Dome Restoration Project Necessitates Rotunda Closure April 12 through April 28. Click here for more information.
Tensions ran high over the question of slavery in the Western territories when Senator Charles Sumner rose to speak in 1856. The Massachusetts abolitionist let loose a fiery speech, denouncing expansion of slavery into Kansas. He attacked pro-slavery opponents by name—including Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina.
Several days later, on May 22, Representative Preston Brooks, a relative of Butler’s, found Sumner sitting at his Senate desk. Raising his gold-headed walking stick, Brooks struck the Massachusetts senator repeatedly. Badly wounded, Sumner was unable to return to the Senate full-time for three years. His empty desk stood as a powerful symbol of the increasing North–South antagonism, an omen of the looming Civil War. Brooks resigned his House seat but was immediately reelected— then died shortly after.
"Sir, to assail a member of the Senate ... 'for words spoken in debate,' is a grave offense."
—Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, May 23, 1856
Here, Representative Preston Brooks prepares to assault Senator Charles Sumner in May 1856. Brooks’s colleague warns bystanders not to interfere.
Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
After he attacked Senator Sumner, Representative Brooks was regarded as a hero in the South. This engraved silver goblet was a gift to Brooks from his home district in Edgefield, South Carolina.
Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, Behring Center
This porcelain sculpture, by John D. Perry, depicts the Massachusetts senator at his Senate Chamber desk.
Collection of The Newark Museum, Gift of Miss Sara Carr, 1924