The power of III

Summum ius summa iniuria--More law, less justice

24 July 2011

Defending Honor: Understanding why Preston Brooks caned Charles Sumner

 “What is life without honor? Degradation is worse than death.”
--Lt. General Thomas J. Jackson, CSA

This image is ubiquitous in every public school textbook of American history (that I have seen, including my 12 year old's).

The print depicts a brutal senseless act, with leering faces in the crowd. A faceless barbarian (South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks, Democrat) mercilessly beats a gentle quill-wielding martyr (Senator Charles Sumner, Republican, Massachusetts), his blood dripping off the cane.  

The image is not historically accurate, and is pure Northern propaganda. 

Southern character is mocked, as if Mr. Brooks' actions represent a typical Southern predilection to violence;  it caricatures every Southerner as a slave-beating overseer.

The press of the country was no less adept at spin and hyperbole in 1856 than it is today.

In today's public schools, history is only taught through modern cultural bias, which makes an event or idea, quite reasonable in the past, seem horrific to a modern child.  

What was Preston Brooks thinking at the time of the caning of Sumner?

Charles Sumner was a Boston-raised and Harvard educated attorney.  Sumner was probably the most vocal abolitionist in the Senate. In fact, his first major speech in the Senate was entitled "Freedom national, Slavery sectional," delivered in August 1852, in which he denounced the Fugitive Slave Act as unconstitutional. He was an el0quent fanatic for his cause.

The question of whether new western territories, in this case Kansas, would enter the Union as a "Free" or "Slave" state was the question of the moment.  The intricacies of the positions of the pro-Slavery and anti-slavery positions cannot be described adequately in an essay of this length.  The stakes were high for both sides, including the balance of political power in the Federal government,  setting new constitutional precedents, and, as always, economic considerations of private monied interests drove the politics.

 May 18, 1856, Charles Sumner rose in the Senate chamber, and delivered the speech that gave such offense (relevant excerpt):

Before entering upon the argument, I must say something of ...senators who have raised themselves to eminence on this floor in championship of human wrongs; I mean the senator from South Carolina, (Mr. Butler), and the senator from Illinois, (Mr.Douglas, who, though unlike as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, yet, like this couple, sally forth together in the same cause. The senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight, with sentiments of honor and courage. Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and 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. For her his tongue is always profuse in words. Let her be impeached in character, or any proposition made to shut her out from the extension of her wantonness, and no extravagance of manner or hardihood of assertion is then too great for this Senator. The frenzy of Don Quixote in behalf of his wench Dulcinea del Toboso is all surpassed. The asserted rights of slavery, which shock equality of all kinds, are cloaked by a fantastic claim of equality. If the Slave States cannot enjoy what in mockery of the great fathers of the Republic, he misnames equality under the Constitution -- in other words, the full power in the National Territories to compel fellow men to unpaid toil, to separate husband and wife, and to sell little children at the auction-block -- then, sir, the chivalric Senator will conduct the State of South Carolina out of the Union! heroic knight! Exalted senator! A second Moses come for a second Exodus! 
--The Crime Against Kansas: The Apologies For The Crime: The True Remedy., United States Senate, May 18-19, 1856

Senators Stephen Douglas and Andrew Butler,  according to Charles Sumer

This quote of Sumner's speech is a portion of the insulting language directed at Sen. Andrew Butler.

Preston Brooks knew this personal public insult required a response.  

He was the most appropriate person to respond  to Sumner.  He was the nephew of the infirm 59 year old Andrew Butler. He was a  South Carolinian. 

Brooks was 37.  Sumner was a well known athlete, and weighed 30 lbs. more than Brooks.

Context: The primacy of honor

In the contemporary cultural context of the incident in question,  the sense of honor refers to both a person's self-image, as well as how community peers viewed the person.  A person's honor could be forever damaged by public humiliation. In the Anglo-Celtic tradition of Brooks' contemporaries, honor was treated with the utmost seriousness, particularly among the landed educated class.  Personal honor and status in society was directly related to a man's behavior in public.  Insults and injustices required a verbal or physical response to satisfy the honor and dignity of the wronged party.

Context: Code Duello, mid 19th Century America

In 1838, John Lyde Wilson, the former governor of South Carolina, wrote a pamphlet called "The Code of Honor: Rules for the government of principals and seconds in duelling.  In Chapter VIII of the the pamphlet, Wilson wrote:

"1. The prevailing rule is, that words used in retort, although more violent and disrespectful than those first used, will not satisfy,—words being no satisfaction for words.

2. When words are used, and a blow given in return, the insult is avenged; and if redress be sought, it must be from the person receiving the blow."

This pamphlet describes the accepted norm of behavior of men of Preston Brooks' social class in his native South Carolina, and provides insight into his behavior in the wake of Sumner's speech.

Charles Sumner

Preston Brooks

The incident

Two days after the speech, Brooks walked up to Sumner, who was seated at his bolt-anchored desk in the Senate chamber.  Brooks stated his grievance and his intent, and without giving Sumner a chance to respond, he struck Sumner about the head numerous times with a gutta percha (natural plastic-hard rubber) cane.  Sumner tried to ward off the blows, but was encumbered by the desk.  In Sumner's struggle to rise, he pulled the desk's bolts out of the floor;  Brooks' blows came in quick succession.  Sumner fell unconscious with multiple scalp lacerations.  Accounts of the attack are varied, despite numerous witnesses. 

Some reports from the North describe a critically injured man.  Others implied that Sumner was not seriously injured, and milked the publicity for his Sectionalist/abolitionist cause. Abraham Lincoln remarked cynically: "The outrage upon Sumner & the occurrences in Kansas," writing to Sen. Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, "have helped us vastly."

Contemporary reaction

Predictable outrage in the North was expressed in newspaper editorials:

Attack on Mr. Sumner.

Boston, Massachusetts, Bee [American]

(23 May 1856)

-- " will be seen that Hon. Chas. Sumner, M. C., of this city, was ferociously and brutally assaulted in the National Senate Chamber yesterday, by a cowardly scoundrel named Brooks. An outrage so gross and villianous was never before committed within the walls of the Capitol... This bully Brooks who has disgraced the name of man, ought to be branded as a villain of the blackest dye, and then mercilessly kicked from one end of the continent to the other."

Southern editorials were effusive in praising Brooks' behavior:

Public Approval of Mr. Brooks.

Columbia, South Carolina, South Carolinian [Democratic]

(27 May 1856)

"...Hon. Preston S. Brooks had not only the approval, but the hearty congratulations of the people of South Carolina for his summary chastisement of the abolitionist Sumner.
Immediately upon the reception of the news on Saturday last, a most enthusiastic meeting was convened in the town of Newberry, ... The meeting voted him a handsome gold-headed cane, which we saw yesterday, on its way to Washington,... At Anderson, ...a meeting was called, and complimentary resolutions adopted. We heard one of Carolina's truest and most honored matrons from Mr. Brooks' district... saying "that the ladies of the South would send him hickory sticks, with which to chastise Abolitionists and Red Republicans whenever he wanted them."

Preston Brooks' own speech in defense of his actions includes:   " ...a senator from Massachusetts allowed himself, ...this uncalled-for libel on my State and my blood. Whatever insults my State insults me... I should have forfeited my own self-respect, and perhaps the good opinion of my countrymen, if I had failed to resent such an injury by calling the offender in question to a personal account. It was a personal affair, and in taking redress into my own hands I meant no disrespect to the Senate of the United States or to this House."


One hears the opening shots of the War Between the States when one reads the newspaper editorials written about the caning incident in the Senate chamber. 

The Pittsburgh gazette wrote pugnaciously:

"It can no longer be permitted that all the blows shall come from one side. If Southern men will resort to the fist to overawe and intimidate Northern men, blow must be given back blow for blow. Forbearance and kindly deportment are lost upon these Southern ruffians... Northern men must defend themselves..."

Historical memory 

The histories have been written by the victors of the War to Prevent Southern Independence.  

Preston Brooks was initially feted by his home state and community, and reelected to Congress. 

He is now remembered as a villain.

For those of us who choose to look, Preston Brooks can be seen in the context of his times to be a Southern patriot, true to the expected code of public behavior of his community.   


  1. That drawing is supposed to elicit enrage and disgust? It always made me grin widely...

    A shame dueling has fallen from favor. By the simple law of averages, the world would be populated by far fewer skunks were it still practiced.

    - Dutchy

  2. I totally agree.

    I think it may come into vogue again in our lifetime, dont you?

  3. Striking a seated unarmed man with a cane is not an honorable act. Never was, never will be.


    When given a challenge by Anson Burlingame to an honorable duel, Preston Brooks, "neglected to show up".(Wikipedia).

    Thus there are 2 examples of dishonorable behavior by Preston Brooks.

    His anger is understandable, his cowardly responses are not.

    1. Charles Sumner wasn't a gentleman. In fact he was a villain of the highest order. Standard rules of combat are not granted to such men. Challenging to a duel is above their station. Being the lowest filth but with power to harm, the gentleman isn't disposed to allow such vermin a chance to weasel out of their predictment. Instead it was perfectly encouraged the gentleman to use a strong piece of wood, cane, whether of good birch or hickory or some other and use it to beat senseless in an suitable public arena the vile filth. Charles Sumner received in himself what stemmed from his black heart.

  4. Preston brooks was sitting trapped under a bolted down desk while sumer struck him, Sumner was unarmed, Brooks is a coward and he is a perfect representation of southern courage which means attacking someone who can't fight back then bragging about it.

    Preston was later challenged to a duel over his cowardice and then declined when he heard that his opponent was not a man trapped under a desk and would also be on equal ground. That man was a cowardly snake!!!

  5. Yes, I read this as well. There are many "sources" from the time that this occurred that were pure partisan spin. My hope in writing this article was to explain that there is another side to the story spouted by Yankee court historians.

    This is to understand two things:
    Historians have bias; there is no such thing as "objective" history.
    Understanding the (Then)contemporary context of any historical event is more important than viewing the event through our modern lens, or through the lens of one set of historians.

    As to it being cowardly to strike a man when he is without a weapon, or trapped under a bolted chair--whatever. In grade school, certainly. The country was on the brink of a sectional rupture, and rhetoric was toxic. You reap what you sew.
    Also, it has been said that "if you find yourself in a fair fight, your tactics suck..."

  6. Stuff and nonsense. Anson Burlingame was correct when he called Preston Brooks "the vilest sort of coward." And Brooks proved it. Upon hearing the insult, Brooks challenged Burlingame to a duel. And Burlingame instantly accepted, and since he was challenged party, he chose rifles as the weapons and named the site to Canadian side of the Niagara in order to avoid violating U.S. law which prohibited dueling. He set out at once for the duel, but Brooks was a no-show, claiming it was too dangerous for him to cross into hostile Yankee territory.

    This is not what he said when he challenged Burlingame. In fact, he said he would face him in "any Yankee mudsill" of his choosing.

    But Brooks chickened out, terrified of Burlingame's instant acceptance of the duel and his reputation as a crack marksman. Brooks was a coward and will always be remembered as such.

    1. You nailed it. Brooks was nothing more than a bullying coward who turned yellow when challenged to a fair fight. Facts are facts, no matter what Southern apologists say.

  7. I would like to know the source in which you got the comment from Abraham Lincoln writing to Senator Trumball.

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  9. Preston Brooks was a coward, his later actions when challenged to a duel proved that. His striking a seated man prove that. His having with him an armed companion when all else were unarmed prove that. You claim honor, but then state that a fair fight is poor tactics. Perhaps, but then forego the hogwash of reacting honorably and with honor. I am glad that Preston Brooks died a painful death. I wish he had left no heirs. It is shameful that there are places that still carry his name as a tribute.

  10. There was no honor in anything Brooks did; don't give me that "defense of honor and chivalry" bullcrap. Contrary to what you said, I could claim that defense as Southern propaganda, as it is rightly so.

  11. Guy almost beats a man to death and weasels out on a duel challenge? Burlingame was right; Brooks was and always will be remembered as a hypocritical coward. Such can be expected from a man born into a region that defines its honor as protecting the holy institution of enslaving fellow human beings and treating them as lower than animals.

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  13. My take on it is this, Mr. Sumner tried the patients of others with his abolitionist blather, and while running his yap, unwittingly overdid the thing, as yankee Abolitionists often did. The Honorable Mr. Brooks, forced to anger, was only trying to convey an important message to Mr. Sumner, and rather than waste precious time with honor laced explanations, he just tapped it out in Morse code on the side of Mr. Sumner's head... I wish we could send him back to Washington this day and time... his services are desperately needed and would be appreciated by most of the country. Folks, read The Rise and fall of the Confederate Government... It will answer your question Kevin, it will tell you exactly why the South was right and how the Yankee government forced the South to action and caused the war... you simply cant view those days through a modern mindset. Especially when you know absolutely nothing about American History. God Bless you all.. good web site and have a great Thanksgiving.

  14. As my great, great, Grandfather said: "Rifles!"

  15. Excuse me while I fart at the mention of "southern honor" and it being used as a justification for Brooks' assault on the senator. Southern honor was and is nothing more than arrogant pride and vainglory. Sumner's speech about the injustice of slavery was fully justified. By tolerating slavery - with all of its abuses and injustices - southern "gentlemen" betrayed that they knew nothing of real honor. An honorable person is humble enough to recognize truth when criticized and honorable enough to admit it when he is wrong. Preston Brooks and all of his supporters (past and present) continually and arrogantly err by refusing to humbly admit the truth when the truth exposes their own wickedness. The Bible has a lot to say about the vanity, pride, and arrogance of men, who continually and stubbornly suppress the truth of God (Romans 1). And what did those proud arrogant bastards do to the prophets who confronted them with the truth? They killed them. As they did the prophets, Christ, Stephen, and many of the apostles.

    I despise your defense of Brooks' "honor." The man had no honor.

  16. Preston Brooks was a chickenshit coward who had no honor and sucker-caned Charles Sumner. He deserved the horribly painful death he suffered in 1857. The whole whole idea of Southern honor is laughable. Stealing peoples' labor and raping and whipping them is not honorable, it's the definition of dishonorable. Nor, was the atrocities that followed the Civil War perpetrated on black people. The mistake the Northern states made after the Civil War was not arming the freedmen with surplus cavalry repeating carbines.

  17. Preston Brooks was a chickenshit coward who had no honor and sucker-caned Charles Sumner. He deserved the horribly painful death he suffered in 1857. The whole whole idea of Southern honor is laughable. Stealing peoples' labor and raping and whipping them is not honorable, it's the definition of dishonorable. Nor, was the atrocities that followed the Civil War perpetrated on black people. The mistake the Northern states made after the Civil War was not arming the freedmen with surplus cavalry repeating carbines.

  18. Behold these imperial Yankee sentiments in the comments above, defending the obscenity of the abolitionists' insults by further outrageous statements of their own!
    In my estimation, people who have no honor are incapable of understanding those who do, so it follows that Sumner and his defenders fall into the former category.
    In regard to Preston Brooks failing to show for some duel in Canada, particularly since he knew the type of people he was dealing with were not above ambushing him in hostile territory, I'd done the exact same.
    In summary, your brash belligerent Senator Sumner got the comeuppance he so richly deserved, and you Yankee apologists obviously can't stand it! Hilarious!!

  19. Preston Brooks is hardly someone to venerate. His crime, and it was a crime, was nothing more than criminal assault and possibly attempted murder. How honorable was it to take Keitt who kept Senators from aiding Sumner by using a gun? Not very. Anson Burlingame called him what he was and Brooks challenged him. Unfortunately for Brooks, he apparently didn't realize that Burlingame was a crack shot and the thought of facing a Yankee who was able to fight back unnerved him. Charleston was a major sea port and Brooks could have easily gone to Canada by sea. He just didn't want to fight.

    Sumner could have easily moderated his remarks but that is no excuse to physically attack him. The actions of Preston Brooks showed him to be a man without honor.

  20. You're defense of this man is as pathetic as the cause you southerners fought for...slavery.

    You can revise history all you want, but it won't change the fact that y'all lost the war of Southern Aggression.

    Only regret is that they didn't hang each of your sorry ancestors as traitors.