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Sumner vs. Brooks Silver Goblet, ca. 1856

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

Sumner vs. Brooks Silver Goblet, ca. 1856

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