You wouldn’t say that Preston Brooks sucker-punched Charles Sumner in the Senate chamber in 1856—but only because he used a cane. Brooks, a South Carolina congressman, began bludgeoning Sumner, the anti-slavery Massachusetts senator, while Sumner wasn’t looking, and beat him unconscious as Sumner was still bent under his desk trying to stand up.
Brooks and his supporters in the South saw the incident as an act of great valor, as the historian Manisha Sinha writes. Brooks bragged that “for the first five or six licks he offered to make fight but I plied him so rapidly that he did not touch me. Towards the last he bellowed like a calf.” The pro-slavery Richmond Enquirer wrote that it considered the act “good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequence.” Other “southern defenders of Brooks,” Sinha writes, praised Brooks for his “manly spirit” and mocked Sumner for his “unmanly submission.” It would have been manlier for the unarmed Sumner not to have been ambushed.
The impetus for Brooks’s attack on Sumner was that Sumner had mocked Brooks’s second cousin, South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, for his support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The law put the question of slavery in the territories to a popular vote, exacerbating the tensions between North and South that would eventually lead to the Civil War. Sumner gave a speech accusing Butler of having chosen “the harlot, slavery,” as his “mistress.” Brooks’s defense of Southern honor was to ambush an unarmed man reaching under his desk. As Sinha writes, Brooks later said that attacking Sumner with a cane, rather than challenging him to a duel, was an attempt to humiliate Sumner for his abolitionism by treating him like a slave. Brooks was reelected after resigning in protest of being fined for the incident.