Preston Brooks could have challenged Charles Sumner to a duel. The Yankee would have refused and his fellow Northerners would have dismissed Brooks as a barbarian, but Brooks had the option. Doing so would have meant according Sumner a kind of peer status as a fellow gentleman, which didn’t have the visceral punch that Brooks wanted. He had to degrade Sumner by treating him like less than a white man to achieve satisfaction.
Wilson damned Brooks on the floor of the Senate on May 27 and the speech roused Andrew Butler, just returned to Washington. He shouted that Wilson was a liar and other senators convinced him to withdraw the remark. Brooks didn’t take the news of it well and chose to get satisfaction again. This time, he challenged Wilson to a duel. He picked a proper second, Oregon’s delegate Joseph Lane. Lane later ran second fiddle to John C. Breckenridge on the Southern Democracy’s ticket in 1860.
Wilson received advice from Joshua Giddings, Schuyler Colfax, and some others on what to do. He ignored it and delivered an answer he related years later:
I characterized, on the floor of the Senate, the assault upon my colleague as ‘brutal, murderous, and cowardly.’ I thought so then. I think so now. I have no qualification whatever to make in regard to those words. I have never entertained, in the Senate or elsewhere, the idea of personal responsibility in the sense of a duellist. I have always regarded duelling as the lingering relic of a barbarous civilization, which the law of the country has branded a crime. While, therefore, I religiously believe in the right of self-defence in its broadest sense, the law of my country and the matured convictions of my whole life alike forbid me to meet you for the purpose indicated by your letter.
In other words, Wilson knew what Brooks resented. He would not withdraw a word of it and he would not take part in Brooks’ affair of honor. People in Massachusetts didn’t go for that kind of savagery. Still, Wilson knew his protocols or at least had the good sense not to deliver his answer to Brooks in person; he had a congressman deliver it.
Wilson took Brooks seriously, dismissal or not. He telegraphed his wife to inform her of the challenge, his refusal, and that if Brooks came upon him Wilson would “defend my life, if possible, at any cost.” He also made arrangements with friends of his, William Claffin and John B. Alley, to look after his ten year old son and “armed himself for defence, resolved to go where duty called.”
Wilson’s history also tells that “a few Southern members” got together at a Washington hotel and debated doing something to him. James Orr, one of the men who knew in advance of Brooks’ plan against Sumner, told Wilson in 1878 that he talked them down. I haven’t read this from anyone else and we must suspect that Wilson may have dramatized things. Orr could also have inflated idle talk into a serious conspiracy. Still, the toxic environment in Washington at the time, where Southerners endorsed Brooks wholeheartedly renders something on those lines happening plausible.