Linda Brooks Davis

Politics, Yesterday and Today

I can’t watch the news for long. Not when it’s about politics. Gets my dander up. My imagination wanders to places it has no business as a Christian—except to prayer. Politics, yesterday and today, can get most anyone’s dander up. 2 resource/cph.3g12608/ (Public Domain)

Political elections, particularly presidential, are a grim reality of the present, as they were in the past. So are congressional disagreements and political infighting. But as heated as speeches, interviews, and press conferences can become today, we have yet to witness what South Carolinian, U.S. Representative Preston S. Brooks, one of my distant cousins, perpetrated on Senator Charles Sumner in the U.S. Congress on May 22, 1856. 

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Per an account of the event at, Republican Senator Sumner of Massachusetts, an avowed Abolitionist, gave a bitter speech in the Senate after the sack of Lawrence, Kansas on May 21, 1856 in which he blasted the “murderous robbers from Missouri,” calling them “hirelings, picked from the drunken spew and vomit of an uneasy civilization.” Part of his speech was a bitter, personal tirade against South Carolina’s Senator Andrew Butler whom Sumner declared  an imbecile. “Senator Butler has chosen a mistress. I mean the harlot, slavery.” Stephen Douglas predicted that a fool like Sumner would likely get himself killed by another fool. The speech went on for two days and another two days passed before the prediction proved true.

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Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina was a Southerner raised to live by an unwritten code of honor. Defending the reputation of one’s family was at the top of the list. As a distant cousin of Senator Butler, Brooks entered the Senate chamber where Sumner was working at his desk. “You’ve libeled my state and slandered my white-haired old relative, Senator Butler, and I’ve come to punish you for it.” Brooks struck Sumner over the head repeatedly with a gold-tipped cane. The cane shattered as Brooks administered blow after blow on Sumner, but Brooks could not be stopped. Only after being physically restrained did Brooks end the pummeling.

Northerners were incensed. The House levied Brooks a $300 fine for the assault when they were unable to garner the votes to expel him. He resigned and returned home where South Carolina held events in his honor and reelected him to his House seat. Replacement canes were sent to Brooks from all over the south. This response outraged northern moderates even more than the caning itself. (Shades of politics today?)

The physical and psychological injuries from the caning kept Charles Sumner away from the Senate for most of the next several years. The voters of Massachusetts reelected him and let his seat sit vacant during his absence as a reminder of southern brutality. The violence from Kansas had spilled over into politics in the national legislature.

Which brings me back to politics today. Sure enough, what’s old is new. We’ve seen via news and online clips the brawls that have erupted in legislative bodies in countries around the world. And outside peaceful political gatherings in the U.S. We’ve seen the extremes to which political and religious fanaticism has taken some. And we’ve turned off our TVs to find peace amid the turmoil. But so far we haven’t seen a physical attack in the U.S. Congress since the one perpetrated by one of my very distant Brooks relatives. 

Lord, deliver us from such. (And keep the canes out of Congress!)

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