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The Caning of Charles Sumner

, 160 pages

6 halftones

March 2010



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The Caning of Charles Sumner

Honor, Idealism, and the Origins of the Civil War



A signal, violent event in the history of the United States Congress, the caning of Charles Sumner on the Senate floor embodied the complex North-South cultural divide of the mid-nineteenth century. Williamjames Hull Hoffer's vivid account of the brutal act demonstrates just how far the sections had drifted apart and explains why the coming war was so difficult to avoid.

Sumner, a noted abolitionist and gifted speaker, was seated at his Senate desk on May 22, 1856, when Democratic Congressman Preston S. Brooks approached, pulled out a gutta-percha walking stick, and struck him on the head. Brooks continued to beat the stunned Sumner, forcing him to the ground and repeatedly striking him even as the cane shattered. He then pursued the bloodied, staggering Republican senator up the Senate aisle until Sumner collapsed at the feet of Congressman Edwin B. Morgan. Colleagues of the two intervened only after Brooks appeared intent on beating the unconscious Sumner severely—and, perhaps, to death.

Sumner's crime? Speaking passionately about the evils of slavery, which dishonored both the South and Brooks’s relative, Senator Andrew P. Butler. Celebrated in the South for the act, Brooks was fined only three hundred dollars, dying a year later of a throat infection. Sumner recovered and served out a distinguished Senate career until his death in 1873.

Hoffer's narrative recounts the caning and its aftermath, explores the depths of the differences between free and slave states in 1856, and explains the workings of the Southern honor culture as opposed to Yankee idealism. Hoffer helps us understand why Brooks would take such great offense at a political speech and why he chose a cane—instead of dueling with pistols or swords—to meet his obligation under the South’s prevailing code of honor. He discusses why the courts meted out a comparatively light sentence. He addresses the importance of the event in the national crisis and shows why such actions are not quite as alien to today’s politics as they might at first seem.

Williamjames Hull Hoffer is an associate professor of history at Seton Hall University and the author of To Enlarge the Machinery of Government: Congressional Debates and the Growth of the American State, 1858–1891, also published by Johns Hopkins.

"Hoffer, professor of history, recounts preceding events, the attack itself, as well as the aftermath in an excellent work of historical analysis... This will be a valuable addition to Civil War collections."

"An extraordinary and valuable study of what these events of history reveal not only about America of the past, but also America of today, The Caning of Charles Sumner is highly recommended especially for college library collections and American Civil War shelves."

"The short length, subject, and writing style of The Caning of Charles Sumner will make this text a staple in survey and upper-level American history classes alike."

" The Caning of Charles Sumner should appeal to both academics and non-academics, but it is perhaps most useful as a supplemental text in undergraduate American history survey courses. The book likewise would be a welcome addition to reading lists in graduate seminars, especially those on the Old South or the Civil War."

" The Caning of Charles Sumner attempts to place the incident as well as its primary figures within their temporal, cultural, moral, and ethical contexts... In its careful analysis of the evidence and its generally balanced conclusions, the author has succeeded."

"His smooth style will allow students to engage with the material."

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