Preston Brooks

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Preston Brooks
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from South Carolina's 4th district
In office
August 1, 1856 – January 27, 1857
Preceded byHimself
Succeeded byMilledge Bonham
In office
March 4, 1853 – July 15, 1856
Preceded byJohn McQueen
Succeeded byHimself
Member of the South Carolina House of Representatives
from the Edgefield County district
In office
November 25, 1844 – December 15, 1845
Personal details
Preston Smith Brooks

(1819-08-05)August 5, 1819
Edgefield County, South Carolina, U.S.
DiedJanuary 27, 1857(1857-01-27) (aged 37)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
EducationUniversity of South Carolina
Military service
Allegiance United States
Branch/service United States Army
Years of service1846–1848
CommandsPalmetto Regiment

Preston Smith Brooks (August 5, 1819 – January 27, 1857) was an American politician and member of the U.S. House of Representatives from South Carolina, serving from 1853 until his resignation in July 1856 and again from August 1856 until his death.

A member of the Democratic Party, Brooks was a strong advocate of slavery and states' rights to enforce slavery nationally. He is most remembered for his May 22, 1856 attack upon abolitionist and Republican Senator Charles Sumner, whom he beat nearly to death; Brooks beat Sumner with a cane on the floor of the United States Senate in retaliation for an anti-slavery speech in which Sumner verbally attacked Brooks's first cousin once removed,[1]: 7 [2] South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler.

Sumner was seriously injured by Brooks's beating, and was unable to resume his seat in the Senate for three years, though eventually he recovered and resumed his Senate career.[1]: 104  The Massachusetts Legislature reelected Sumner in 1856, "and let his seat sit vacant during his absence as a reminder of Southern brutality".[3]

An attempt to oust Brooks from the House of Representatives failed, and he received only token punishment in his criminal trial. He resigned his seat in July 1856 to allow his constituents to express their view on his conduct; they reelected him in the August special election to fill the vacancy created by his resignation. He was re-elected to a full term in November 1856, but died in January 1857, five weeks before the new term began in March.[4]

As described by historian Stephen Puleo, "The caning had an enormous impact on the events that followed over the next four years. ... As a result of the caning, the country was pushed, inexorably and unstoppably, to civil war."[5]

Early life[edit]

Brooks was born in Edgefield County, South Carolina, on August 5, 1819, the son of Whitfield Brooks and Mary Parsons Carroll Brooks.[6] He attended South Carolina College (now known as the University of South Carolina), but was expelled just before graduation for threatening local police officers with firearms.[7] After leaving college, he studied law, attained admission to the bar, and practiced in Edgefield.[8]

In addition to practicing law, Brooks owned a plantation located in Cambridge, between Edgefield and Ninety-Six. In 1840, Brooks fought a duel with future Texas Senator Louis T. Wigfall, and was shot in the hip, forcing him to use a walking cane for the rest of his life.[9] He was admitted to the Bar in 1845. Brooks served in the Mexican–American War as Captain of Company D of the Palmetto Regiment. South Carolina in the Mexican War notes the service of both Brooks and 4th Corporal Carey Wentworth Styles (who later founded The Atlanta Constitution) in Co. D, the "Old 96 Boys" of the Edgefield District.[10]


Brooks' first wife was Caroline Harper Means (1820–1843). They had one child, Whitfield D. Brooks, who was born in 1843 and died that same year. Brooks was widowed upon Caroline's death.[11]

Brooks' second wife was Martha Caroline Means (1826–1901), his first wife's cousin.[12] They had three children, Caroline Harper Brooks (1849–1924), Rosa Brooks (1849–1933),[13] and Preston Smith Brooks (1854–1928).[14] Martha outlived her husband.

Political career[edit]

He was a member of the South Carolina state House of Representatives in 1844. Brooks was elected to the 33rd United States Congress in 1853 as a Democrat. Like his fellow South Carolina Representatives and Senators, Brooks took an extreme pro-slavery position, asserting that the enslavement of black people by whites was right and proper, that any attack or restriction on slavery was an attack on the rights and the social structure of the South.

During Brooks's service as Representative, there was great controversy over slavery in Kansas Territory and whether Kansas would be admitted as a free or slave state. He supported actions by pro-slavery men from Missouri to make Kansas a slave territory. In March 1856, Brooks wrote: "The fate of the South is to be decided with the Kansas issue. If Kansas becomes a hireling [i.e., free] state, slave property will decline to half its present value in Missouri ... [and] abolitionism will become the prevailing sentiment. So with Arkansas; so with upper Texas."[15]

Sumner assault[edit]

On May 20, 1856, Senator Charles Sumner made a speech denouncing "The Crime Against Kansas" and the Southern leaders whom he regarded as complicit, including Brooks's first cousin once removed, Senator Andrew Butler.[1]: 7  Sumner compared Butler with Don Quixote for embracing a prostitute (slavery) as his mistress, saying Butler "believes himself a chivalrous knight".

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.[16]

Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, who was also a subject of criticism during the speech, suggested to a colleague while Sumner was orating that "this damn fool [Sumner] is going to get himself shot by some other damn fool."[17]

Sumner's language was intentionally inflammatory; Southerners often claimed that abolition would lead to intermarriage and miscegenation, arguing that abolitionists opposed slavery because they wanted to have sex with and marry black women.[18] Abolitionists reversed the argument by accusing Southerners of supporting slavery so they could make sexual use of slave women. As Hoffer (2010) says, "It is also important to note the sexual imagery that recurred throughout the oration, which was neither accidental nor without precedent. Abolitionists routinely accused slaveholders of maintaining slavery so that they could engage in forcible sexual relations with their slaves."[1]: 62 

Laurence M. Keitt

Brooks thought of challenging Sumner to a duel. He consulted with Representative Laurence M. Keitt (also a South Carolina Democrat) on dueling etiquette. Keitt said that dueling was for gentlemen of equal social standing. In his view, Sumner was no gentleman, no better than a drunkard due to his supposedly coarse and insulting language toward Butler.[19][20] Brooks then decided to "punish" Sumner with a public beating.

On May 22, two days after Sumner's speech, Brooks entered the Senate chamber in company with Keitt. Also with him was Representative Henry A. Edmundson (Democrat-Virginia), a personal friend with his own history of legislative violence. In May 1854, Edmundson had been arrested by the House Sergeant at Arms after attempting to attack Representative Lewis D. Campbell of Ohio during a tense debate on the House floor.[21]

J.L. Magee's famous political cartoon of the attack on Sumner

Brooks confronted Sumner, who was seated at his desk, writing letters. He said, "Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine." As Sumner began to stand up, Brooks hit Sumner over the head several times with his cane, made of thick gutta-percha with a gold head. Sumner was trapped under the heavy desk (which was bolted to the floor), but Brooks continued to strike Sumner until Sumner wrenched the desk from the floor in an attempt to escape.[1]: 9  By this time, Sumner was blinded by his own blood. He staggered up the aisle and collapsed unconscious.[1]: 9  Senator John J. Crittenden, Representative Ambrose Murray, and others attempted to restrain Brooks before he killed Sumner, but were blocked by Keitt, who brandished a pistol and shouted at the onlookers to leave Brooks and Sumner alone.[1]: 9 [22] Brooks continued beating Sumner until the cane broke, then quietly left the chamber with Keitt and Edmundson.[1]: 10  Brooks required medical attention before leaving the Capitol, because he had hit himself above his right eye with one of his backswings.[1]: 10 

Sumner suffered head trauma that would cause him chronic pain and symptoms consistent with what would now be called traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, and spent three years convalescing before returning to his Senate seat. He suffered chronic pain and debilitation for the rest of his life.[23]

After the attack[edit]

The national reaction to Brooks's attack was sharply divided along regional lines. In Congress, members in both houses armed themselves when they ventured onto the floor.[24] At no time, between the incident and his death, did Brooks apologize for the attack. In his speech to the House of Representatives announcing his resignation on June 14, 1856, Brooks insisted that he had behaved honorably and condemned any efforts to censure or punish him for his behavior.[25]

Brooks was widely cheered across the South, where his attack on Sumner was seen as a legitimate and socially justifiable act. South Carolinians sent Brooks dozens of new canes, with one bearing the phrase, "Good job"; another cane was inscribed "Hit him again." The Richmond Enquirer wrote: "We consider the act good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequences. These vulgar abolitionists in the Senate must be lashed into submission." The University of Virginia's Jefferson Literary and Debating Society sent a new gold-headed cane to replace Brooks's broken one. Southern lawmakers made rings out of the original cane's remains, which they wore on neck chains to show their solidarity with Brooks.[26]

In contrast, Northerners, even those previously opposed to Sumner's extreme abolitionist invective, were universally shocked by Brooks's violence.[citation needed] Anti-slavery men cited it as evidence that the South had lost interest in national debate, and now relied on "the bludgeon, the revolver, and the bowie-knife" to display their feelings, and silence their opponents.[citation needed] J. L. Magee's political cartoon famously expressed the general Northern sentiment that the South's vaunted chivalry had degenerated into "Argument versus Clubs".

American Party Congressman Anson Burlingame publicly humiliated Brooks in retaliation by goading Brooks into challenging him to a duel, accepting, then watching Brooks back out.[27] After Burlingame made provocative remarks, Brooks challenged Burlingame, stating he would gladly face him in any "Yankee mudsill" of his choosing.[28] Burlingame, a well-known marksman, eagerly accepted, choosing rifles as the weapons and the Navy Yards in the border town of Niagara Falls, Canada, as the location in order to circumvent the U.S. ban on dueling.[27] Brooks, reportedly dismayed by both Burlingame's enthusiastic acceptance and reputation as a crack shot, backed out by citing unspecified risks to his safety if he was to cross "hostile country" (the Northern states) in order to reach Canada.[27][29]

Brooks claimed that he "meant no disrespect to the Senate of the United States" by attacking Sumner, and also that he had not intended to kill Sumner, or else he would have used a different weapon. Brooks was tried in a District of Columbia court for the attack. He was convicted of assault and was fined $300, though he was not incarcerated.[1]: 83 

A motion to expel Brooks from the House failed, but he resigned on July 15 to give his constituents the opportunity to ratify or condemn his conduct. They demonstrated their approval by returning him to office in the special election held on August 1, then elected him to a new term in November 1856.


Brooks died unexpectedly from a violent attack of croup on January 27, 1857, a few weeks before the March 4 start of the new congressional term to which he had been elected.[30] He was buried in Edgefield, South Carolina.[31] The official telegram announcing his death stated "He died a horrid death, and suffered intensely. He endeavored to tear his own throat open to get breath."[32] Despite terrible weather, thousands went to the Capitol to attend memorial services.[33] After his body was transported back to Edgefield, another large crowd took part in funeral ceremonies before he was buried.[34]


The city of Brooksville, Florida (created from the merger of the towns of Melendez and Pierceville),[35] and Brooks County, Georgia,[36] are named after Brooks, as was present-day Big Bend, West Virginia which was previously known as Brooksville, Virginia. All were named shortly after his caning of Sumner.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Hoffer, Williamjames Hull (2010). The Caning of Charles Sumner. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 978-0-8018-9469-5.
  2. ^ The relationship between Brooks and Butler is often reported inaccurately. "In reality, Brooks's father Whitfield Brooks, and Andrew Butler were first cousins." Mathis, Robert Neil (October 1978). "Preston Smith Brooks: The Man and His Image". The South Carolina Historical Magazine. 79 (4): 296–310. JSTOR 27567525.
  3. ^ "Canefight! Preston Brooks and Charles Sumner". Retrieved August 6, 2019.
  4. ^ Foreman, Amanda (2010). A World On Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War. New York: Random House. p. 34.
  5. ^ Puleo, Stephen (March 29, 2015). "The US Senate's darkest moment". Boston Globe Magazine. Boston, MA.
  6. ^ Deitreich, Kenneth A. (2019). The Short Life and Violent Times of Preston Smith Brooks. Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. pp. 13, 19. ISBN 978-1-5275-3143-7 – via Google Books.
  7. ^ Hollis, Daniel Walker (1951). University of South Carolina: South Carolina College. Vol. 1. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press. p. 139.
  8. ^ Deitreich, p. 34.
  9. ^ Deitreich, p. 53.
  10. ^ Jack Allen Meyer (1996). South Carolina in the Mexican War: A History of the Palmetto Regiment of Volunteers, 1846–1917. South Carolina Department of Archives and History. ISBN 9781880067352.
  11. ^ "Caroline Harper Means 1820–1843 – Ancestry®". Retrieved February 23, 2023.
  12. ^ Watson, Margaret J.; Watson, Henry Legare (1970). Greenwood County Sketches: Old Roads and Early Families. Attic Press. p. 165. ISBN 9780879210663.
  13. ^ "Virginia Death Records 1912-2014, Death Certificate for Rosa Brooks McBee". Provo, UT: LLC. September 24, 1933. Retrieved March 11, 2016.
  14. ^ "Tennessee Death Records 1908–1958, Death Certificate for Preston S. Brooks". Provo, UT: LLC. July 6, 1929. Retrieved March 11, 2016.
  15. ^ McPherson, James M. (1989). Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 149. ISBN 978-0-19-503863-7.
  16. ^ Charles Sumner, Memoir and Letters of Charles Sumner: 1845–1860 edited by Edward Pierce (1893) Page 446 online
  17. ^ Lockwood, John and Charles. The Siege of Washington (2011) p. 98
  18. ^ Przybyszewski, Linda (1999). The Republic According to John Marshall Harlan. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. p. 111. ISBN 9780807824931.
  19. ^ "The Compromise of 1850, The Kansas/Nebraska Act, Dred Scott, and John Brown's Raid". Academic Outreach. University of Alabama. Archived from the original on September 27, 2011. Retrieved July 16, 2011.
  20. ^ "Bleeding Congress". History Engine. University of Richmond. Retrieved July 16, 2011..
  21. ^ Ford, James. History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850: 1850–1854. p. 486
  22. ^ Gugliotta, Guy (2012). Freedom's Cap: The United States Capitol and the Coming of the Civil War. Hill and Wang. p. 237. ISBN 9780809046812.
  23. ^ Mitchell, Thomas G. Anti-slavery politics in antebellum and Civil War America (2007) p. 95
  24. ^ Maury Klein (1999). Days of Defiance: Sumter, Secession, and the Coming of the Civil War. Knopf Doubleday. p. 50. ISBN 9780679768821.
  25. ^ "On his assault on Charles Sumner – Wikisource, the free online library".
  26. ^ Puleo, 102, 114–115
  27. ^ a b c Brady, Tim (Winter 1997). "Anson Burlingame: Diplomat, Orator" (PDF). JAAER: The Journal of Aviation/Aerospace Education and Research. Daytona Beach, FL: Embry-Riddke Aeronautical University. p. 17.
  28. ^ "Obituary: Hon. Anson Burlingame". The Daily Evening Telegraph. Philadelphia, PA. February 23, 1870. p. 4 – via
  29. ^ Walsh, Warren B. (May 1945). "The Beginnings of the Burlingame Mission". The Far Eastern Quarterly. Vol. 4, no. 4. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. pp. 274–277.
  30. ^ "Death of Preston S. Brooks". Washington Evening Star. Washington, DC. January 28, 1857. p. 2.
  31. ^ Spencer, Thomas E. (1998). Where They're Buried. Baltimore, MD: Clearfield Company. p. 298. ISBN 978-0-8063-4823-0.
  32. ^ Sumner, Charles (1871). The Works of Charles Sumner. Vol. 4. Boston: Lee and Shepard. p. 271.
  33. ^ Stampp, Kenneth M. (1990). America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 17. ISBN 978-0-19-503902-3.
  34. ^ America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink.
  35. ^ "History of Brooksville". City of Brooksville. Archived from the original on May 8, 2020. Retrieved May 20, 2010.
  36. ^ "Brooks County Courthouse". GeorgiaInfo. Digital Library of Georgia. Retrieved May 20, 2010.


  • Hoffer, Williamjames Hull (2010). The Caning of Charles Sumner: Honor, Idealism, and the Origins of the Civil War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 978-0-8018-9468-8. (160 pages).
  • Puleo, Stephen (2012). The Caning: The Assault That Drove America to Civil War. Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing LLC. ISBN 978-1-59416-516-0. (374 pages).

External links[edit]

U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from South Carolina's 4th congressional district

Succeeded by
Preceded by
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from South Carolina's 4th congressional district

Succeeded by