Things Haven’t Always Been This Bad in the U.S. Congress. Sometimes It Was Worse.

Charles Sumner (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Pretty much everyone knows that Congress is a huge, stinking mess at the moment but that is nothing new. In 1856 a senator and a congressman got into a fight in the capital building. Here’s the story.


In 1854 Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The act established two new territories, Kansas and Nebraska, and allowing settlement there. One of the provisions was known as popular sovereignty which allowed the white male settlers decide if the area would be slave or free. The bill was written by Stephen A. Douglas, a Democrat senator from Illinois best known as the Douglas of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates.

Because of its provision regarding slavery, people on both sides of the issue flooded Kansas hoping to have the vote go their way but it resulted in bloody battles between the two.

The Incident

On the 19th and 20th of May 1856 a senator by the name of Charles Sumner (Whig Party, Massachusetts) took the floor of the US Senate and gave a speech entitled “Crimes Against Kansas.” In it he argued for the immediate entrance of Kansas, then a territory, as a slavery-free state. The speech was critical about several congressmen who had supported the “popular sovereignty” provisions of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and who were slave-owners themselves. The speech implied that they kept slaves in order to engage in sexual intercourse with the women. (In many cases this was true.) One of the senators Sumner spoke against was South Carolina representative Preston S. Brooks (Democrat). Not only had Sumner spoken against Brooks, he had also verbally attacked Brooks’ cousin.

Brooks did not take the reprimand well and, on 22 May 1856, entered the Senate chamber, otherwise empty since the Senate was not in session at the time, and proceeded to beat Sumner with his cane. Sumner was struck so hard that the cane shattered. Two other congressmen tried to intervene but were stopped by Laurence Keitt who pulled a gun on them and told them to “Let them be!”. In an attempt to escape, Sumner ripped his desk from the floor to which it was bolted. Blinded by his own blood in his eyes, Sumner was rendered unconscious and was unable to resume his office for three years.

The incident ended any possibility of compromise over the slavery issue and made it all that much more likely that the issue would tear the country apart.

The Consequences

Brooks was tried in a District of Columbia court for the attack and was convicted of assault and fined $300. He did no prison time. A motion was made to expel Brooks from the House of Representatives but it failed. He resigned on 15 Jul but returned to office in a special election held on 01 Aug. He was re-elected to a new term of office in Nov 1856, but died before the term began.

Keitt, who abetted Brooks in the attack, was censured by the House. He resigned in protest over his censure, but was re-elected by a huge margin within a month. In 1858 he tried choking Representative Galusha Grow (Republican, Pennsylvania) for calling him a “negro driver”.


© 2017 Gary J. Sibio. All rights reserved.


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Written by Gary J Sibio

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