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Emotions Boil Over, 1856

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

History of Congress and the Capitol

The Senate 1851-1877

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Arguments of The Chivalry, by...
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Arguments of The Chivalry, by Winslow Homer, 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

 

Arguments of The Chivalry, by Winslow Homer, 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

 

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