We are living, we are regularly told, through a period of civic unraveling, in which a coarsened public discourse and hyperpartisan politics tear at the threads of our society. Indeed, as House Democrats launched an impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump, the president responded with a not-so-veiled threat against the life of the whistleblower who kickstarted the latest scandal.
The fabric of our society has been torn apart before, of course, and it did result in turmoil — though it was necessary turmoil that led to the abolition of slavery and, for a decadelong period under Reconstruction, a radical attempt to build a more just and decent world. If today’s incivility opens up such possibilities, all the better — which makes exploring the period before the Civil War that much more useful.
That period is covered in a new book by Sidney Blumenthal, “All the Powers of Earth: 1856-1860,” which dives deep into the greatest act of physical violence ever perpetrated on the floor of the U.S. Senate and comes away with news on the affair.
For years, the near-fatal caning of Republican Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner in May 1856 has been popularly understood to have been honor-bound vengeance delivered by a prideful Southern Democratic congressman, Preston Brooks, whose cousin Sumner had allegedly dishonored in a speech.
The idea that chivalry alone drove Brooks, a Democrat from South Carolina, to attack Sumner has long been propped up by Brooks himself, who said as much when he approached the anti-slavery senator, when he was working at his desk on the Senate floor on May 22, 1856. “Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully,” Brooks told Sumner, who was in the process of stuffing his speech in envelopes to be mailed to constituents. “It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.”
Brooks was referring to Andrew Butler, a Democratic senator from South Carolina. It was true that the two were related, but it was a cover of sorts, Blumenthal argues, for the real masterminds of the attack, a group of Southern Democrats known as the “F Street Mess,” who Blumenthal argues orchestrated the near-assassination of their colleague. (The group’s name comes from a boardinghouse on F Street in Washington, D.C., where the key leaders of the slave power, who held a firm grip on power in the Senate through committee chairmanships and other interlocking relationships, lived. Their influence over the Senate is documented by author Alice Elizabeth Malavasic in her book, “The F Street Mess: How Southern Senators Rewrote the Kansas-Nebraska Act.”)
Blumenthal does not have physical evidence that the F Street Mess directly ordered the attack and acknowledges that there are many details we’ll never know. But he presents a persuasive circumstantial case that the senators played on Brooks’s well-earned emotional insecurity to trigger the chivalric impulse that he eventually acted out on the Senate floor.
Among other bits of evidence Blumenthal marshals, he highlights a New York Times article in the aftermath of the attack that reported: “A well known personal friend of Mr. Brooks publicly stated, tonight, before a dozen gentlemen, that the assault was premeditated and arranged for at a private conclave, held last evening, at which the individual who made the statement was present.”
Publisher’s Weekly, in a largely positive review of Blumenthal’s new book, calls it “overstuffed, but vivid and intelligent,” complaining that it “includes too many biographical sketches of minor historical players.” That’s simply wrong. In order to do justice to the Sumner saga and explore his attempted assassination, it’s necessary to understand the political, social, and emotional motivations of all of the characters.
There may be no author better suited to the task, as Blumenthal has worked as a political reporter for the Washington Post, a magazine writer for the New Republic and the New Yorker, and is an author of numerous influential political books. He is also deeply familiar with political schemes, both as a practitioner and as a victim of them. He became close with President Bill Clinton and ultimately jumped from writing about politics to participating in it, defending Clinton against impeachment, giving him a view of the White House and partisan warfare few historians have had up close. From there, he became a dogged partisan for Hillary Clinton, controversially defending her and attacking Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign. He later became a GOP bugaboo for his connection to Clinton and went through hours of questioning before the committee set up to investigate Benghazi.
That experience allowed him to understand how ambitions — personal, social, and political — combine to help shape events.
That experience, he told me, allowed him to understand how ambitions — personal, social, and political — combine to help shape events. The near-murder of Sumner can’t be told without the short biographies Blumenthal offers not just of Brooks, but his cousin in the Senate, as well as his two friends, fellow members of Congress, who held Sumner’s defenders at bay while Brooks beat him bloody. They may indeed be “minor historical players,” but the event can’t be understood without understanding them.
The book also includes a long sketch of Sumner and explores how his radical, outspoken posture in support of the abolition of slavery cost him his valued seat in Boston’s high society — the type of cost of political rebelliousness that most historians would ignore, most readers might scoff at, but is nonetheless a driving factor in the decisions made or not made by politicians. Blumenthal understands Washington’s elite social scene well and knows that its most important characteristics — and what type of behavior is rewarded, and what isn’t — have persisted with significant continuity from the 19th century to today.
“All the Powers of Earth” is Blumenthal’s third of a planned five-volume political biography of Abraham Lincoln, and is as gripping and fast-paced as the first two, which cover 1809 to 1849, and then 1849 to 1856. Lincoln himself barely appears until deep into the book. It was the caning of Sumner, and the violence of the period, that created the opening for Lincoln’s rise.
The attack was, after all, a terrific boon to Sumner’s nascent Republican Party. “The most effective deliverance made by any man to advance the Republican Party was made by the bludgeon of Preston S. Brooks,” Blumenthal quotes Pennsylvania Republican Alexander McClure saying. “It caused many scores of thousands of Democrats of natural anti-slavery proclivities to sever their connection with the Democratic Party.”
The Republican Party would run its first candidate for president that fall of 1856, coming short of the White House by losing Illinois and the border states. Its second nominee, Lincoln, would solve that problem. By then, the F Street Mess had orchestrated the destruction of the Democratic Party, splitting it in two and, by putting two candidates forward, effectively guaranteeing Lincoln the victory, then using his win as a pretext to secede.
Violence was in the air in 1856. On May 8, Rep. Philemon Herbert, a pro-slavery Democrat from California, had shot and killed an Irish waiter at Willard’s Hotel for informing him that the dining room hours had passed. A low-grade Civil War was underway in the territory of Kansas, where pro-slavery thugs known as “ruffians” from Missouri would cross the border and raid anti-slavery towns, while committing voter fraud on an epic scale in an attempt to draft Kansas into the union as a slave state. Abolitionists, funded by some of Boston’s wealthy elite, moved en masse to Kansas to battle them.
Sumner had begun delivering the speech that drew the ire of the pro-slavery senators, titled “The Crime Against Kansas,” on May 19, 1856. His immediate subject was the ongoing war in Kansas between abolitionists and advocates of slavery, but the broader theme was slavery’s rape culture. Just as today there are things that are widely known or assumed to be true by the public but understood to be off-limits to polite conversation, the intertwined nature of rape and slavery was one such verboten topic in the 1850s. But Sumner, in his first major speech as a senator, went there.
Just as today there are things that are widely known or assumed to be true by the public but understood to be off-limits to polite conversation, the intertwined nature of rape and slavery was one such verboten topic in the 1850s.
Referring to “the harlot Slavery,” Sumner sought to recast the Southern slaveholders, particularly those in the F Street Mess, not as honorable gentlemen with a different view of labor policy, but as depraved rapists. “The senator from South Carolina,” he said of Butler, “has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight, with sentiments of honor and courage. Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him — though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight: I mean the harlot Slavery. For her his tongue is always profuse in words. Let her be impeached in character, or any proposition be made to shut her out from the extension of her wantonness, and no extravagance of manner or hardihood of assertion is then too great for this Senator. The frenzy of Don Quixote in behalf of his wench Dulcinea del Toboso is all surpassed.”
The speech went on for two days, as was not uncommon at the time. “Images of rape permeated Sumner’s speech,” writes Blumenthal. “Sumner’s expose of the sexual underside of slavery was his most profound crime. No senator had ever openly discussed the salacious side of slavery from so many different angles.”
Pro-slavery Sen. Stephen Douglas, D-Ill., responding to Sumner, decried his “lasciviousness and obscenity.”
“I cannot repeat the words. I should be condemned as unworthy of entering decent society, if I repeated those obscene, vulgar terms which have been used at least a hundred times in that speech,” he said.
Michigan Sen. Lewis Cass, another pro-slavery Democrat, called the speech “the most un-American and unpatriotic that ever grated on the ears of the members of this high body.” Sen. James Mason, a Democrat from Virginia and the grandson of George Mason, decried the speech’s “depravity, vice in its most odious form uncoiled in this presence.”
Blumenthal, digging through the 1850 census records, finds clues that the members of Congress offended by Sumner’s charge were themselves rapists. The population records indicate whether an enslaved person was “mulatto,” which suggested a white father. Brooks’s slave plantation listed one girl aged three, while his father’s listed five: three boys and two girls. “They were not immaculately conceived,” Blumenthal writes. “The identity of these individuals’ white fathers remains unknown, but it is likely they were nearby.”
As the senators departed the chamber on the final day of Sumner’s speech, a member of the House, John Bingham, an Ohio Republican, warned Henry Wilson, the other senator from Massachusetts, “I have heard remarks made, from which I think an assault will be made.” Several Sumner allies offered to escort him home, but he declined.
Brooks was the perfect patsy for the Southern Democrats because he was a deeply insecure screw-up, Blumenthal writes. He had been expelled from college for an embarrassing duel that left him with a limp and a lodged bullet. He enlisted to fight in the Mexican War but got sick with typhoid fever and quickly headed home, confessing “extreme regret and mortification … that I feel on account of being denied the privilege of playing my part in the great battles.” He vowed he’d find a way to regain “before the people of my district the confidence and respect of which I value more than life itself.” Veterans of the war barred him from joining their later celebrations, an utter humiliation.
Butler, Brooks’s cousin, later said that Brooks “was not in the Senate when the speech was being delivered, but he was summoned here, as I have learned from others. He was excited and stung by the street rumors and street commentaries, where even ladies pronounced a judgment; and, sir, woman never fails to pronounce a judgment where honor is concerned, and it is always in favor of the redress of a wrong.”
“Sir, it was hard for any man, much less for a man of his temperament, to bear this.”
Blumenthal notes that Butler never explained precisely who summoned Brooks to the Senate and filled him with thoughts of dishonor, but the most likely suspects are the Southern senators themselves. Everywhere Brooks went, said Butler, he was prodded to action: “He could not go into a parlor, or drawing room, or to a dinner party, where he did not find an implied reproach there as an unmanly submission to an insult to his State and his countrymen. Sir, it was hard for any man, much less for a man of his temperament, to bear this.”
In that final insight — “a man of his temperament” — lies the key to why the F Street Mess turned to Brooks to go after Sumner, rather than do it themselves. “I have known him since childhood,” Butler said. “I used to have some control over him.”
Brooks’s closest friends in the House were Reps. Laurence Keitt of South Carolina and Henry Edmundson of Virginia, both of whom knew of the plan to attack Sumner and helped Brooks pull it off, joining him in the Senate. Edmundson later noted that Brooks “learned Mr. Sumner intended to do this thing days before he made his speech; that he did it deliberately; and he thought he ought to punish him for it.” How Brooks learned what Sumner planned to do in the Senate, Edmundson didn’t say.
As Brooks was pummeling Sumner, Sen. John Crittenden, along with James Simonton, the New York Times reporter, tried to intervene, but Keitt fended them off with his own cane. He raised it toward Crittenden. “You had better not interfere, we will lick one at a time,” Keitt told Crittenden.
“Don’t strike!” Sen. Robert Toombs of Georgia instructed Keitt, and Keitt obeyed.
Brooks’s cane, with a solid-gold head, shattered in multiple pieces, yet he continued to pound away on Sumner, who was trapped by his own desk. He eventually broke free, rising to his feet, but as he began to fall, Brooks held him up by his lapel and continued to beat him senseless.
Two New York congressmen eventually managed to pull Brooks back, one fending him off while the other caught Sumner as he collapsed unconscious. “There he laid senseless as a corpse for several minutes, his head bleeding copiously from the frightful wounds, and the blood saturating his clothes,” said Rep. Edwin Morgan of New York.
Immediately afterward, before any of them were accused, Democratic senators began denying any involvement. “I had not the slightest suspicion that anything was to happen,” Douglas averred. “I had not the slightest idea that Mr. Brooks, or anybody else, had any intention of attacking Mr. Sumner,” said Louisiana’s John Slidell, unprompted.
The House of Representatives later voted to expel Brooks and censure Keitt and Edmundson, but were short of the two-thirds needed. Brooks resigned his seat. A special election was held; Brooks ran in it and won, returning the the House.