Sumner in 1865

When Kansas sent a pro-slavery constitution to Congress to become a state, Sumner again jumped into action. He again opposed Stephen Douglas, believing that the convention which wrote the Constitution was not freely elected. One historian wrote:

Certain that Douglas’s picture of events in Kansas was totally incorrect, Sumner did not pause to consider that his own version of happenings on that remote frontier might be equally distorted. Like the rest of the senators, he was unaware that the Kansas struggle involved not merely freedom and slavery, but also land speculations, bitter rivalries over the location of the territory capital, and personal ambitions of would-be congressmen from the territory.1

Sumner began to prepare a speech called Crime Against Kansas to oppose this constitution. Over the last few years, his support from his home state had come and gone. Massachusetts loved his long and passionate orations against slavery. Sumner would be coming up for re-election soon, so he was driven to write this speech to please the people of his state. He included very harsh personal attacks on fellow Senators, because his constituents loved those as well. In his multi-hour speech given on May 19th and 20th, 1856, he pushed for Kansas to be immediately admitted to the Union as a free state. He went on to deal with what he called Slave Power, a conspiracy of sorts, to enslave the North one step at a time. He said this:

The wickedness which I now begin to expose is immeasurably aggravated by the motive which prompted it. Not in any common lust for power did this uncommon tragedy have its origin. It is the rape of a virgin Territory, compelling it to the hateful embrace of Slavery; and it may be clearly traced to a depraved desire for a new Slave State, hideous offspring of such a crime, in the hope of adding to the power of Slavery in the National Government. Yes, Sir, when the whole world, alike Christian and Turk, is rising up to condemn this wrong, making it a hissing to the nations, here in our Republic, force — ay, Sir, FORCE — is openly employed in compelling Kansas to this pollution, and all for the sake of political power. There is the simple fact, which you will vainly attempt to deny, but which in itself presents an essential wickedness that makes other public crimes seem like public virtues.2

Sumner also blazed with insults for his opponents, especially Stephen Douglas and Andrew Butler of South Carolina. When he was finished, Louis Cass pronounced Sumner’s speech “the most un-American and unpatriotic that ever grated on the ears of the members of this high body.”3

Caning of Sumner

Bleeding Kansas

The South was very angry at Sumner’s speech, especially Preston Brooks, a Congressman from South Carolina. He was a moderate, but he was angry that Sumner had “insulted South Carolina and Judge Butler grossly.”4 Butler was his cousin, and after waiting to read the published version of Sumner’s speech, he decided that according to the South’s code of honor, he needed to physically punish Sumner for his vicious attacks upon his relative and state. Brooks decided not to challenge Sumner to a duel because he did not see him as his social equal. Sumner was stronger than Brooks, so Brooks decided to beat him with his wooden cane. Just after the Senate adjourned on May 22nd, Brooks approached Sumner who was writing at his desk. After waiting for all the women to leave the chamber, Brooks told 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.” He poked Sumner with the cane to give notice of the attack, and then as Sumner brought up his hands to guard against the attack, began to beat him with his cane. As he was being struck, Sumner attempted to stand and ripped the desk out of the floor before staggering back as Brooks beat him as hard as he could. The cane quickly shattered, and in a minute it was over, and Sumner was left on the ground, unconscious and covered in blood.

Preston Brooks

There were two vastly different reactions to this “Bleeding Sumner” as it was called. The North saw the attack as the South turning the violence they used upon slaves upon an innocent politician. The South saw it as justified reply to the verbal attacks. One historian has said:

In Southern parlance, Preston Brooks had inflicted a caning, or a whipping, upon the blackguard Sumner in order to chastise him for his unprovoked insults to the hoary-headed Senator Butler and for his foul-mouthed denunciation of South Carolina. … He acted not for political reasons, but solely to redress a personal wrong. In caning Sumner, he neither violated the privileges of the Senate nor broke the constitutional guarantee of free speech to congressmen. His weapon was nothing but a common walking stick, such as gentlemen frequently use. … Though Sumner suffered only flesh wounds, he absented himself from the Senate because of the mortification of feeling and wounded pride. Brooks, with conspicuous gallantry, promptly reappeared in the House of Representatives, ready to face all accusers.

In Northern language, the affair bore an entirely different aspect. Bully Brooks had made a brutal assault upon Sumner with a bludgeon. The act had no provocation; on the contrary, Sumner for years had silently endured a harsh stream of unparliamentary personalities from Butler and other defenders of slave power. The alleged cause of the assault, Sumner’s speech, was marked by the classic purity of its language and the nobility of its sentiments. … Brooks was the mere tool of the slave-holding oligarchy. … Though Sumner courageously tried to defend himself, the ruffian took advantage of his defenseless position and of the surprise, beat Sumner senseless, and continued to strike him after he collapsed on the floor.5

Charles Sumner remained out of the Senate for the next three years because of alleged health problems. Although his wounds were not serious and healed relatively quickly, he continued to suffer many problems. He believed that he had suffered brain damage because of the severe beating, but that is unlikely. He was probably experiencing what is called today post-traumatic stress disorder. Over the three years, he spent much time in Europe and seemed to be mostly healed, but when he tried to resume his duties, his symptoms reappeared. He underwent a very painful treatment which was supposed to fix his damaged spinal cord, which involved severely burning the skin upon his back. Although doctors then and now would say that this treatment had no medical effect, it worked as a placebo and his symptoms did not return.

Sumner in 1873


When he resumed his Senate seat in 1859, the Republican party had begun to focus on issues other than abolitionism. Sumner, who wished to preserve the rabidly antislavery tone of the party, prepared another of his vicious attacks on slavery. Called the Barbarism of Slavery, it contained even more violent language towards the South than his previous speeches. Most of the Republicans believed that in giving it he had gone overboard. James Grimes of Iowa said, “[I]t sounded harsh, vindictive, and slightly brutal…. His speech has done the Republicans no good.” Charles Sumner had no desire to attempt a compromise with slavery. Instead, he launched harsh and offensive attacks on the South. He was “the most perfect impersonation of what the South wanted to secede from.”6 When the first states began to secede, Sumner would make no compromises to prevent a civil war. He worked to defeat efforts such as the Crittenden Compromise, which he believed compromised his abolitionist principles. Sumner was very influential as one of the leaders of the Republican party.

Sumner continued in the senate for the rest of his life. Throughout the Civil War, Sumner was in a position of influence in the Senate. One congressman said, “Sumner’s influence is very potential – more than any body’s else put together.”7 He was a part of the radical Republicans and wanted Lincoln to immediately emancipate the slaves. After the war, he pushed for black suffrage and other civil rights. Sumner married Alice Hooper in 1866 at the age of 55. However, they separated within a year and were eventually divorced, which was very rare for the time. Sumner died of a heart attack on March 11, 1874.

Sumner’s Grave. Source.

1Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War by David Herbert Donald (Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks Inc, 2009), p. 234-235.
2The Works of Charles Sumner (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1875) vol. 4, p. 140.
3Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War, p. 240.
4Ibid, p. 243.
5Ibid, p. 258-259.
6As quoted in Ibid, p. vii.
7Ibid, p. 320.