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.
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.