A Savage Beating in Halls of Congress

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Although gridlock is a constant theme in conversations surrounding today’s Congress, at least the partisanship wasn’t bloody between members. On May 22, 1856, Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina beat Massachusetts’ abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner with a cane in the old Senate Chamber.

Two days earlier, on the Senate floor, Sumner denounced the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed popular sovereignty in Kansas and Nebraska and led to violence between pro-slavery and anti-slavery camps. Sumner went on to personally insult the acts’ sponsors, Senators Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina. Butler had insulted Sumner for his abolitionist views, so the Massachusetts senator returned the favor by claiming Butler had a slave mistress and by mocking his speech impediment caused by a stroke.

Brooks, Butler’s cousin, was not happy. He approached Sumner, telling him, “Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine." The South Carolinian then hit Sumner over the head and struck him again and again for a full minute. The bleeding Sumner was carried away, and Brooks calmly walked away.

Brooks, a hero to the South, was convicted of assault and fined, but he received no prison sentence. He won reelection to his congressional seat, but he died before the next term. Sumner, considered a martyr in the North, suffered from head trauma and post-traumatic stress. It would be three years before he returned to the Senate, but that would not stop him from becoming President Abraham Lincoln’s closest friend in the Upper Chamber.

As the late historian David Herbert Donald writes in the afterward to his book, "We are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends," the 16th president did not have many good friends. Secretary of State William Seward was his only close friend in the cabinet. Lincoln’s success with friends in Congress was even worse. Senators he had hoped to enter his circle like Lyman Trumbull of Illinois and James W. Grimes of Iowa both turned away from the president.

Lincoln’s best friendship with a senator was with the aloof and hardline Sumner. This might seem strange as the two clashed on several major issues. Sumner wanted the immediate emancipation of slaves and correctly believed that emancipation would keep Great Britain from entering the war on the side of the Confederacy. Lincoln favored a gradual approach, but on Jan. 1, 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in rebelling states. They also disagreed on plans for Reconstruction, as Lincoln believed in a more lenient approach in reconciling with the southern states, while Sumner considered this to be too forgiving toward the rebels and inadequate toward the newly freed slaves.

Although Lincoln was much more moderate than the Senate leader of the Radical Republicans, he admired Sumner’s committed idealism. According to Donald, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln noted that they would “laugh together like school boys.” In today’s partisan environment, it’s an encouraging thought that leaders who had serious disagreements in a time of civil war could be good friends.

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