Home > Uncategorized > January 6 and the Sumner Precedent – posted 2/7/2021

January 6 and the Sumner Precedent – posted 2/7/2021

Since the insurrectionist mob attacked Congress on January 6, the most common historical parallel cited has been the War of 1812. In that war, in 1814, British forces overran Washington DC and set fire to many public buildings, including the U.S. Capitol.

While the War of 1812 is most cited, I would mention a different historical precedent. 1856 witnessed the most infamous day in the history of the Senate. On May 22, 1856, Congresssman Preston Brooks (D-S.C.) viciously attacked Senator Charles Sumner (R- Mass) on the floor of the Senate. Brooks beat Sumner so badly he almost died.

I think that the attack on Sen. Sumner has the most historical resonance with our time. A white supremacist could not countenance promotion of equality between the races. The division and polarization reflected in that episode remain consistent with the hate we saw at the Capitol in January.

To place the Sumner beating in context, the central issue facing the United States then was slavery. Kansas was going to be admitted as a state into the United States and there were questions whether slavery would be permitted or prohibited.

Anti-slavery forces had believed the question was settled by the 1820 Missouri Compromise which had established a boundary line above which no people in a state could own slaves. Kansas was above the line.

That compromise was being superseded by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was co-authored by Sen, Stephen Douglas (D-Ill) and Sen. Andrew Butler (D-S.C.). The Act overturned the 1820 Missouri Compromise by mandating popular sovereignty to decide whether a state would allow slavery. The Act was hated by strong abolitionists like Sen. Sumner.

On May 19, 1856, Sen. Sumner delivered a speech in the Senate that lasted five hours over two days. Sumner passionately denounced the effort by Missouri “border ruffians” to force a pro-slavery constitution on Kansas. The speech called “the Crime Against Kansas” speech zeroed in on slavery as an evil and Sumner particularly criticized the law’s co-authors.

He charged Sen. Butler of South Carolina 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”.

Congressman Brooks, a relative of Sen. Butler, was enraged by Sumner’s speech. On May 22, he sat in the Senate gallery waiting for the session to end. After the Senate adjourned, Brooks walked onto the Senate floor, surprised Sumner and beat him senseless with a gold-topped gutta-percha cane. Brooks hit Sumner thirty times around the head and shoulders, leaving him a bloody mess. Sumner temporarily lost his vision.

When other senators approached to help Sumner, they were blocked by two other Congressmen who were Brooks’ accomplices. One of Brooks’s accomplices, Rep. Lawrence Keitt, pulled a pistol and forced the potential help to back off. The beating was so bad Brooks’ cane broke. Finished, Brooks strolled out of the Senate, leaving Sumner unconscious on the floor.

As the historian of abolitionism, Manisha Sinha, has written, Brooks’ assault on Sumner was “not just a matter of personal honor but a deliberate attempt to chastise an abolitionist”. Sinha says that Brooks beat Sumner “the way a slaveholder whipped a slave, or a slave’s ally”.

The House voted to expel Brooks but it lacked the 2/3 vote needed to remove him from office. Brooks resigned from Congress but he ran again in the special election held in August, just several months later. Brooks won re-election. Most Southerners approved of his conduct.

The injuries to Sumner were severe. He was not able to return to the Senate for three years, until 1859. Along with the head trauma, he experienced migraines and chronic pain for the rest of his life. Karma dealt with Brooks. At age 37, he had an unexpected early and painful death from croup a year after beating Sumner.

The caning of Sumner on the Senate floor had a seismic shock effect on the North. With the emotional force of a 9/11, the event had a galvanizing effect on the anti-slavery cause, moving the nation closer to Civil War. Sumner’s caning had also openly exposed the ruthlessness and amorality of the Slave Power.

The Massachusetts Legislature passed resolutions that equated the assault on Sumner with an attack on representative government and free speech.

The insurrectionist mob attack on the U.S. Capitol was also an attack on representative government. The mob wanted their candidate declared president contrary to the certified vote of the people. While falsely claiming the election was rigged and stolen, the mob showed itself willing to junk democracy to obtain their desired result.

Congress is a place where legislators are supposed to speak and listen. It is not a place for anyone to be brandishing weapons. Nothing could be more destructive of civil discourse and demeanor. The experience of Sen. Sumner speaks to that.

Does anyone doubt that if the January 6 mob had gotten their hands on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Nancy Pelosi or Mike Pence, there would have been murders? The gallows constructed outside the Capitol sent a message. There was a reason Congresspeople and their staffs were hiding, locked in their barricaded offices.

In any workplace, you cannot have people threatening the lives of their co-workers, saying they are going to put bullets in people’s heads. That is unacceptable behavior that should be punished by expulsion from Congress or any legislature. In a workplace, such threats would certainly constitute grounds for firing.

Given the demonization of the Squad by right wing media, those legislators now require 24/7 security. The incitement has unleashed dangerous extremists who make unhinged threats against those perceived to be anti-Trump. Freshman Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich) said in an appearance on MSNBC that he and other members were buying body armor.

Rep. Meijer and Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo) have said some GOP colleagues voted to overturn the election results or against impeaching Trump out of fear that their families’ lives may be put in danger. The question arises: are others too afraid to vote their conscience?

In light of our present stay of polarization, all legislators should have to go through metal detectors, without exception. We have done it at the airport for years and we have reached a point where the need for safety in Congress dictates this common sense measure. Whatever we can do to prevent episodes like what happened to Sen. Sumner, need to happen.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Janet Moore
    February 7, 2021 at 9:43 pm

    Hands, Jonathan, great historical context.

    • February 7, 2021 at 10:41 pm

      Thanks Janet! Happy Super Sunday

  2. Pat Dawson
    February 7, 2021 at 10:20 pm

    A sad commentary on where we are at but I think you are right.

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