Groans for Brooks and Cheers for Sumner

The New York Herald reports on the indignation meeting

The House committee delivered its report on Charles Sumner’s caning on June 2, 1856. They advised that the House expel Preston Brooks for wielding the cane and censure Henry Edmundson and Lawrence Keitt as accessories. The committee took a week to the day from their first business meeting to deliver that report. While they investigated, the American public made up their minds. A public indignation meeting at New York’s Tabernacle drew “tremendous” numbers of who gave “groans for Brooks and cheers for Sumner.” The crowd filled the venue long before its scheduled start, all men “with the exception of one or two” women. The throng “jammed up” the aisles so you couldn’t get in or out. People stood on the backs of seats so they could see the speaker’s platform.

The multitude came in response to this public notice:

The undersigned, in view of the vital necessity of preserving unimpaired freedom of discussion in our national Legislature, the equal rights of the several States therein, and the inviolability of their representatives “for any speech or debate in either house” as guaranteed by the constitution of the United States, all of which have been stricken down by the late assault on the Hon. Charles Sumner

New York understood the caning as Henry Wilson had. A Senator, in the Senate, suffered a physical attack for words spoken there in debate. Brooks broke his cane over Sumner’s head, but in so doing he also broke it over the Constitution, over self-government itself.

Like any good public meeting, this one had resolutions to express the will of the community. They began by

sincerely and respectfully tender[ing] our sympathies to Senator Sumner in the personal outrage inflicted upon him, and the anguish and peril which he has suffered and still suffers from that outrage, and that we feel and proclaim that his grievance and wounds are not of private concern, but were received in the public service; and every blow which fell upon his head we recognize and resent as an insult and injury to our honor and dignity as a people, and a vital attack upon the constitution of the Union.

Here the authors found a vision of popular sovereignty not moored to proslavery politics, unlike that territorial settlement that heralded these woes. The people, or rather the white men, of America ruled. An attack on their representatives constituted an attack on them themselves. What Brooks did to Sumner, he did to all of them by proxy and they would not suffer it in silence.

Furthermore, they made it clear that the concern cut across partisan lines:

we express and imply no opinion on the political merits of the public debate which preceded this occurrence, and make no account whatever of the respective States whose public servants have thus been brought into contact; that Mr. Sumner is a member of the Senate of the United States, and Mr. Brooks a member of the House of Representatives of the United States and we speak our minds as citizens of the United States, comprehending the great and essential elements of public freedom on which our national character and safety depend.

If one could poll the meeting about Sumner’s speech, or about antislavery in general, one might not like the results. New York had close economic and political ties to the South for almost its entire history. New York ships carried most of the cotton to Europe. New York banks financed plantations and wrote loans on slave collateral.

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Brooks assault overcame those concerns. In raising the issues of national character and safety, New York asked if republican government could endure. If it could not, what came next? For years antislavery Americans warned of a proslavery despotism that would rule white men as it did black, bloody lash in hand. The prophecy came true with the Fugitive Slave Act, but most of the suffering extracted through that law still adhered to black Americans. White Americans could generally shift uncomfortably, occasionally exert themselves in rescues, and muddle through. Brooks did something more, something personal. If a proslavery man could attack a Senator in the Senate itself, not only where he should expect safety but where the Constitution guaranteed it, then none of them could hope for it.

 

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The Coming Purge

Gentle Readers, it appears likely that Donald Trump will announce the end of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals today. He may have done so by the time you read this. The president of the Electoral College has done many deeply disturbing things in his few months in office, enough to last a reasonable country for at least a few decades. He has applauded Klansmen and Nazis. He has tried to ban an entire religion from entering the country. He has tried to ensure more than ten thousand people die every year for lack of access to affordable health care. Now he has higher ambitions.

Let me explain. Barack Obama established DACA in 2012 to help people who came to the United States as children. They arrived and remained illegally, always unsure of their safety and security, because their parents fled with them from horrors back home. They risked traveling vast distances and placed themselves and their families in the hands of criminal syndicates known for torture, murder, and rape in order to come to the US without our leave. One does not do this lightly; economic opportunity doesn’t draw people to such extremes. They deemed what they faced in their prior homes so terrible for themselves and their children that they took those risks. If we believed our national creeds, we would call them heroes.

DACA permits children who came to the US this way to legally remain, work, and study here. To get that right, they had to report themselves and risk deportation to horrors unknown to them for most of their lives. It took a breathtaking act of faith for almost eight hundred thousand undocumented immigrants, Americans in everything but name, to come forward that way. The government vetted them for criminal history and national security before approving their status. That bought them two years safe from deportation, with a renewal option thereafter if they paid a fee. It gave these people a security they hadn’t had before and, by making their status legal, protected them from the exploitation inherent in not having recourse to the police.

Undocumented immigrants to the United States don’t usually come from rich countries full of white people. Rich countries, by pillaging poor countries, have usually bought themselves plenty of stability. Most DACA recipients hail from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. According to our racial theories, they don’t get to claim whiteness. It doesn’t matter that they’re ordinary people just like the rest of us and the United States is their only home. They have the wrong color written all over them, so they must go.

I don’t know how this will all transpire, but ending DACA puts eight hundred thousand people on notice that they may be thrown out of their homes. In many cases, they will be forced back into the dangers that their parents tried to spare them from. Some will muddle through, but people will suffer and die from this. When other countries do forced population transfers with reckless disregard for life, we call it crimes against humanity. Consistency demands we do the same here. Americans have had pogroms and genocides before, but until recently we seem to have been dragging ourselves kicking and screaming away from them. We can’t say that anymore. Forcing DACA recipients into these dire situations isn’t an accident of the policy or an unforeseen outcome; it’s the goal.

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.

“Improper to express any opinion” The House Minority Report

Howell Cobb

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

The House report on the caning

The Senate committee on the caning of Charles Sumner passed the matter over to the House of Representatives, which had the sole power to judge and punish its own members. The House had already acted, forming a committee that investigated thoroughly. They questioned Sumner in his room, in deference to his delicate condition, and invited Brooks to participate for his own defense. Brooks recommended one witness but otherwise appears to have taken no part. The committee’s majority found essentially as we have already seen.

Nor did the minority disputed the essential facts: Brooks took offense at Sumner’s speech and caned him. The minority differed chiefly in offering lengthy quotes from The Crime Against Kansaswhich the report makes superfluous by including the full text. They stood silent on the majority’s claim that Brooks struck with a lethal weapon, instead declaring that Sumner suffered “repeated and severe blows.”

Then the minority started lawyering their way out of doing anything. Since the Constitution forged a government of limited powers, no house of Congress could have some faculty it did not grant. Those didn’t include any talk about general privileges of the Senate or House, let alone that each chamber had a sovereign right to declare its own. If one read the Constitution that way,

then the House has the power to declare that an act committed to-day, which is in violation of no provision of the Constitution, no law of the land, no rule of the House, and which is therefore, so far as the citizen may be informed, innocent in itself, a violation and a breach of its privileges, and to inflict punishment for the same.

On paper, that all makes good sense. No part of the government should have infinite, unaccountable power. Reading it in context does the minority few favors. They have argued, in essence, that since the House lacks a rule against assaulting a Senator it can’t do anything about Brooks. If they wanted to change things, then the majority should use that standard rejoinder of politicians who pretend openness to change while opposing it to the utmost: amend the Constitution. At most, Brooks should face some kind of ordinary legal case.

One could make a fair argument that the House of Representatives should not try its members for offenses, but the Constitution gave it wide power to set rules for just that purpose. It had, in fact, tried John Quincy Adams for his conduct, albeit conduct on the floor. There are genuine reasons to look askance at a legislature making itself into a general purpose court for offenses not specifically against its rules or which take place beyond its walls. If a Senator today ran over someone with his car, we wouldn’t expect the Senate to convene and subpoena his blood alcohol level. One could also argue that no one foresaw a member of one chamber launching a physical assault on a member of another and the extraordinary circumstances warranted more consideration than the minority gave them.

Howell Cobb and Alfred Greenwood, the minority, concluded that

neither House has any privileges except those which are written and declared in either the Constitution or some law or rule passed in pursuance thereof, and that the facts developed by the evidence show no violation of any such written and recognized privileges

Thus they recommended to the full House a resolution that it had no jurisdiction and “deem it improper to express any opinion on the subject.”

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.

 

The Senate Committee’s Verdict

Henry Wilson (R-MA)

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

The House report on the caning

Henry Wilson got his action, of a sort. He demanded that the Senate do something about Preston Brooks caning Charles Sumner. At first no one rose to take up his suggestion that they form an investigatory committee, but then William Seward introduced a resolution to that effect. After a minor amendment, the Senate approved. The committee went to work sometime thereafter, delivering its report on May 28, six days after the attack.

The committee, unsurprisingly, agreed that Brooks had caned Sumner in response to words Sumner spoke on the floor of the Senate. They opted not to comment on “the various circumstances which preceded and attended this affair.” Instead, they reported looking into precedent. They had to scour the journals of the House of Representatives, as the Senate had no previous occasion to weigh in on such an event. The record held “an assault upon a member for words spoken in debate to be a violation of the privileges of the House.”

James Mason

So Brooks warranted some kind of disciplinary action. There the Senators found a difficulty. His attack upon Sumner “was a breach of the privileges of the Senate” yet “not within the jurisdiction of the Senate, and can only be punished by the House of Representatives, of which Mr. Brooks is a member.”

To support that conclusion, the committee referred to British precedent that made the houses of Parliament equals and independent of one another “in every respect.” As independent equals, neither house could exert authority over the other. Thomas Jefferson agreed in his parliamentary manual, holding that in such occasions the offended chamber should complain to the other or redress. As a member of the House, only the House could judge and punish Brooks.

The Senate might have gotten right on that, at least for the sake of maintaining the forms. The matter came almost to a vote, but then James Mason objected again. He noted

the honorable Senator from South Carolina, [Mr. Butler,] who may feel, and probably does feel, an interest in this matter, is not in his seat. he has not been in the Senate to-day, I believe; I have not seen him. I think it would be better, therefore, to allow it to lie over. I do not know that he has any opinions in relation to it which he desires to express. I merely make the suggestion.

“Several senators” objected to delaying things, at which point Mason gave it up and the Senate agreed to the resolution.

The Senators might have found a way to try and punish Brooks if they wished to; politicians get creative about these things. A committee entirely unfavorable to Sumner, as the Senate elected, would probably not have exerted itself too much to find a solution. Yet on consideration, the problem does strike at the heart of bicameralism. The Constitution establishes two chambers of Congress, each with its own privileges. Those include the power to discipline their own members through use of each chamber’s rules. If the Senate could summon a congressman and punish his misconduct, then it sat as judge over the House.

One might reasonable counter with the argument that Brooks did not commit his crime in the House, but rather on the floor of the Senate. By entering the room, he entered their jurisdiction and had to abide by their rules. If Senate rules could regulate the behavior spectators in the gallery, as they did and do, then they clearly didn’t reach just Senators and those employed by the chamber as aides and officers. A Congressman might easily fall under them.

The committee found otherwise, but by referring the matter to the House and its antislavery coalition majority the Senators also knew the likely result. In relying on constitutional propriety to wash their own hands of Brooks, they probably expected that the House would find some way to handle him.

The Senate’s Committee

Henry Wilson (R-MA)

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

The House report on the caning

The day after Preston Brooks broke his cane over Charles Sumner’s head and left the Senator covered in his own blood, Henry Wilson got up and demanded that the Senate take “prompt and decisive action.” They had to do something, lest another Brooks come along. If Senators, in the chamber itself and for things they said in debate, faced mortal danger then democracy could not long endure. The afternoon previous, while Sumner lay blooded in his bed, the GOP caucus met and discussed strategy. They thought it best not to make a party issue of the attack and that the Massachusetts delegation ought not lead an investigation. Thus Wilson looked to the Senate in general for a solution, rising for the first substantive business on May 23, 1856. He concluded:

Senators, I have called your attention to this transaction. I submit no motion. I leave it to older Senators, whose character-whose position in this body, and before the country, eminently fit them for the task of devising measures to redress the wrongs of a member of this body, and to vindicate the honor and dignity of the Senate.

In other words, Wilson understood -or his Republican colleagues understood and convinced him- that if the GOP took a prominent role in this then it would look like a partisan affair. Proslavery men could charge that Republicans wanted revenge on Sumner’s behalf, not justice or fair inquiry. By deferring to elder Senators, Wilson sought to depoliticize the chamber’s response. Senators should view themselves as Senators and Americans first, acting with a view to the sacred prerogatives and safeguarding democracy.

Such a considered plea, complete with deference to the elder men of the Senate, drew out from every Senator in the chamber an eloquent silence. No one would stand up for Sumner. The presiding officer waited a decent amount of time and then began to move on.

Senator William H. Seward (R-NY)

William Seward cut him off mid-sentence and offered a resolution. Neither the Congressional Globe nor Sumner’s biographer give any insight on whether Seward delayed for effect, out of his own doubts, or in hopes that someone, anyone, else would step forward. No one did, so he submitted a resolution:

That a committee of five members be appointed by the President [of the Senate] to inquire into the circumstances attending the assault committed on the person of the Hon. Charles Sumner, a member of the Senate, and in the Senate chamber yesterday; and that the said committee be instructed to report a statement of the facts, together with their opinion thereon, to the Senate.

That required unanimous consent. James Mason of Virginia rose to object, though he said he didn’t do so on the general principle of things. He merely preferred that Seward revise his resolution so that the Senate would elect the committee. Seward accepted and the Senate assented and the election took place at once. Lewis Cass, Phillip Allen, Augustus Caesar Dodge, Henry Geyer, and James Pearce won the spots, with Seward coming in sixth. Henry Wilson received one vote, probably his own. The committee included no Republicans, but did include Cass despite Sumner going after him in The Crime Against KansasGeyer and Pearce both hailed from slave states, Missouri and Maryland respectively, and Dodge had a career as a friend to popular sovereignty.

Lewis Cass (D-MI)

Cass objected. He asked Senators before the vote not to support him and very much did not want to chair the committee, as “the task would impose too much labor, and I am old.” The presiding officer informed Cass that committees chose their own chairmen, which he must have known, and then further that since he had the fewest votes in the Senate they would probably not choose him anyway. Cass griped once more about being elected and let the matter drop.

Wilson would have some kind of action, but nothing about the composition of the committee could have encouraged him to expect satisfaction.

Henry Wilson on the Caning

Henry Wilson (R-MA)

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

The House report on the caning

We left Charles Sumner in bed, astonished that anything like his travail could happen. A sitting United States Senator, on the floor of the Senate, violently beaten over the head with a cane. His attacker kept on after the cane broke, until physically restrained by a congressman. Others occupied the Senate chamber for that one frightful minute and few of them made any move to intervene on his behalf, save for John Crittenden (who insisted that Preston Brooks not kill Sumner) and Sumner’s political allies. Robert Toombs came closer, but later told the Senate that he approved of the caning. Maybe he wanted a better view. Stephen Douglas claimed that he thought about it, then realized someone might mistake him for a man who wanted to pile on. Lawrence Keitt intervened on Brooks’ behalf, warning away those who tried to stop it all. The nineteenth century Congress saw more rough behavior than we might expect, including at least one pistol drawn in the Senate previous to this, but no one that I know of had made contact until now. Certainly none had gone so far as Brooks.

The next day, Sumner did not come to the Senate. His junior colleague from Massachusetts, Henry Wilson, stood before the body and marked his absence. He reminded the Senate of the past day’s events briefly, stressing how Sumner’s position left him “utterly incapable of protecting or defending himself.” Brooks struck before Sumner “had time to utter a single word in reply” and left the Senator “blind and almost unconscious.” After that first blow, Brooks kept on until Sumner “was beaten upon the floor of the Senate, exhausted, unconscious, and covered with his own blood.” They would not see Sumner that day, but they must grapple with what the attack meant:

to assail a member of the Senate out of this Chamber, “for words spoken in debate,” is a grave offense, not only against the rights of the Senator, but the constitutional privileges of this House. But, sir, to come into this Chamber and assault a member in his seat until he falls exhausted and senseless on this floor, is an offense requiring the prompt and decisive action of the Senate.

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

Wilson made two important distinctions here. Sumner suffered attack “for words spoken in debate,” not for some personal misconduct or petty slight. The chamber should not understand him just as a man who got caned, but happened to have a seat among them. Rather, Sumner suffered for the execution of his duties as a Senator. Brooks, in effect, caned a Senator for Senator-ing. His attack struck Sumner physically, but all of them in principle. If the right to unhindered debate, guaranteed in the Constitution, meant anything then Brooks had grievously transgressed it.

Furthermore, Brooks made his attack in the Senate. Had he attacked Sumner elsewhere, the point would still obtain. Doing it in the chamber itself called into question whether any Senator, or at least any antislavery Senator, could actually speak freely without fear for his life. Invective flowed freely in the Senate, with colleagues on opposite sides of an issue sometimes congratulating one another on well-turned insults. Now that normal mode of doing business, where the Senators might indict one another viciously but did so with an assurance that they also did so with personal impunity, had gone. More than just threatening to silence antislavery voices, Brooks’ attack might have opened the door for other direct assaults that might drive antislavery men from the chamber entirely.

 

 

“I could not believe that a thing like this was possible.” Caning Charles Sumner, 15

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

The Caning, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14

The House report on the caning

We left Charles Sumner with two scalp wounds which went to the bone and various other cuts and bruises. Dr. Cornelius Boyle, summoned to the Capitol, stitched him up in the Senate antechamber in hopes that swift treatment would prevent infection. David Donald claims that Henry Wilson returned to the Senate, hearing of the attack, and escorted Sumner home. Wilson’s own testimony doesn’t mention that, nor does his statement to the Senate the day after. I haven’t found any confirmation in Donald’s citations. The House Report has a James Bluffington, of the House, arrive in the antechamber in time to see Sumner’s wounds stitched up and see him home. Bluffington

went home with Mr. Sumner, and saw his head dressed. I got him a clean shirt, and helped to put it on. The doctor ordered all from the room except myself and said that such was the condition of Mr. Sumner it was absolutely necessary that he should be kept quiet, for he could not tell the extent of the injuries at that time.

Bluffington’s account puts the doctor with them, so Wilson might also have come along and not warranted a mention because he didn’t do much at the boarding house. Or Donald may have confused the two men, as Bluffington occupies essentially the role he casts Wilson in as Sumner’s escort. Wilson ends his own testimony with recognizing Brooks and the two men exchanging nods as the Senator left the chamber, before the attack. If he had a larger role, it stands to reason it would have come up.

Sumner seems to have regained more command of his faculties around an hour after reaching the boarding house. Recollections from years later, after Sumner’s death, have him “lying on his bed” and remarking

I could not believe that a thing like this was possible.

Henry Wilson (R-MA)

One must suspect such accounts of hagiography. Sumner had become a kind of national hero and it would flatter his memory, as the recollections do, to portray him as completely above recriminations. For him to transcend his caning makes him a greater hero still. Some of that probably plays into it, but Sumner brushed off serious warnings of danger to himself only days before the caning and his statement fits neatly with that.

Sumner did not grow up in a political culture where slights required violent answers, but rather one that stressed self-mastery. He spent his early life in a relatively respectable Massachusetts family surrounded by people of similar mind. Henry Wilson, who grew up in more modest circumstances, lacked that luxury and might have acquired a keener sense for when physical danger loomed. For his own part, Sumner had engaged in strong antislavery rhetoric before and people feared for his safety. He dismissed those fears and an attack had never come. Everything in his past experience suggested that one would not this time. Brooks proved Wilson right, but we only know that after the fact.

“Cut to the bone-cut under, as it were, and very ragged” Caning Charles Sumner, Part 14

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

The Caning: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13

The House report on the caning

We left Charles Sumner with John Slidell, who pulled back from him when they both came to a doorway. Slidell explained his apparent indifference as actual indifference a while after. Sumner had more immediate concerns. He lay on a sofa in the Senate anteroom, where Dr. Cornelius Boyle found him

bleeding very copiously, and with a great deal of blood upon his clothes. The blood went all over my shirt in dressing his wounds. His friends thought I ought not to dress his wounds there, but take him to his residence. I differed, and stated my reason, that if I dressed his wounds at once and at that place, they would heal by first intentions; and that if I did not, suppuration might take place.

Nineteenth century doctors believed many things we no longer do about the body, but concern for infection remains current. Best practices for sanitation, unfortunately for their patients, have come a long ways since. You could tell an accomplished surgeon of the era by his apron, turned black and stiff with dried blood. That doesn’t make them malevolent, though many doctors did resist adopting more modern methods that we know produce better outcomes. They did their best by the knowledge they had.

Boyle took stock of Sumner’s condition, discovering

There were marks of three wounds on the scalp, but only two that I dressed. One was a very slight wound, that required no special attention. One was two and a quarter inches long, cut to the bone-cut under, as it were, and very ragged. […] The other is not quite two inches long

I can’t imagine Sumner’s head must have felt. We know how profusely they bled, but it sounds like a flap of his scalp was just torn up. The committee pressed for the literally gory details and Boyle confirmed that both wounds “cut to the bone”.

I have the probe now in my pocket, from which the blood has not been washed [Instrument produced.] One was a cut to the depth of nearly an inch. It is only an eighth of an inch to the scale, but it was a cut in and down.

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

The two cuts fell on the left side of the back of the head, apparently dealt when Sumner was still bent down or as he tried to flee, and “in front, about two inches from the median line.” Additionally, Sumner suffered bruising and less serious cuts. Boyle remarked that

There was one slight mark on the back of his head, but not severe enough to require dressing […] There were marks on the hands also, and a red mark down the face near the temple

It sounds like Sumner managed to block or deflect at least a few of Brooks’ thirty licks. It might well have saved his life. Boyle testified that a strike to the temple could have gone right through into the brain, or cut the artery there. Either could have killed. Brooks instead hit the thickest part of the skull. That in mind, Boyle said that “Such blows would not ordinarily produce death.”