Preston Brooks and the Coming of the Civil War
Spring 2017 History Colloquium Series
As a history reading public, we know one thing about Preston Brooks for certain (and it is likely the only thing we know): on May 22, 1856, he walked onto the floor of the U.S. Senate and, for roughly a minute, brutally caned Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner two days after Sumner delivered “The Crime Against Kansas,” a speech in which, among other things, he accused Brooks’ second cousin, Senator Andrew Butler, of having taken the “harlot slavery” as a mistress. As Virginia Tech James I. Robertson, Jr. Associate Professor of Civil War Studies Paul Quigley noted in his April 12 talk at the Kinder Institute, the one-dimensionality of our understanding of Brooks is limiting for a number of reasons, perhaps most notably for how it obscures the way in which building out the context surrounding that day in history might help add depth, if not resolution, to ongoing discussions about the coming of the Civil War.
Drawing these kinds of through lines from 1856 to 1861 begins with examining what in many respects seem like expected sectional responses to Brooks’ violent attack on Sumner. Brooks was immediately lionized in the South and demonized in the North, and his death a short time after the caning was met with similarly conflicting providential rhetoric: it was evidence of martyrdom below the Mason-Dixon line and of divine retribution above it. These divided responses, Prof. Quigley went on to explain, map tidily onto familiar structural arguments regarding the causes of the Civil War. For Northerners, Brooks’ attack on Sumner was emblematic of a region whose general anti-democratic character had now begun to manifest itself not only in a support of slavery but also in a violent rejection of the humanity and equality of Northern citizens. For Southerners, coming on the heels of the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act (and, going back further, the nullification crisis), the attack was a justified defense of the prerogative of class from invasive Northern interests.
While by no means inaccurate, Prof. Quigley argued that these fundamentalist interpretations of the event perhaps undersell the more intricate ways in which Brooks fits into the causal narrative of the Civil War. In particular, he noted how the Southern response to the caning was not quite as uniform as it is often made out to be. While the action itself was endorsed, Southern voices were less enthusiastic about its nature, extent, site, and implement, a fact made even more interesting when viewed through the lens of Whitfield Brooks’ critique of his son as yielding too easily to mortifying expressions of emotion and as generally demonstrating a lack of restraint and spirit of indulgence that were indicative of a dearth of moral energy and a life too corporeal. Add to this nineteenth-century cultural conventions in the South concerning honor, masculine identity, and familial duty, and the story of Brooks becomes quite complex. Ultimately, Prof. Quigley concluded, incorporating these contingencies of biography and the history of emotions into an analysis of Brooks reveals questions being raised all over the country about the use of violence for political ends and, in this, demands that we think in more broadly binary terms—inward/outward, public/private—when laying out exactly what put the United States on a trajectory toward national crisis.
Paul Quigley is Director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies and the James I. Robertson, Jr. Associate Professor of Civil War History in the History Department at Virginia Tech. A native of Manchester, England, he holds degrees from Lancaster University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Quigley is the author of Shifting Grounds: Nationalism and the American South, 1848-65, which won the British Association for American Studies Book Prize and the Jefferson Davis Award from the Museum of the Confederacy. He has also published articles in journals such as the Journal of Southern History and Journal of the Civil War Era. Among his current research projects are a study of Preston Brooks, the South Carolina Congressman who achieved notoriety by caning Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate in 1856, and “Mapping the Fourth of July in the Civil War Era,” a collaborative digital humanities project with colleagues in Education, Computer Science, and the Virginia Tech libraries.