Assault In The Senate
Democratic lawmakers call for the expulsion of Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia over racist and abusive behavior, for her support of violent acts against other politicians, and her amplification of QAnon and other false conspiracies. Missouri Congresswoman Cori Bush asks to have her offices moved away from Taylor Greene’s due to her confrontations. Muslim members of Congress feel personally threatened — in a publicity stunt, Greene once roamed the Capitol trying to compel Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib to re-swear their oaths of office on the Bible because they’d taken theirs on the Koran.
In addition to Greene, one House Democrat told CNN, “”There have been increasing tensions with certain incoming freshmen for months, who have been insistent on bringing firearms in violation of law and guidelines” — a reference to Republican Representatives Lauren Boebert of Colorado, and Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, among others.
The potential for violence is brewing in Congress itself, as Republicans welcome fringe extremists into their ranks. Many Republican lawmakers act as if this is much ado about nothing, as if such Member-on-Member violence would never happen under the golden dome of the Capitol.
But it has.
Those who dismiss the possibility of violence occurring would do well to recall the case of Senator Charles Sumner, a Republican abolitionist from Massachusetts who was beaten senseless at his desk in the Senate by a Democratic Representative, Preston Brooks of South Carolina.
Conversely, those Democrats who expect personal accountability out of Congress and its leadership might learn a sadder lesson from the lack of such demanded of Brooks.
What happened? The Senate Historian’s own site tells us:
On May 22, 1856, the “world’s greatest deliberative body” became a combat zone. In one of the most dramatic and deeply ominous moments in the Senate’s entire history, a member of the House of Representatives entered the Senate Chamber and savagely beat a senator into unconsciousness.
“The cane shattered as Brooks rained blow after blow on the hapless Sumner, but Brooks could not be stopped. Only after being physically restrained by others did Brooks end the pummeling,” one account tells it.
Brooks said his “Southern Honor” demanded he take retribution upon Sumner for a “libelous” takedown of one of his State’s Senators — who was also his cousin and kinsman.
Tensions were high as the country headed towards civil war. Sumner had delivered a fiery speech condemning slavery, demanding that Kansas be let into the Union as a Free State. The speech went on for two days, and included, among other things, a personal attack on South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler. Sumner called Butler an imbecile and said, “Senator Butler has chosen a mistress. I mean the harlot, slavery.”
And so Brooks let him have it. Seeking out Sumner in the Senate’s Chamber after adjournment, he surprised the Senator, who was writing at his desk. Brooks condemned him for the speech and then, without provocation, slammed his cane down over Sumner’s head. He raised it and struck the older man again. And again.
Sumner attempted to stand to fend off the blows and ripped his Senate desk from its floor mounting as he fell, instead. The gold or metal-topped cane shattered as Brooks continued beating Sumner, raining down blow after blow. According to the Senate Historian:
Brooks slammed his metal-topped cane onto the unsuspecting Sumner’s head. As Brooks struck again and again, Sumner rose and lurched blindly about the chamber, futilely attempting to protect himself.
Then, one contemporary report said, “Mr. Sumner sank perfectly unconscious to the floor, where he lay, bloody and dreadfully bruised till raised by his friends. His physicians say his wounds are the most severe flesh ones they ever saw on a man’s head...”
“After a very long minute, it ended. Bleeding profusely, Sumner was carried away. Brooks walked calmly out of the chamber without being detained by the stunned onlookers,” according to the Senate’s Historian.
Some reports faulted other Southern politicians for preventing interference, or in other ways not coming to Sumner’s aid at the time of the attack. According to one account, “Other southerners picked up pieces of the splintered cane; later, these scraps were fashioned into rings that many southern lawmakers wore on neck chains as a sign of solidarity with Brooks.”
Brooks suffered no political comeuppance for his actions. In an echo of contemporary situations, after the assault he simply walked out of the Capitol Building, unchallenged.
He became a hero to Southern slave owners. Replacement canes were sent to to him from all over the south, reportedly painted with sayings such as “Hit Him Again!”. Towns and counties would go on to change their names in Brooks’ honor.
The Northern Republicans attempted to have him expelled from Congress, but failed. He survived a House Censure Resolution — one of his defenses was that the House had no right to censure him for actions which occurred in the Senate’s Chamber. In the end, Brooks was charged a $300 fine for the assault. He resigned, but voters in South Carolina held events in his honor and reelected him immediately.
In a strange twist of fate, Brooks suffered what has been described as a painful and horrible death from the croup the next January, at age 37. He was given a hero’s funeral in his native South Carolina. But the hostility he represented festered and would not die. His assault on Sumner, condemned in the North and cheered in the South, became symbolic of the societal divides which led to the Civil War.
Meanwhile, his injuries would keep Charles Sumner from physically returning to the Senate for the next three years, but Massachusetts voters re-elected him despite this, feeling his empty chair in the Senate Chamber served as a symbol of Southern incivility. After he did return in person, Sumner served for another 15 years, and also served as a potent voice for the abolition of slavery as part of the preservation of the Union during the war.
Will history repeat itself? Let’s hope not. But just as we saw there was no magic shield of civic respect protecting the Capitol from the seditious rioters incited by Donald Trump and his allies, we should remember that history provides no comfort when it comes to Member-on-Member violence in the Congress of the United States.
Congressional violence and thuggery was celebrated by the followers of those who supported slavery and led the United States into the Civil War. We hear echoes of those celebrations in current attempts to deny culpability for the Capitol rioters and those who incited them.
Perhaps we need worry less about repeating history than we do simply continuing it — the undercurrents of mean-spirited bitterness, hatred and racism in the populace running through Brooks’ day right up through now are hard to deny. Certainly, Member-on-Member violence in Congress would, once again, signal that a Point of No Return is approaching.