The House Committee Acts

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

The Caning, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10, 11, 1213, 14, 15

The House report on the caning

The Senate formed a select committee on the assault of Charles Sumner. The committee, which had not a single Republican on it, ruled that Brooks had done a bad thing indeed but they had no rightful power to punish him for it. That power lay with the House of Representatives, as a coequal chamber. The Senate passed the buck, as the committee judged it constitutionally obligated, on May 28, 1856.

The House didn’t wait for the Senate. Its Know-Nothing/Republican/anti-Nebraska Opposition coalition voted a committee into existence on May 23, the day after Brooks broke his cane on Sumner’s head. On Saturday, the next day, the committee began its business by inviting Brooks to participate:

an order extending to you the privilege of appearing before it during the examination of witnesses, to suggest such questions as you may desire to have propounded by them

If Brooks had witnesses that wouldn’t cooperate, the committee placed their subpoena power at his service.

Sumner received a somewhat different missive. The committee understood that his “condition was somewhat critical” and forwarded their letter through his doctor. They explained their task and told him that they would meet properly on Monday, May 26, at 1 PM in the Ways and Means room. Sumner

will be expected to meet it whenever your attending physicians may deem it prudent that you should do so, to testify in the premises.

Brooks received a rather conciliatory letter, offering him options to defend himself. Sumner got a straight-up summons. The committee had a partisan makeup favorable to Sumner and would act as a prosecution on his behalf, so the tone seems odd. One would expect more solicitousness of Sumner than Brooks, but then Sumner would surely cooperate. Brooks might not, though he did recommend one witness in the end.

The committee did have some sympathy for Sumner’s frailty, though. They forwarded him the question they would ask in advance and invited him to prepare a statement in his boarding house. He could submit that as testimony and only have to answer directly in cross-examination. A note attached, told Dr. Boyle that he should present the letter to Sumner “the sooner the better” but only if he felt Sumner up to dealing with the affair.

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Consideration extended to interviewing Sumner at his boarding house, though not without controversy. Howell Cobb moved that the chairman, Lewis Campbell of Ohio, call on Sumner and see if he could show up. If Sumner couldn’t just then, Campbell should find out when he might. The committee member who suggested going to Sumner then told them that Sumner essentially invited them to come over at 1:30 that day. The voted and Cobb’s measure lost.

And the committee thereupon proceeded to the lodgings of Mr. Sumner; Mr. Campbell having fist invited Mr. Brooks to proceed with them, and Mr. Brooks having declined.

Campbell must have invited Brooks in reference to his right to cross-examine witnesses. That the South Carolinian declined avoided an obviously tense, and likely traumatic, experience.


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