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Bloody anniversary: This brave senator was bludgeoned as tempers flared over slavery in Kansas

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Bloody anniversary: This brave senator was bludgeoned as tempers flared over slavery in Kansas

May 22, 2024 | 4:33 am ET
By Clay Wirestone
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Never forget: A senator was bludgeoned as tempers flared over slavery in Kansas 168 years ago
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South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks attacks Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner in the U.S. Senate chambers on May 22, 1856, in this illustration. (U.S. Senate)

Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner risked his life for the sake of Kansans’ freedom.

On May 22, 1856 — 168 years ago — he suffered a beating at the hands of unhinged South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks. Sumner had just delivered a fiery speech about the evils of slavery and its supporters in the chamber. Its title? “The Crime Against Kansas.” At that time, the status of the soon-to-be state was contested between pro- and anti-slavery forces.

Brooks approached Sumner at his desk in the chamber and beat him into unconsciousness. The Massachusetts lawmaker suffered grave injuries, both physical and mental; he spent the better part of three years away from Washington, D.C.

It was, in the words of the Senate Historical Office, “one of the most dramatic and deeply ominous moments in the Senate’s entire history.”

Northerners could scarcely believe the news, and the newly formed Republican Party made substantial electoral gains. Its presidential candidate, John C. Fremont, nearly won that fall. Southerners cheered the violence, reelecting Brooks to his office and sending him hundreds of canes as gifts.

The path toward Civil War had been laid.

Summer’s legacy can be seen across Kansas today. Sumner County, which contains Wellington and Belle Plaine, was established Feb. 26, 1867, and named for the senator, according to the book “1001 Kansas Place Names.” So was Sumner Academy of of Arts and Science in Kansas City, Kansas, once a segregated institution but now a magnet school for high-performing students. The onetime Sumner Elementary School in Topeka was at the center of the Brown v. Board of Education case.

We remember Sumner’s name.

But we should also remember that Sumner was right.

His  abolitionist beliefs were intellectually and morally correct. The institution of slavery was evil, yet millions of Americans believed it was divinely pre-ordained. They were willing to sacrifice themselves and their families to defend white supremacy. According to most recent estimates, 750,000 people died in the U.S. Civil War. All for the cause of keeping humans as property.

A contemporary cartoon lampoons Rep. Preston Brooks, who attached Sen. Charles Sumner in Senate chambers on May 22, 1856.
Another contemporary illustration lampoons the Southern heritage of Rep. Preston Brooks, who attacked Sen. Charles Sumner in Senate chambers on May 22, 1856. (Library of Congress)

We cannot forget that simply holding an opinion forcefully and deeply does not make it correct. Your passion for a cause does not impart any virtue to you or to the cause.

Sumner was caustic and disliked by his colleagues in the Senate. Indeed he may have achieved more if he had been more willing to compromise on the rights and the lives of people who were different than him. He died without achieving his most important goal: a sweeping civil rights law that did not come to fruition until 1964. That was 80 years after his death.

Here’s a taste of Sumner’s oratory, taken directly from that fateful 1856 speech: “When the whole world, alike Christian and Turk, is rising up to condemn this wrong, and to make it a hissing to the nations, here in our Republic, force, aye, sir, FORCE has been openly employed in compelling Kansas to this pollution, and all for the sake of political power.”

Kansans should know about Sumner’s principled stances, not just his name or a bloody few moments in the Senate chambers.

You can’t write about the statesman or his legacy, however, without asking yourself how 1856 compares with 2024. We’ve made substantial progress toward freedom and equality, thank goodness. I like to think that our Massachusetts lawmaker would feel some pride in his country over that.

How about our ability to debate challenging issues? Can we navigate our difference? If not, do we also face a slow descent into bloody madness and civil conflict?

We haven’t seen senators or representatives fighting on the floors of their respective chambers. Tough words may be exchanged, but so far we have not seen members of the Freedom Caucus beating up members of The Squad, or vice versa. That’s a good thing.

Yet threats of violence have become distressingly frequent in Kansas. You only have to remember the effigy of President Joe Biden enthusiastically beaten at a GOP fundraising event in Johnson County. You only have to look at the case of Wichita man who was sentenced to 21 months in jail for threatening to kill Biden.

I pray that the grim months of 1856 and the years that followed remain deep in the history books. But I fear they’re closer than any of us acknowledge.

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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