History Remembers Him as the Man Left Bloodied on the Senate Floor. His Legacy Tells a Different Story.
The notorious caning of Charles Sumner indelibly etched his name in history, but his legacy reveals a man ahead of his time.
While watching a recent news program about the history of caste, the anchor referenced a quote from Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner.
“The separation of children in the public schools of Boston on account of color or race is in the nature of caste and on this count is a violation of equality. Caste makes distinctions where God has made none.”
Although the quote itself is compelling, it was the name “Charles Sumner” that grabbed my attention.
You may have surmised from the context of the quote that Sumner is not a present-day senator. In fact, he served in the U.S. Senate from 1851–1874, yet, I have known of the story of Charles Sumner for years.
In 1856, while seated at his desk in the Senate chamber, Sumner was violently attacked by South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks. While gun-toting aids held would-be saviors at bay, Brooks used a gold-tipped cane to strike blow after blow upon Sumner’s head and torso. Eventually, the cane broke and Sumner was left bloodied and unconscious on the Senate floor.
The attack shocked the nation, reverberated around the globe, and was acknowledged as one of the first of many defining moments that edged the United States to all-out Civil War.
The impetus of the assault was Sumner’s remarks in his “Crime Against Kansas” speech in which he pleaded that Kansas be entered into the Union as a free state, not a slave state. The unapologetic abolitionist, directly called out fellow Sen. Andrew Butler, D-S.C., for his robust support of slavery.
“The Senator from South Carolina 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.”
Sumner’s 4-hour, 100-page speech, which was delivered over two days, reserved nearly five full pages for Mr. Butler.
If the slave states cannot enjoy what in mockery of the great fathers of the Republic, he misnames equality under the constitution — in other words the full power in the National Territories to compel fellow men to unpaid toil, to separate husband and wife, and to sell little children at the auction block — then sir, the chivalric senator will conduct the State of South Carolina out of the Union!
Considering the tongue lashing a great insult upon his family and his Southern sensibilities, Butler’s cousin, Brooks, sought to even the score.
To be fair, Sumner’s barbs were legendary. One of the greatest orators in history, Sumner was highly educated, deeply curious, religiously reverent and so devout in his righteous indignation on the issue of slavery that he saw no room for compromise on the matter.
His voluminous speeches are well documented and embody an absolute, unwavering view that every human upon the Earth deserves God’s grace and that any act of inequality is a desecration of the will of God. A loving God could never sanction such an aberration as slavery.
After President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in the Confederate states, Sumner spoke out against the Black Code in the South which essentially prevented slaves from living freely and he demanded that laws be passed to protect them.
“Slavery must be abolished not in form only, but in substance, so that there shall be no Black Code, but all shall be Equal before the Law.” He later continued, “In the name of God, let us protect them! Insist upon guaranties. Pass the bill now under consideration — pass any bill — but do not let this crying injustice rage any longer. An avenging God cannot sleep while such things find countenance. If you are not ready to be the Moses of an oppressed people, do not become its Pharaoh!”
With his prose as sharp as his mind and his convictions absolute, Sumner’s arrogance and defiant hostility toward segregationists left little room for compromise. Nonetheless, it is clear that he and his abolitionist compatriots were on the right side of history; yet, they were on the wrong side of time. Despite his most ardent and impassioned efforts, the immoral indignities he railed against were no match for the abridged morality of the self-interested.
The fact is, Charles Sumner lost.
After the attack, Sumner convalesced for nearly three years while recovering from his injuries. He eventually returned to the Senate and resumed his fight, steadfastly determined to pass a civil rights bill that would guarantee equality for all.
As for Preston Brooks, he became a hero of the South. Hundreds of admirers sent him new canes to replace the one he broke. One Florida city revered him so, they renamed their town in his honor — Brooksville — where I live.
When we Brooksvillians retell the origins of how our city got its name, it’s treated as a historical footnote; a humorous anecdote suitable for an episode of Drunk History. We declare there is no relevance to present-day Brooksville, yet, there is evidence to the contrary. Our Confederate monument has stood proudly outside the courthouse for the last 104 years, and the grandest of Brooksville’s famous murals is dedicated to our Civil War gallantry. We are very proud of our Southern tradition and take deep offense to the whispers of our town still being racist. Our Confederate flag-wavers proclaim, “Heritage, not hate.”
Yet, observant visitors may notice that not all is equal in Brooksville.
As the story of Charles Sumner exemplifies, right or wrong, history has a way of defining us. It is a collection of snapshots in time that cannot be erased or undone. It is finite. Yet, our legacy is different. It is chosen by us and determined by time.
Preston Brooks left no legacy, only infamy. He died nine months after the attack from a violent bout of croup. He was only 37 years old.
Sumner, however, left a legacy as a man who dedicated his life to fighting for equality. After his death in 1874, and in honor of his dying wish, Congress passed The Civil Rights Act of 1875 allowing African-Americans to serve on juries and guaranteeing equal access to public transportation, and in all public accommodations. It was overturned by the Supreme Court eight years later. It wouldn’t be until the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — 90 years after his death — that his dream would finally be realized.
Charles Sumner was a man ahead of his time. Although history remembers him otherwise, his legacy tells a different story.
I wonder what Brooksville’s legacy will be.