor Anne Whitney

After Sumner’s death, the Boston Art Committee decided to commemorate him with a statue in the newly-created Boston Public Garden. After receiving several design submissions, they selected a regal, seated Sumner, until they discovered that it was designed by Anne Whitney of Watertown. Deeming that a design by a woman would be “scandalous,” the committee instead approved the statue by sculptor Thomas Ball for the Garden. An activist for much of her life, Whitney is known for statues of “champions of freedom or those oppressed by the lack of it.”

Whitney’s family was outraged by the Committee’s decision, but she replied to them, “Bury your grievance…it will take more than a Boston Art Committee to quench me.” Whitney lived to see her statue cast in bronze and placed in Harvard Square in Boston.


Sumner’s assailant Preston Brooks died in 1857 at age 37 from a sudden bout of croup. Thousands of his constituents attended memorial service at the United States Capitol. A year later, the Georgia legislature named a county for him.

Two years after the attack on Senator Sumner, Laurence M. Keitt attempted to choke Representative Galusha Grow (R-PA) during an argument on the floor of the U.S. House. He served as a colonel in the Confederate States Army, and was killed at the Battle of Cold Harbor in June 1864.

Butler County in Kansas is named for Andrew Butler, an ardent advocate of slavery and co-author with Stephen A. Douglas of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Douglas became the Democratic Party nominee in the 1860 presidential election, and was defeated by Republican Abraham Lincoln.

Five years of political and armed conflict known as “Bleeding Kansas” broke out between proslavery and antislavery advocates for control of the new territory of Kansas under the doctrine of popular sovereignty, and was a prelude to the Civil War.

Sources and further reading :

4 thoughts on “The Caning of Senator Charles Sumner”

  1. Hi Gordon,

    Sadly your piece on Charles Sumner is most timely given our current circumstances. He suffered from those injuries for the rest of his life.

    The desk at which Sumner was sitting when he was accosted by Prescott is preserved at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Back Bay.

  2. By far the best source on Congressional violence in the lead-up to the Civil War is Joanne Freeman’s THE FIELD OF BLOOD: VIOLENCE IN CONGRESS AND THE ROAD TO CIVIL WAR (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 20018).

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