When a congressional fight drew blood

There has been much written about Alabama Republican Representative Mike Rogers, a McCarthy ally, nearly getting into a physical confrontation with Florida Republican Representative Matt Gaetz following the 14th ballot speakership vote on Friday, January 6. Kevin McCarthy was elected Speaker of the House on the 15th ballot, which was held in the early hours of Saturday, January 7.

By Sunday evening, Rogers and Gaetz had mended fences. Rogers tweeted, “I regret that I briefly lost my tempter on the House Floor Friday evening and appreciate Matt’s kind understanding.” Gaetz responded that he forgave Rogers, who shouldn’t face “any punishment or reprisal just because he had an animated moment.”

During those hours leading up to the final vote that gave McCarthy the speakership he had wanted for years, there was a lot of anger throughout “The People’s House.” Was it a prelude to future events?

Let’s look back to when an attack on the Senate floor drew blood.

In December 1855, as the country’s deep split over slavery grew, it took two months for the House of Representatives to elect a speaker. The pro-slavery and anti-slavery sides would not budge. The New York Tribune wrote during this ongoing saga:

This is not a mere contest as to a Speaker of the House; it is but an incident in a long and arduous struggle which is to determine whether slavery will be the pole star of our National career.

Finally, in January 1856, Republican abolitionist Nathaniel Banks was elected speaker, but he only lasted 13 months. Few expected any semblance of peace following the vote as Congress was filled with pro- and anti-slavery representatives and senators.

Image: Southern Chivalry, also known as The Caning of Charles Sumner, 1856.

On May 20, 1856, a few months after Banks won the speakership, Republican Senator Charles Sumner (Massachusetts) delivered a two-day-long speech entitled “The Crime Against Kansas.” In his lengthy anti-slavery speech, Sumner detailed the sordid slavery institution. Sumner called out Democrat Senator Andrew Butler (South Carolina), hinting that he and other southern slaveholders used their female slaves for sexual gratification. Those innuendos (which were true on many plantations) offended many southern senators.

Two days after his historic speech, South Carolina Democrat Representative Preston Brooks, who was Butler’s cousin, walked into the Senate chamber, went directly to Sumner’s desk, and began beating him over the head with a heavy wooden cane. Profusely bleeding, Sumner attempted to protect himself by pulling up his desk, which was bolted to the floor. Brooks kept hitting Sumner until his cane broke, and there was blood dripping all over the Senate floor.

The incident became known as “The Caning or Charles Sumner” or “The Brooks-Sumner Affair.” The anti-slavery side hailed Sumner as a hero for his two-day speech and his surviving the deadly assault. The pro-slavery side saw Brooks as a hero, with the representative receiving hundreds of new canes to replace the one broken in his attack on Sumner.

Although Brooks survived a House censure resolution, he resigned. However, he was quickly reelected, only to die soon after at age 37. Sumner had a long recovery but returned to the Senate, where he served for another 18 years.

The Civil War didn’t start until four years after this incident. However, many historians view the lengthy fight over electing a speaker, followed by Brooks’s murder attempt on Sumner, as a symbolic prelude to the catastrophic War Between the States.

Robin M. Itzler is a regular contributor to American Thinker. She can be reached at PatriotNeighbors@yahoo.com.

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