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 Kansas, which 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.”