JFK+50: Volume 6, No. 1957BLOOD-LETTING ON THE SENATE FLOOR 160 YEARS AGO TODAY
Washington, D.C. (JFK+50) One hundred and sixty years ago today, May 22, 1856, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, a few days after giving a speech attacking both the institution of slavery and South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, was severely beaten as he sat at his desk on the floor of the United States Senate.
During a break between sessions, Sumner was busy writing when Congressman Preston Brooks, Senator Butler's cousin, came into the chamber carrying a wooden cane.
Brooks, with only a few bystanders looking on, proceeded to beat Sumner over the head and shoulders. Sumner attempted to get up from his desk but could not do so because it was bolted to the floor.
Sumner's injuries were so severe that he would not able to return to the Senate for three years. There was no pity for the northern Senator, however, in the South. Brooks became an instant hero and received a replacement wooden cane in the mail with the inscription "Hit Him Again!"
In his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Profiles in Courage, JFK writes about a speech made by Senator Lucius Lamar of Mississippi in 1874 on the occasion of the death of "the South's most implacable enemy," Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts.
In a plea for "amity and justice between North and South," Senator Lamar said that Charles Sumner, before his death....
"believed that all occasion for strife and distrust between the North and South had passed away. Would that the spirit of the illustrious dead whom we lament today could speak from the grave to both parties to this deplorable discord in tones which should reach each and every heart throughout this broad territory: 'My countrymen! know one another, and you will love one another.'"
JFK wrote that this speech was one of the few in our history to have "such immediate impact." He argues that the speech was a turning point in the relationship between North and South.
While many newspapers wrote editorials in support of the speech, others, particularly in the South were critical. They believed Senator Lamar "had surrendered Southern principle and honor."