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Bleeding Sumner
Digital History ID 306

Author:   Charles Sumner


On May 19, 1856--two days before the "sack of Lawrence"--Senator Charles Sumner (1811-1874) of Massachusetts began a two-day speech in which he denounced "The Crime Against Kansas." Sumner charged that there was a southern conspiracy to make Kansas a slave state, and proceeded to argue that a number of southern senators, including Andrew Butler (1796-1857) of South Carolina, stood behind this conspiracy. Launching into a bitter personal diatribe, Sumner accused the elderly Senator Butler of taking "the harlot, Slavery," for his "mistress."

Two days later, Butler's nephew, Congressman Preston Brooks (1819-1857) of South Carolina, entered a nearly empty Senate chamber determined to "avenge the insult to my State." Sighting Sumner at his desk, Brooks charged at him and began striking the Massachusetts senator over the head with a cane. He swung repeatedly and so hard that the cane broke into pieces.

Although it took Sumner three years to fully recover from his injuries and return to his Senate seat, he promptly became a martyr to the cause of freedom in the North, where a million copies of his "Crime Against Kansas" speech were distributed. In the South, Brooks was hailed as a hero. Merchants in Charleston bought the congressman a new gold-headed cane, inscribed "Hit him again." A vote to expel Brooks from Congress failed because every southern representative but one voted against the measure. Instead, Brooks was censured. He promptly resigned his seat and was immediately reelected.

While recuperating from head injuries, Sumner wrote the following note describing his belief that the slave power was seeking to make slavery a national institution.


You are right in your present sentiments against slavery. Unless this atrocious interest is checked the liberty of white as well as black in our country will become a name only.

Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute

Additional information: Charles Sumner to Henry E. Rees

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