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Violence in the US Senate

It was on this day in history, May 22, 1856, that an assault took place on the floor of the US Senate. The spark, as you might have guessed, was the debate over slavery. Would the new state of Kansas be allowed to embrace slavery by a popular vote? Massachusetts senator and abolitionist Charles Sumner gave a speech opposing such a vote, in which he called out his Southern colleagues who had written the Kansas-Nebraska Act -and called them some rather unflattering names. The speech spilled into the next day, and anger among those legislators only grew afterward. When Sumner arrived on May 22, Representative Preston S. Brooks of South Carolina went for him. A witness gave an account of what happened.   

    “I saw Colonel Brooks lean on and over the desk of Senator Sumner, and seemingly say something to him, and instantly, while Senator Sumner was in the act of rising, Colonel Brooks struck him over the head with a dark-colored walking cane, which blow he repeated twice or three times, and with rapidity. I think several blows had been inflicted before Senator Sumner was fully in possession of his locomotion, and extricated from his desk, which was thrown over or broken from its fastenings…

    As soon as Senator Sumner was free from the desk he moved down the narrow passage way under the impetuous drive of his adversary, with his hands up as though to ward off the blows which were rained on his head with as much quickness as was possible for any man to use a cane on another whom he was intent on chastising.”

Read the story of the caning of Senator Sumner and its aftermath at Atlas Obscura.

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