In the run-up to the Civil War, violence between pro- and anti-slavery forces flared up repeatedly, especially in places like the Kansas Territory.
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In May 1856 Charles Sumner of Massachusetts made a speech in the Senate about “Bleeding Kansas.” He condemned the “rape of a Virgin Territory” and attacked Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina for taking as his mistress, “the harlot, Slavery.”
Two days later, as Sumner sat writing at his desk in the Senate chamber, Butler’s nephew, Representative Preston Brooks, attacked him with a thick, gold-headed cane.
Attempting to rise, Sumner was knocked down and trapped under the desk, bolted to the floor, where the relentless assault continued. Finally, blinded by his own blood, Sumner ripped the desk from the floor and staggered up the aisle.
Other senators tried to stop the attack, but South Carolina Representative Laurence Keitt held them off with a pistol. Even after Sumner lapsed into unconsciousness, Butler kept up the savage pummeling until his cane broke.
Sumner did not return to the Senate for 3 years. Keitt was censured while Brooks was expelled from the House of Representatives and fined $300. Supporters sent him dozens of new canes, and voters promptly returned him to Congress.
I spoke with Tony Horwitz, author of “Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War,” on the following topics:
1. Southern Power
2. Abolitionist Hero
3. Guns & Money
4. Bloody Rebellion
5. Brown’s Prophecy
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(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)