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.
Peter Charles Hoffer and Williamjames Hull Hoffer broaden our understanding of the role that lawyers played in framing and resolving the British imperial crisis. The revolutionary lawyers, including John Adams’s idol James Otis, Jr., Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson, and Virginians Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, along with Adams and others, deployed the skills of their profession to further the public welfare in challenging times. They were the framers of the American Revolution and the governments that followed. Loyalist lawyers and lawyers for the crown also participated in this public discourse, but because they lost out in the end, their arguments are often slighted or ignored in popular accounts. This division within the colonial legal profession is central to understanding the American Republic that resulted from the Revolution.
Through close readings of debates centered around sponsorship, supervision, and standardization recorded in the Congressional Globe and Congressional Record during this period, Williamjames Hull Hoffer traces a critical shift in ideas that ultimately ushered in Progressive legislation: the willingness of American citizens to allow, and in fact ask for, federal intervention in their daily lives. He describes this era of congressional thought as a "second state," distinct from both the minimalist approaches that came before and the Progressive state building that developed later. The "second state" era, Hoffer contends, offers valuable insight into how conceptions of American uniqueness contributed to the shape of the federal government.