History and Historiography

Violence in Congress Before the Civil War: From Canings and Stabbings to Murder

The good old days.

By Becky Little, History.Com

The Senate had just adjourned on May 22, 1856, when Representative Preston Brooks entered its chamber carrying a cane. The pro-slavery southerner walked over to Senator Charles Sumner, whacked him in the head with the cane and then proceeded to beat the anti-slavery northerner unconscious. Afterward, Brooks walked out of the chamber without anyone stopping him.

The caning of Charles Sumner is probably the most famous violent attack in Congress, but it is far from the only one. In the three decades leading up to the Civil War, there were more than 70 violent incidents between congressmen, writes Yale history professor Joanne B. Freeman in The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to the Civil War. It was a time of heightened tensions, especially over slavery—itself a violent institution that would drive the nation to a bloody war.


Leave a Reply