“And smote him as Cain smote his brother” Anson Burlingame Speaks Out, Part 3

Anson Burlingame

Anson Burlingame took to the floor of the House of Representatives on June 21, 1856 to express his outrage at Preston Brooks’ attack upon Charles Sumner. He would have the House know that Charles Sumner gave a fine speech full of righteous indignation and such a great and good man deserved not a single lick from anyone’s gutta-percha cane. All of this, plus a lengthy vindication of the antislavery cause in Kansas and a defense of Massachusetts, brought Burlingame to the fourth page of his speech in the Congressional Globe. There he came to the point:

On the 22nd day of May, when the Senate and the House had clothed themselves in mourning for a brother fallen in the battle of life in the distant State of Missouri, the senator from Massachusetts sat in the silence of the Senate Chamber, engaged in the employments appertaining to his office, when a member from this House, who had taken an oath to sustain the Constitution, stole into the Senate, that place which had hitherto been held sacred against violence, and smote him as Cain smote his brother.

The Senate chamber didn’t have quite the perfect innocence from violence that we would hope. Henry Foote once drew a pistol on an angry and advancing Thomas Hart Benton, after all. But to the best of my knowledge no one before Brooks took the final step of actually committing violence. Everything before 1856 stopped at threats, brandishing arms, or went outside.

Lawrence Keitt (D-SC)

As Burlingame said all this, Lawrence Keitt sat there listening. As soon as the line about Cain came out, he spoke up.

Mr. KEITT, (in his seat.) That is false.

Mr. BURLINGAME. I will not bandy epithets with the gentleman. I am responsible for my own language. Doubtless he is responsible for his.

Mr. KEITT. I am.

Mr. BURLINGAME. I shall stand by mine.

After that posturing, Burlingame reached the event itself. He gave a brief summary of what everyone already knew and then really tore in. He denounced the caning in the name of the Constitution, Massachusetts, humanity, civilization, and fair play. Brooks himself, “if he has a spark of that chivalry and gallantry attributed to him” should lament his attack. Burlingame went on to castigate Slidell, Douglas, and Toombs.

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

Some days after Burlingame closed his speech, Preston Brooks chose to take action. He recruited a couple of men as go-betweens to approach Nathaniel Banks, Speaker of the House, and George Ashmun, both friends of Burlingame’s. They wanted satisfaction, as Henry Wilson puts it, “amicably or otherwise.”

It seems that they came on Banks and Ashmun in Burlingame’s company. He “expressed his personal regard for Brooks” but persisted in attacking the caning. Distinguishing between the act and the actor opened up hope for a non-violent resolution. Everyone left the meeting convinced they had a modus vivendi. Burlingame left Washington to stump for the Republicans in the presidential race.

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“With modesty, but with firmness” Anson Burlingame Speaks Out

Anson Burlingame

We left Preston Brooks leaving the House of Representatives. The chamber’s majority voted to expel him for breaking his cane over Charles Sumner’s head and continuing on with the broken stump until wrestled away. The Constitution required two-thirds to actually kick him to the curb, which the House could not muster on the grounds that most of the Southern caucus thought Brooks had done no wrong. In getting to that point, I overlooked an important episode. For the moment, let’s turn the clock back to June 21, 1856. Brooks and Lawrence Keitt still have their seats in the House of Representatives. The House committee have released their report and debate on it comes into full swing.

Anson Burlingame, a friend of Sumner’s with a hard re-election fight ahead of him, stood out among those lining up to castigate Brooks. He rose to remind the House that he had never “assailed” another or impugned a state. He dilated upon Massachusetts’ virtues for a few moments, then got down to it:

with modesty, but with firmness, I cast down her glove to the whole band of her assailants.

In the language of romantic chivalry, one strikes a foe with a glove and drop it to challenge them. Burlingame probably didn’t mean to issue an actual challenge; politicians of the era often use this kind of language for rhetorical effect. It shows them as men of learning and refinement, just as gratuitous Latin quotes and endless references to Antiquity did. He pressed on to vent himself against the Bay State’s censurers, from Franklin Pierce on down.

Lawrence Keitt (D-SC)

Burlingame’s complains about Pierce focused on his transparently proslavery policies, right at the points where they put the lie to his claims of impartiality and that the North had abandoned its sectional duties. He got into a brief exchange with Lawrence Keitt over how the Charleston Mercury condemned the Fugitive Slave Act on behalf of South Carolina, then returned to venting on Pierce over Greytown and Lawrence. After four pages in the Congressional Globe, Burlingame finally wandered to the topic of the attack on Charles Sumner. He went with the others to hear the Crime Against Kansas, live and in person:

To say that we were delighted with the speech we heard, would but faintly express the deep emotions of our hearts awakened by it. I need not speak of the classic purity of its language, nor of the nobility of its sentiments. It was heard by many; it has been read by millions. There has been no such speech made in the Senate since the days when those Titans of American eloquence -the Websters and the Haynes- contended with each other for mastery.

He liked it. Sumner’s oratory reads as ponderous and repetitious to us, but the man could put on a show in person and some of what we would consider faults came off much better in the nineteenth century. Sumner acted out his speeches with practiced gestures and intonation, from memory, in an era when most men just read theirs. That can’t help but liven things up.

That said, Burlingame understood that Sumner gave South Carolina in particular and slavery in general the rough side of his tongue:

It was severe, because it was launched against tyranny. It was severe as Chatham was severe when he defended the feeble colonies against the giant oppression of the mother country.

Yet despite “a hostile Senate” Sumner went for two days with no one calling him to order. If the Senators thought him out of bounds, as they did Andrew Butler, they could have insisted on order at any time and demanded retractions or that Sumner cease entirely. The Senators declined the opportunity. Furthermore, Sumner often faced such vicious insults himself and rose above them. Burlingame would have the House know that Brooks broke his cane over the head of a righteous man ever-mindful of “the flaming sword of the Constitution, turning every way, guarding all the avenues of the Senate.”

“I am no longer a member of the Thirty-Fourth Congress.”

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

Henry Wilson had a rough few days of it. He reject Brooks’ challenge to a duel, going out of his way to denigrate the whole practice. Friends advised against that, but Wilson bulled on ahead. Though Brooks never came after him, for some time thereafter. Wilson learned years later of possibly serious talk about roughing him up put down by James Orr. That all fell out over the last days of May. At the start of June, 1856, the House received the reports from the committee they had looking into the matter. Those recommended expulsion for Brooks and censure of Henry Edmundson and Lawrence Keitt, effectively demanding their resignations but stopping short of forcing the two out.

The House didn’t take a vote on the recommendations until the middle of July, at which point a predictably hostile debate broke out. The South Carolinians made it a point of principle to defend their own. The Republicans naturally fought back. In the end, the House voted on sectional lines to expel Brooks. That didn’t give them the two-thirds majority they needed to do the job. Brooks opted to do it for them. According to Sumner’s Works, he gained the floor “with some difficulty” and gave an account of himself I’ve quoted liberally from.

Brooks proceeded to congratulate himself. He failed to start something that ended in

subverting the foundations of this Government and in drenching this Hall in blood. No act of mine, and on my personal account, shall inaugurate revolution

Fresh off thanking himself for failing to incite a revolution, Brooks took a second victory lap on how he used a cane instead of a whip or cowhide, that Sumner might have taken from him and so forced Brooks “to do that which I would have regretted for the balance of my natural life.” In other words, Brooks thought he might have to kill Sumner if the Senator got hold of his cowhide or whip. The House didn’t miss the implication; someone cried out, “He would have killed him!”

Undeterred, Brooks finished what he had to say:

And now, Mr. Speaker, I announce to you, and to this House, that I am no longer a member of the Thirty-Fourth Congress.

Lawrence Keitt (D-SC)

He walked out.

The next day, July 15, the House moved on to the punishments recommended for Edmundson and Keitt. Edmundson got off, 60-136. Keitt got censured 106-96. He likewise resigned. Both Keitt and Brooks submitted themselves to their constituents to fill the vacancies their resignations created. Both found themselves back in the House in early August, an absence of a little over two weeks.

Complicity, Honor, and the Choice of Weapons

The New York Herald reports on the indignation meeting

New York’s public indignation meeting, packed wall to wall with angry men, opened up with denunciation of Preston Brooks’ attack on Charles Sumner. In attacking a sitting Senator, in the Senate, and for words said there, the South Carolinian attacked more than one man. He assaulted the entire fabric of constitutional governance. He attacked the republic itself and every self-governing white man who considered himself a right and proper citizen of it. If such a thing went unanswered, the United States could not long endure. Their resolutions continued:

to urge the casual violence of an individual to the disgrace and injury of the community in which he lives, and of the social institutions of that community, is ungenerous and unjust, until it appears that such community approves the act and applauds the actor; but when such concurrence of public sentiment and public action with the particular and personal transaction are manifested on authentic evidence, the private outrage is swallowed up in the public infamy, and the question involved is enlarged to an immense magnitude and importance.

In other words, the people of New York didn’t immediately take this as an assault upon the North at large by the South; they had some sense of proportion. In order to implicate the sections in general, the South would need to show some kind of general approval of Brooks’ course. This could remain a deeply troubling, but isolated incident.

Lawrence Keitt (D-SC)

Then again:

we have witnessed with unmixed astonishment and the deepest regret, the clear, bold exulting espousal of the outrage and justification and honor of its perpetrator, exhibited by Senators and representatives of the Slave States without distinction of party, in their public places, and by the public press without distinction of party in the same portion of our country, and that upon the present state of the evidence, we are forced most unwillingly to the sad conclusion that the general community of the slave States is in complicity, in feeling and principle, with the system of intimidation and violence for the suppression of freedom of speech and of the press, of which the assault on Senator Sumner is the most signal, but not the singular, instance.

I’ve not yet looked at the Southern papers, but the meeting clearly knew of Keitt’s and Edmundson’s involvement; they had an eyewitness on the speaker’s stage that night in the person of Edwin Morgan. He could probably point to Robert Toombs as the guilty senator. Neither of those quite reaches beyond partisan lines, but the South’s two party system had fallen into steep decline by this point. Either way, the endorsement of Southern political leaders all by itself counted for something. One couldn’t dismiss their chosen representatives to the national Congress as irrelevant nobodies. The logic of representative democracy required taking them as proxies for their constituents.

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

They also spoke to a deeper truth about how the sections diverged over the nineteenth century by raising the notion of honor. Cultural developments had loosened the bounds of traditional codes of honor in the North. Once, those codes happily endorsed resenting slights and washing them away with violence. Those times had largely ended north of Maryland, with codes of conduct based on public shame supplanted by those stressing private guilt and self-control.

Traces of the old ways remained, of course, but nothing like they thrived in the South. To white Southern eyes, Brooks repaid Sumner for a grievous slight and acted strictly correctly in doing so. Not to endorse him would have been the greater shame for many. Thought had gone into the assault, after all. Brooks spent a few days carefully looking over the speech and considering options. He did not challenge Sumner because Sumner would never accept a duel. That made him no gentleman to Brooks, if he could ever have qualified anyway, so attacking him fairly and on even terms might even disgrace Brooks. As something less than manly, less than white, Sumner warranted striking like an inferior. The South Carolinian’s first choice of weapon, cowhide, speaks to that. Southerners literally whipped slaves with cowhide, so striking a white man in that way would disgrace him more than anything else. Brooks feared Sumner might get hold of the cowhide, so he opted for the cane also occasionally used to discipline slaves. Pragmatism dictated a slight deviation from perfect symbolism.

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.

 

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.

“Very much stunned, and covered with blood” Caning Charles Sumner, Part 11

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9, 10

The House report on the caning

Preston Brooks shattered his cane over Charles Sumner’s head and kept hitting him with what remained of it. Sumner slumped down on the floor. Brooks kept on until a Congressman Ambrose Murray “seized” him. According to Murray, no one had moved forward to interfere, except John Crittenden (Whig-KY), who called out for the attack to cease. Murray

 

immediately stepped up behind Mr. Brooks and caught him by the body and the right arm, drew him back, and turned him around from Mr. Sumner.

Brooks used his right arm in the striking, so Murray sold himself a bit short. He stepped in and grabbed Sumner’s assailant almost by the cane, then dragged him away and spun him around from the Senator. He put Brook’s left hand around Sumner’s coat collar, holding him up for further strikes, until that moment.

With Brooks no longer pounding on his skull, Sumner lay down against one of the desks “very much stunned, and covered with blood.” About then, as matters concluded, John Crittenden reached the scene. He told the House committee that he merely expressed his “disapprobation of such violence in the Senate chamber.” Brooks recalled more:

Mr. Crittenden took hold of me and said something like “don’t kill him,” I replied that I had no wish to injure him seriously, but only to flogg him.

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

Brooks may have meant it. His claim that he intended only a pro forma strike doesn’t read as credible. He probably meant to hit Sumner solidly, but perhaps only once or twice. Then Sumner began to move and Brooks lost control of himself. In the red haze of the moment, it might not have occurred to him that beating a man over the head so hard and often could end in death. Brooks had the temper enough to cane Sumner in the first place, but also enough control to put it off for days, check over the printed copy of Sumner’s speech, and wait for a woman to vacate the gallery. He didn’t charge into the Senate chamber that day foaming at the mouth.

Around the time that Crittenden spoke to Brooks, who seems to have still been struggling against Murray, Lawrence Keitt arrived. He circled about, demanding that Brooks be released. Senator Toombs, who had been with Keitt before the first blow fell, shouted to him not to strike. He said nothing to Brooks and later admitting to approving of the affair.

John Crittenden

Crittenden proved as good as his disapprobation. He took the piece of cane that remained from Brooks’ hand and the South Carolinian “very gently yielded” it. His words seem to have prompted the end of Brooks’ struggle against Murray as well as surrender of the cane. That Crittenden put his hand on the cane before Brooks agreed to give it up suggests a moment of decision and, perhaps, realization.

“Broke the stick” Caning Charles Sumner, Part 10

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678, 9

The House report on the caning

Preston Brooks took Charles Sumner’s insults against slavery, South Carolina, and his relation Andrew Butler hard. He would no longer stand for abolitionists or antislavery men, not that Brooks cared for the difference, throwing around slanders as Sumner did. The South Carolinian determined that he must confront Sumner for the sake of honor, demanding an apology that would shame Sumner. Expecting that Sumner would refuse, and refuse a duel, Brooks would then have full justification to strike him as one did a slave and have satisfaction that way. He cared enough about the proprieties to discuss them at least with Lawrence Keitt (D-SC), Henry Edmundson (D-VA), and James Orr (D-SC). None of these congressmen tried to dissuade Brooks. Edmundson even gave him practical advice on how to best attack Sumner by pointing out that chasing him through the Capitol would leave Brooks winded and tired in front of a man considerably larger than himself.

Instead, Brooks sat and rested up within the Senate chamber two days after Sumner concluded his speech. Once the last woman left the gallery, he sprang into action. He caught Sumner seated at his desk, franking copies of the offending speech. Brooks made a brief statement, no more than two sentences, and either finished with his first blow or landed it immediately after. Twenty-nine more strikes of the gutta-percha cane with the golden head. Brooks held it by that end.

Lawrence Keitt came to the Senate that day, expecting to see the fireworks. Henry Edmundson did too, though he seems to have lost interest when Brooks did not immediately lay on and believed Brooks would not act in the immediate future. He departed to chat up a Senator about the proprieties of an attack within the Senate chamber. He remained to that point because Keitt refused his invitation to go off together. Whether Brooks and Keitt arranged it before hand and had an understanding, or Keitt took it on himself, it seems that the other South Carolinian fancied himself Brooks’ backup. As soon as the blows began, Keitt rose his own cane above his head and charged forward, warning off any who came near as he circled the fray.

Robert Toombs

Brooks kept up, possibly panicking when Sumner tried to rise. The larger man tried to block the cane as he did so, but became trapped beneath his desk until he pulled it from the floor and staggered forward. Senator Robert Toombs saw the conclusion of the caning, from about when the desk came out of the floor onward. The furniture put more distance between Brooks and Sumner

and seemed to give Mr. Brooks better play with his stick, and the next lick after that occurrence was a more effective one, broke the stick, and lessened the resistance of Mr. Sumner

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

One might expect things to stop there. Sumner, pained, confused, staggering, ceased to put up much of a fight at all. Brooks literally broke his cane across the Senator’s skull. What more did it take?

Mr. Brooks continued his blows rapidly with the part of the stick he held in his hand, until Mr. Sumner sank to the floor in rather a sitting posture. He then ceased, and some of the bystanders, having by this time reached the parties, took Mr. Brooks by the arm and led him a few paces away from Mr. Sumner.

“Let them alone! let them alone!” Caning Charles Sumner, Part 9

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 678

We left Charles Sumner struck momentarily blind by Preston Brooks’ cane. Until that point the nearsighted Sumner had his face buried in copies of The Crime Against Kansas. What Brooks intended, or claimed to intent, as a light blow or two turned into a frenzy as Sumner raised his arms and tried to defend himself. According to Sumner, he acted on instinct

With head already bent down, I rose from my seat, wrenching up my desk, which was screwed to the floor, and then pressed forward, while my assailant continued his blows. I have no other consciousness until I found myself ten feet forward, in front of my desk, lying on the floor of the Senate, with my bleeding head supported on the knees of a gentleman, whom I soon recognized by voice and countenance, as Mr. Morgan, of New York. Other persons there were about me offering me friendly assistance; but I did not recognize any of them. Others were there at a distance, looking on and offering no assistance, of whom I recognized only Mr. Douglas, of Illinois, Mr. Toombs, of Georgia, and I thought also my assailant, standing between them.

Brooks’ entire assault lasted only a minute or two, long enough that people in the room didn’t realize it had happened until it had almost finished. Howell Cobb of the committee pressed Sumner on precise details: Did Brooks strike while speaking, or immediately after? Sumner quoted his statement back to them. Cobb pressed further, repeating himself. As a hostile interrogator, he might have intended to catch Sumner in a contradiction. Sumner may also have shown some confusion in the moment. He had just suffered trauma to his brain a few days before and Cobb asked him to closely revisit the event. Sumner stuck to his story: Brooks spoke a sentence or so. It sounded like he had another lined up, but then the caning started and Sumner recalled nothing else.

Lawrence Keitt (D-SC)

When the blows fell, Lawrence Keitt stood in the Senate chamber. Willis Gorman put him by the Vice-President’s chair. According to Gorman, Keitt moved on the affray when he and Robert Toombs did, a cane of his own in hand and lifted above his head. Gorman thought Keitt meant to strike someone. The committee naturally asked who Keitt intended his cane for. Gorman demurred:

I do not know, nor could I tell; evidently no one could tell, unless he had known the circumstances. Mr. Toombs said, “Don’t strike!” and addressed himself to Mr. Keitt. Mr Keitt then put down his cane and did not advance any further.

Gorman, who estimated Sumner suffered only a few blows, didn’t know with confidence that Keitt had any designs on Sumner. He moved toward the fight, fair enough, but may have held his cane up to keep it clear of the desks. Apparently Gorman didn’t think anything of it until Toombs told Keitt to keep his cane to himself.

Toombs told it this way:

I saw Mr. Keitt when I got up near the combatants with Governor Gorman; I went up immediately. By the time Mr. Keitt had got to the aisle the blows had ceased. Mr. Keitt was there with, I think, a stick in his hands. He made some observation; I do not recollect what it was. He was standing in the aisle, and some words passed from him; I think they were addressed to Mr. Crittenden.

Toombs left out talking Keitt down until the committee asked about it. Then he noted that Keitt “seemed to be excited.” With regard to Keitt’s cane:

I do not know whether it was raised or not. I had the impression that he was going to use it, or rather I was afraid that he might use it.

James Simonton, a reporter for the New York Times had the full story of Keitt’s approach and involvement:

Mr. Keitt rushed in, running around Mr. Sumner and Mr. Brooks with his cane raised, crying “Let them alone! let them alone!” threatening myself and others who rushed in to interfere.

Whatever Toombs and Gorman thought, Keitt waved his cane over his head and circled the fight to warn off anyone who came to Sumner’s rescue. If it came to that, Lawrence Keitt would make sure that Preston Brooks murdered a sitting United States Senator on the floor of the Senate.

“He commenced a succession of blows with a heavy cane on my bare head” Caning Charles Sumner, Part 7

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

We left Lawrence Keitt likely with foreknowledge that something serious would go down between Preston Brooks and Charles Sumner on the Senate floor. The Senate adjourned for the day and Sumner remained at his desk, which could only improve the odds. Brooks came and waited. His friend Henry Edmundson stepped outside and talked proprieties of attacking a senator with another senator. Keitt must have stood somewhere in easy reach, but my materials don’t say where.

Brooks sets the scene in his statement to the House,

I went to the senate and stood without the bar until it did adjourn. Mr. Sumner continued within the Hall, though he did not all the time retain his Seat. He had upon his desk a large number off his speeches and was, when not interrupted, employed in franking them. Several ladies continued in the Hall some on the floor and some in the gallery.

Members of Congress use the franking privilege to send free mail to their constituents. Sumner would have essentially used his name in lieu of a stamp. On that Thursday afternoon, he set to working his way down a pile of The Crime Against Kansas. History sometimes hits things so closely on the nose.

Sumner agreed that he had done just that. He busied himself with the franking, “in order to be in season for the mail, which was soon to close.” Others did not appreciate the post office’s deadlines and came up to talk to him. Sumner brushed them off “promptly and briefly”. Finally free from socializing, he

drew my arm-chair close to my desk, and with my legs under the desk continued writing. My attention at this time was so entirely withdrawn from all other objects, that, though there must have been many persons on the floor of the Senate, I saw nobody.

The Senate fell away and he and his pen continued on; Charles Sumner entered the franking zone.

While thus intent, with my head bent over my writing, I was addressed by a person who had approached from the front of my desk, so entirely unobserved that I was not aware of his presence until I heard my name pronounced. As I looked up, with pen in hand, I saw a tall man, whose countenance was not familiar, standing directly over me, and at the same moment, caught these words: “I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine-” While these words were still passing from his lips, he commenced a succession of blows with a heavy cane on my bare head, by the first of which I was stunned so as to lose sight.