Preston S. Brooks, US Congress

Is your surname Brooks?

Research the Brooks family

Preston S. Brooks, US Congress's Geni Profile

Share your family tree and photos with the people you know and love

  • Build your family tree online
  • Share photos and videos
  • Smart Matching™ technology
  • Free!


Preston Smith Brooks, Sr.

Birthdate: (37)
Birthplace: Edgefield District, Newberry, South Carolina, USA
Death: January 27, 1857 (37)
Washington, , D.C., USA
Place of Burial: Edgefield Village Cemetery Edgefield County South Carolina
Immediate Family:

Son of Whitfield Butler Brooks and Mary Parsons Brooks
Husband of Martha Caroline Brooks and Caroline Harper Means
Father of Preston Smith Brooks, Jr.; Rosa McBee; Caroline Harper Bird; Mary Carroll Addison and Sallie Means Brooks
Brother of John Hampden Brooks; Whitfield Butler Brooks; James Carroll Brooks; John Hampden Brooks; Ellen S. Brooks and 2 others

Managed by: Linda Sue
Last Updated:

About Preston S. Brooks, US Congress

Preston Smith Brooks (August 5, 1819 – January 27, 1857) was a Democratic Congressman from South Carolina during the period just prior to the US Civil War.

Brooks is primarily remembered for severely beating Senator Charles Sumner with a metal-tipped gutta-percha cane on the floor of the United States Senate. Brooks' attack, assisted by fellow Southerner Rep Laurence Keitt, was delivered as revenge (or "punishment", in Brooks' words) in response to a virulent abolitionist speech by Sumner in which he mocked Brooks' relative, South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, and likened Southern slaveholders to pimps. Sumner, who was known for his scathing abolitionist speeches, was severely injured by the attack, suffering head trauma that would cause him chronic pain and symptoms consistent with what would now be called traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, and spent three years convalescing before returning to his Senate seat. After being tried for his role in the assault, Brooks was fined $300 and received no prison sentence. Brooks and Keitt were both overwhelmingly re-elected by their South Carolina constituents.

Brooks' act and the polarizing national reaction to it to are frequently cited as a major factor in the acceleration of tensions leading up to the US Civil War.

Early life

Born in Roseland, Edgefield County, South Carolina, he was the son of Whitfield and Mary Parsons-Carroll Brooks. Brooks attended South Carolina College (now known as the University of South Carolina) but was expelled just before graduation for threatening local police officers with firearms. In 1840 Brooks fought a duel with future Texas Senator Louis T. Wigfall and was shot in the hip, forcing him to use a walking cane for the rest of his life. He was admitted to the Bar in 1845. Brooks served in the Mexican-American War with the Palmetto Regiment.


First marriage: Caroline Harper Means (1820–1843). Brooks was widowed upon her death. Children: Whitfield D. Brooks (1843–1843).

Second marriage: Martha Caroline Means (1826–?). Children: Caroline Harper Brooks (1849–1924), Rosa Brooks (1850–?), Preston Smith Brooks (1854–?).

Political career

He was a member of the South Carolina State house of representatives in 1844. Brooks was elected to the 33rd United States Congress in 1853. Brooks was officially associated with the Democratic Party.

In March 1856, Brooks wrote: "The fate of the South is to be decided with the Kansas issue. If Kansas becomes a hireling [i.e. free] State, slave property will decline to half its present value in Missouri ... [and] abolitionism will become the prevailing sentiment. So with Arkansas; so with upper Texas."

Sumner assault

On May 22, 1856, Brooks beat Senator Sumner with his heavy walking cane in the Senate chamber. The cause was a speech Sumner had made two days before about the Kansas issue in which he had unleashed his invective against, among others, a relative of Brooks, Senator Andrew Butler. Butler was not in attendance when the speech was given. In it Sumner compared Butler with Don Quixote for embracing a prostitute (slavery) as his mistress, saying Butler "believes himself a chivalrous knight."

"Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight. I mean the harlot Slavery."

Sumner also mocked Butler for a physical handicap. Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, who was also a subject of criticism during the speech, suggested to a colleague while Sumner was orating that "this damn fool [Sumner] is going to get himself shot by some other damn fool." Hoffer (2010) says, "It is also important to note the sexual imagery that recurred throughout the oration, which was neither accidental nor without precedent. Abolitionists routinely accused slaveholders of maintaining slavery so that they could engage in forcible sexual relations with their slaves."

At first intending to challenge Sumner to a duel, Brooks consulted with fellow South Carolina Rep. Laurence M. Keitt on dueling etiquette. Keitt instructed him that dueling was for gentlemen of equal social standing, and suggested that Sumner occupied a lower social status comparable to a drunkard due to the coarse language he had used during his speech in which he insulted Butler and called Douglas "a noisome, squat, and nameless animal". Brooks thus decided to "punish" Sumner with a cane.

On the afternoon of May 22, Brooks confronted Sumner as he sat writing letters at his desk in the almost empty Senate chamber. Brooks was accompanied by Keitt and US House Rep. Henry A. Edmundson of Virginia, a personal friend with his own history of legislative violence, having been arrested by the House Sergeant at Arms after attempting to attack Rep. Lewis D. Campbell of Ohio during a tense debate on the House floor in May 1854. Brooks said, "Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine." As Sumner began to stand up, Brooks began beating Sumner with his thick gutta-percha cane with a gold head. Sumner was trapped under the heavy desk (which was bolted to the floor), but Brooks continued to strike Sumner until the latter wrenched the desk from the floor in an attempt to escape. By this time, Sumner was blinded by his own blood, and he staggered up the aisle and collapsed, lapsing into unconsciousness. Several other senators attempted to help Sumner, but were blocked by Keitt, who was brandishing a pistol and shouting "Let them be!" Brooks continued to beat Sumner until he broke his cane, then quietly left the chamber with Keitt and Edmunson.

Sumner was unable to return to his Senate duties for more than three years while he recovered, and suffered chronic pain and debilitation for the rest of his life.

After the attack

The national reaction to Brooks' attack was bitterly divided along regional lines. Never before in US history had a sitting Congressman attacked a colleague, much less on the actual Senate floor, and Senators began carrying concealed knives and revolvers into the Senate chamber to protect themselves. Northerners, even moderates previously opposed to Sumner's extreme abolitionist invective, were universally shocked and disgusted to see a US Congressman bludgeon a defenseless colleague into bloody unconsciousness on the floor of the national legislature, citing it as evidence that the South had lost interest in national debate and begun relying on "the bludgeon, the revolver, and the bowie-knife" to display their feelings and silence their opponents. J.L Magee's political cartoon famously expressed the general Northern sentiment that the South's vaunted chivalry had degenerated into "Argument versus Clubs".

In contrast, Brooks was widely cheered across the South, particularly in his home state of South Carolina, where his attack on Sumner was seen as a legitimate and socially justifiable act, upholding the honor of his family name (and the South as a whole) in the face of intolerable insults from a social inferior (and the North as a whole). South Carolinians sent Brooks dozens of brand new canes, with one bearing the phrase, "Good job." The Richmond Enquirer crowed: "We consider the act good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequences. These vulgar abolitionists in the Senate must be lashed into submission." The University of Virginia's Jefferson Literary and Debating Society sent a gold-headed cane to replace Brooks' broken one.

Brooks survived an expulsion vote in the House but resigned his seat, claiming both that he "meant no disrespect to the Senate of the United States" by attacking Sumner and that he did not intend to kill him, for he would have used a different weapon if he had. His constituents returned him to Congress. However, Brooks' attack on Sumner was regarded in the North as the act of a cowardly barbarian. One of the most bitter critics of the attack was Sumner's fellow New Englander, Congressman Anson Burlingame. When Burlingame denounced Brooks as a coward on the floor of the House, Brooks challenged him to a duel, and Burlingame accepted the challenge. Burlingame, as the challenged party, specified rifles as the weapons, and to get around American anti-dueling laws he named the Navy Yard on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls as the site. Brooks, reportedly dismayed by both Burlingame's unexpectedly enthusiastic acceptance and his reputation as a crack shot, neglected to show up, instead citing unspecified risks to his safety if he was to cross "hostile country" (the Northern states) in order to reach Canada. He was subsequently mocked as a coward by Northern press and Senators for the rest of his life. Brooks remained in office until his death from the croup in 1857. He was buried in Edgefield, South Carolina.

Brooks' fellow South Carolinan, Sen. Laurence Keitt, who assisted him during the assault on Sumner, would later initiate another incident of legislative violence on the Senate floor in 1858 when he attacked and attempted to choke Sen. Galusha Grow of Pennsylvania for calling him a "negro driver". Keitt would later die fighting for the Confederacy at the Battle of Cold Harbor in 1864.


The city of Brooksville, Florida (previously known as Melendez), and Brooks County, Georgia, are named in Brooks' honor.

view all

Preston S. Brooks, US Congress's Timeline

August 8, 1819
Edgefield District, Newberry, South Carolina, USA
Age 25
South Carolina, USA
January 31, 1846
Age 26
Ninety-Six, , South Carolina, USA
April 6, 1847
Age 27
Edgefield District, Newberry, South Carolina, USA
Age 29
August 5, 1854
Age 34
Edgefield District, Newberry, South Carolina, USA
January 27, 1857
Age 37
Washington, , D.C., USA
Edgefield Village Cemetery Edgefield County South Carolina