Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Head of Preston Brooks's Cane


I’ve really enjoyed looking around the website devoted to Isaac Bassett and his unpublished recollections concerning his sixty-four years of service in the Senate (1831-1895). Here’s another account that grabbed my attention.

Although the Senate was not in session when Rep. Preston Brooks attacked Senator Charles Sumner, Bassett was in the Senate chamber when Brooks entered on May 22, 1856. As a result, Bassett was an eyewitness to ensuing events:
I witness[ed] the attack on Senator Sumner by Mr. Brooks of South Carolina in 1856. Sumner was sitting in his seat, addressing the speech to his constituents when Mr. Brooks approached him from the front aisle (this was on the 22 of May) and said, “I have come over from the House to chastise you for the remarks that you made. I have read your speech, it is a libel on South Carolina and against my relative Senator Butler.” At the same time raising his cane, and struck him three time [sic] on the head. Mr. Sumner arose from his seat and made an effort to take hold of Mr. Brooks, but the last blow brought him to the floor. It was all done in a minute. As soon as he fell Senator Cass, myself and Arthur Gorman and several lifted him up, and we led him out to the Reception Room of the Senate. I got towels and a basin of water. Washed his head. He walked back down to the front door of the Capitol, got a hack, and went to his lodgings. In the meantime, Brooks and his friends, Mr. Edmundson of Virginia and Mr. Keitt of South Carolina, returned to the House. The cane that Mr. Brooks used was broken in small pieces. I have a piece now in my possession. It was a gutta percha cane an inch thick, the cane broke into fragments. It was the speech that Mr. Sumner delivered on the 19 and 20 of May that caused Mr. Brooks to cane him.

Mr. St. John, one of the employees of the Senate, was picking up the loose paper from the floor and picked up the head of Mr. Brooks’ cane. Mr. Douglas then being in the Senate asked him for it. He gave it to him. What Mr. Douglas done with it I never knew.

All of which raises the question: What did Senator Douglas do with the head of Preston Brooks’s cane?

About the illustration:
A dramatic portrayal, clearly biased toward the northern point of view, of an incident in Congress which inflamed sectional passions in 1856. The artist recreates the May 22 attack and severe beating of Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner by Representative Preston S. Brooks of South Carolina. Brooks's actions were provoked by Sumner's insulting public remarks against his cousin, Senator Andrew Pickens Butler, and against Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas, delivered in the Senate two days earlier. The print shows an enraged Brooks (right) standing over the seated Sumner in the Senate chamber, about to land on him a heavy blow of his cane. The unsuspecting Sumner sits writing at his desk. At left is another group. Brooks's fellow South Carolinian Representative Lawrence M. Keitt stands in the center, raising his own cane menacingly to stay possible intervention by the other legislators present. Clearly no help for Sumner is forthcoming. Behind Keitt's back, concealed in his left hand, Keitt holds a pistol. In the foreground are Georgia senator Robert Toombs (far left) and Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas (hands in pockets) looking vindicated by the event. Behind them elderly Kentucky senator John J. Crittenden is restrained by a fifth, unidentified man. Above the scene is a quote from Henry Ward Beecher's May 31 speech at a Sumner rally in New York, where he proclaimed, "The symbol of the North is the pen; the symbol of the South is the bludgeon." David Tatham attributes the print to the Bufford shop, and suggests that the Library's copy of the print, the only known example, may have been a trial impression, and that the print may not actually have been released. The attribution to [Winslow] Homer was first made by Milton Kaplan.

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