160 years ago today, South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks bludgeoned his name into the annals of American history when he attacked and nearly killed Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner. Two days earlier, Sumner – responding to pro-slavery attacks in the territory of Kansas – had delivered a blistering speech on the Senate floor that implicated Brooks’s uncle Andrew Butler in the violence. The speech also contained very thinly veiled references to Butler’s rape of enslaved women. In doing so, Sumner broke the racist code of the south that turned a blind eye to sexually predatory relationships between white masters and black enslaved women, but was terrified of the reverse. For that crime, Brooks approached Sumner as the latter wrote at his Senate desk. Brooks beat him swiftly and severely, without warning, with a cane, so violently that the cane itself broke. Sumner was not a slight man, but caught in his desk he was unable to respond quickly. The attack left him bleeding profusely from head wounds that kept him from the Senate for two years, and which affected him for the rest of his life.

Grave of Charles Sumner, Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA

Throughout the Civil War, Sumner was an uncompromising voice for emancipation and against both slavery and its proponents. He was among the strongest voices calling on Lincoln to act against slavery, though the President initially resisted linking the Union cause to Emancipation. Sumner linked freedom and civilization, slavery and barbarism; there was a millennial feel to his speeches and writings on the subject. But his thinking began to shift after the war; his support for civil rights did not waver but his attacks on southern life did. Sumner supported the Liberal Republicans against President Grant in 1872, believing Grant’s administration was corrupt in part because Grant took action against KKK violence in the south, and used federal arms to enforce African American political and social participation. In so doing, Sumner was taking part in a long history of American liberalism: a belief that the logic of liberation would always be triumphant over revanchism, and that any extra effort to enforce liberation must in itself also be corrupt. We see echoes of Sumner throughout the long civil rights struggle, as northern liberals professed support for equality yet turned a blind eye to southern violence and segregation because they saw intervention as illiberal. We see it today, in resistance to modern protest movements as people talk about legal equality while overlooking embedded and deep structural inequality.

For Sumner, the collapse of slavery and the passage of Constitutional amendments guaranteeing citizenship were enough; he simply couldn’t or wouldn’t see that laws are only real if they are enforced vigorously and enemies of equality are identified as such without hesitation.


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