To Vindicate and Rebuke: The House Majority Report

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 passed Preston Brooks’ assault of Charles Sumner over to the House, which had jurisdiction over him. The House had a committee already in place on the subject, which in due course delivered a minority and majority report. The minority agreed with the main facts of the case: Brooks came into the Senate and attacked Sumner, doing him harm in response to his speech about Kansas. They didn’t quite admit that Sumner suffered potentially lethal blows, but otherwise disputed nothing. Yet the minority believed that the House should do nothing whatsoever to discipline Brooks. The matter should just drop, as if nothing happened.

The majority felt strongly otherwise. They held that Sumner endured the “considerable violence” of Brooks

striking him numerous blows on or about the head with a walking stick, which cut his head, and disabled him for the time being from attending to his duties in the Senate.

The majority admitted that they couldn’t prove that Brooks meant to kill Sumner. No one gave any testimony to that effect and he did stop when told not to kill the Senator, albeit at the same time he was wrestling with another House member who made continuing more difficult. The committee deemed the assault premeditated, on the basis of Henry Edmundson’s testimony, and considered it

an aggravated assault upon the inestimable right of freedom of speech guarantied by the Constitution. It asserts for physical force a prerogative over governments, constitutions, and laws; and, if carried to its ultimate consequences, must result in anarchy and bring in its train all the evils of a “reign of terror.”

Lawrence Keitt (D-SC)

In response to all that, the House must pass “such a resolution as will vindicate its own character and rebuke the member who has, so unhappily for himself and the country, perpetrated this great wrong.” That required more than just going after Brooks, though. The majority didn’t believe anyone else had joined in the attack itself or plotted to do so, nor the precise when and where of Brooks’ intentions, but others did know that something would happen and so shared in some responsibility for it. They found that Edmundson and Lawrence Keitt had advance knowledge of the general time and place for the assault, which Edmundson’s testimony supports. Keitt sat in the chamber waiting and rushed to protect Brooks from interference when the cane struck Sumner’s skull.

Taking it all together, the majority recommended two resolutions. The House must expel Brooks for his crime and furthermore “declare its disapprobation of the said act of Henry A. Edmundson and Lawrence M. Keitt in regard to the said assault.” The latter would amount to some kind of censure, after which custom would probably require Edmundson and Keitt to resign their seats.

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