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Beating up Senator Sumner. An Anniversary.

May 22, 2016


Today is the anniversary of one of the things that definitely helped start the American Civil War.  And Andrew Jackson wasn’t around to prevent it.  A beating.

Of course, slavery was all about savage beatings.  Enforcing a system of lifelong hereditary servitude demanded the regular exercise of theatrical terror.  Slaves were beaten on a regular basis wherever slavery was maintained.  But many in the North had become pretty immune to accounts (and there were very many) of dark skinned people having their skin removed and remained tolerant of the institution of slavery within their polity until one day when a very prominent white guy got beaten up by a slave owner.

The white guy was Massachusetts Senator Sumner, a man who could claim to be perhaps the most consistently anti-racist federally elected white guy elected in the USA in the nineteenth-century.  Now Sumner hated slavery, justifiably enough, and hated it with a humourless extremity of passion that sounds (I hope) absolutely fair and reasonable to us, but was considered ill-mannered and excessive by his “moderate” contemporaries.  Sumner had recently given an anti-slavery speech replete with very biblical sounding denunciations of “harlotry” – an imagining of slavery and its supporters as eroticised Babylonian despots – the sort of tone that dominates the Book of Ezekiel.  A few days later (22 May 1856), a Representative from South Carolina, Preston Brooks, whose cousin had featured prominently in Sumner’s diatribe, approached Sumner as Sumner was wedged behind his desk in the Senate Chamber.

Preston Brooks had thought about challenging Sumner to a good old fashioned duel, but having consulted with friends, decided that Sumner was “no gentleman” and simply did not deserve the stylised courtesies that dueling implied.  No, Sumner was instead to be thrashed within an inch of his life.

Approaching Sumner, and formally accusing the senator of libel, Brooks proceeded to do precisely that.  Trapped between his chair and his desk (which was fastened to the floor), Sumner had trouble either escaping or defending himself.  Brooks only stopped beating Sumner with his gold topped cane once the cane itself was broken to pieces (the pieces are on display in Boston to this day).  Sumner was so physically weakened and psychologically shattered that it was three years before he returned to the Senate.

The political significance of this bizarre assault was remarkable.  Throughout the 1850s, endless compromises had been made with slave owning states to keep them within the Union.  The caning of Sumner persuaded many hitherto lukewarm anti-slavery northerners that perhaps it was time to develop a backbone when treating the South.  Attitudes hardened when it was learned that Brooks had become an immensely popular figure across the South and that he had received as gifts, hundreds of replacement canes from well wishers – at least one of which had “Hit Him Again” engraved on the top.  Northern popular opinion began to  consider that perhaps, after all, there’s no talking to people like that.  Surely now, the endless appeasement of the South has to stop?

This did not make the North abolitionist, but it did immensely strengthen the Free-Soil Republican party, the party of Seward and Lincoln, the party that felt that a Federal Government did at least have a mandate to check and contain the spread of slavery.  It was, after all, the question of whether the new and violent state of Kansas was to admit slavery that had provoked the debate that had led to the speech that had resulted in Sumner’s beating in the first place.

There’s a cruel irony in the fact that generations of black women and men and children had been beaten without the essential violence of slavery forcing any political crisis in the North.  One white senator tasting a slaveowner’s wrath made a huge difference.  The violence of slavery was suddenly brought home.  Indeed Sumner’s more astute friends helped persuade Sumner not to recover from his injuries too quickly.  Sumner’s speeches had been regarded as rather annoying and often counter-productive.  His empty chair, on the other hand, was regarded as supremely eloquent, a poignant symbol of Southern violence.  While Sumner was away, his absence became a presence often alluded to and gestured to.  His chair did better than he could have done.

From the point of view of Sumner’s declared and sincere war on slavery, getting beaten up was absolutely the best thing that Sumner ever did.  Or had done to him.


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