Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 997
This is the grave of Preston Brooks.
Born in Edgefield, South Carolina in 1819, Brooks grew up in the South Carolina elite. For some reason, Edgefield had become the center of that state’s elite classes, with Calhoun setting up his plantation there and others following. A lot of this had to do with the weather being less hot up there. But why that particular town is not something I’ve really figured out. Anyway, Brooks grew up in the slaveholding class that was becoming increasingly radicalized into a secessionist movement. He was a kid when the nullification issue came to the forefront of American politics and Brooks imbibed the need for the southern slaveholding class to act in extremism very much in defense of vice. He was pretty awful from the time he was young. He went to whatever form of higher education existed in South Carolina, attending the precursor to the University of South Carolina. But he didn’t graduate. See, he was being a jerk for something or another and local police officers confronted him. So Brooks pulled his guns on the cops. This got his expelled. It also helped make him perfect political material for antebellum South Carolina.
After not graduating, Brooks passed the bar and became both a lawyer and plantation owner. He was deeply invested in southern violent norms, including duels. In 1840, he challenged future Texas Senator Louis Wigfall to a duel. Honor was challenged or some damn thing, who cares. Anyway, Wigfall didn’t kill Brooks but he totally plugged him in the hip. For the rest of his miserable life, Brooks had to use a cane. That would not stop his violence. It just gave him another weapon. Oh, Wigfall got shot too. These were classy guys all the way around.
This didn’t stop Brooks from being in the military when the U.S. stole half of Mexico to expand slavery, one of the most unjust acts of this horrible nation’s history. After all, he was a rich guy so he could serve, if you want to call it that. He was riding a horse most of the time anyway and telling poor people what to do, which is what his training told him was right. He was a captain in Company D of the Palmetto Regiment. By this time, he was already in the South Carolina legislature, as rich guys of his class got to do despite no qualifications or training except for being the most loathsome possible defender of slavery.
After the war, Brooks moved from the statehouse to Congress, being elected to the House in 1852. He was nothing more than a firebreathing racist on the House floor, denouncing northerners and defending any behavior whites committed toward the slave population. Just the worst possible human being, by which I mean pretty average for the history of South Carolina political leaders. For example, he was a huge proponent of bringing Kansas in to the Union as a slave state, despite the Missouri Compromise and the desire of the people who actually lived in Kansas. Like any good extremist, he claimed the future of slavery and thus the entire nation depended on whether whites in Kansas could beat, rape, murder, and torture Black people while extracting their labor for life.
Of course we all know Preston Brooks for one thing. That’s walking onto the Senate floor in 1856 and beating the abolitionist senator Charles Sumner nearly to death with his cane. Now, if you’ve seen one of these ceremonial canes popular with the elite of this time, you know that it’s a hell of a thing to beat someone with. These things were at least an inch thick. Brooks broke it on Sumner’s body. He hoped to kill him. The reason for this is that Sumner had insulted Brooks’ uncle, Senator Andrew Butler. Now, Brooks would have normally challenged Sumner to a duel. But see, duels were for men. Northern abolitionists were not men. They were cowards. Brooks knew Sumner would not duel him, which is true, as Sumner had massive contempt for the violent culture of the Southern plantation class. So Brooks got a bunch of his right-wing Congress friends to come to the Senate floor, where they would receive no legal consequence, surround Sumner, pin him down, and let Brooks beat him. Meanwhile, others, armed, held off Sumner’s friends with threats to their lives. It was arguably the worst moment in American congressional history. Brooks probably would have indeed killed Sumner. but some Senate members finally were able to tackle him. This view of the North has filled with cowards proved the ideological justification for the Civil War for the South, as they told southerners that the war wouldn’t last long because their enemies were too wimpy to put up a fight against real men. Yeah, about that…….
Brooks is unquestionably one of the most horrible villains of American history. However, we do need to put Sumner in some context. See, he was a righteous abolitionist. He was also an unmitigated asshole. The talk against slavery was harsh enough, comparing slaveowners to johns who can’t help but have sex with prostitutes, among other things. But Butler had recently had a stroke. And Sumner started making fun of him in the speech, both doing an imitation of Butler’s inability to speak and saying, “[He] touches nothing which he does not disfigure with error, sometimes of principle, sometimes of fact. He cannot open his mouth, but out there flies a blunder.” So Sumner was incredibly righteous in his condemnation of the slave power. He also made fun of stroke victims on the Senate floor. Now, if you want to say that it’s hilarious when a right-wing scumbag slaver has a stroke and we should have senators today that make fun of the physical infirmities of Chuck Grassley or someone, well, OK. But we should be clear about what we are talking about here. If you think Sumner is a hero, you should probably be OK with all that means, especially as we face an enemy just as evil today in the Senate. This hardly makes Brooks sympathetic. He was a slaver piece of garbage of the first order. But you know, it’s good to know the whole story.
Sumner nearly died, but did not. Brooks became a hero to the South. Sumner became a hero to the North. This attack moved the nation significantly toward the Civil War that it would see a few years later. The House soon voted on expulsion. But this vote was highly regional and partisan and it turned out that with a supermajority needed, even near murder would not get the friends of Brooks to vote against him. The vote was 121-95, short of the necessary supermajority. Brooks resigned just so that South Carolina could show how much they loved him and send him right back.
The story of Brooks’ cane went around. His supporters–racists one and all–send him replacement canes. But Brooks never saw them. That’s because he dropped dead from an attack of croup shortly after, which is basically being killed by diphtheria and flu-like symptoms. Meanwhile, Sumner would serve in the Senate for nearly 30 more years. The official telegram announcing Brooks’ death read, “He died a horrid death, and suffered intensely. He endeavored to tear his own throat open to get breath.” Sad. He was 37 years old.
Preston Brooks is buried in Edgefield Village Cemetery, Edgefield, South Carolina. If you want to vomit your breakfast, check out the ways that second grave photo, of the side, goes on about how Brooks is the prototype of southern manhood. Sure thing racists.
If you would like this series to visit other pro-slavery extremists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Maxcy Gregg is in Columbia, South Carolina and Thomas Hindman is in Helena, Arkansas. Previous posts in this series are archived here.