The 1850s saw the House bitterly divided over the issue of slavery, which led to one of the more incendiary and violent events in congressional history. On May 22, 1856, Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina entered the Senate Chamber and repeatedly struck Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts over the head with a cane. The assault was in reaction to a speech in which Sumner criticized slavery and the Senators who supported it, including Andrew Butler, a relative of Brooks.
The day after the attack, the House passed a resolution to establish a select committee to investigate the incident, and Speaker Nathaniel Banks of Massachusetts appointed five Members to look into the matter. The sworn testimony of Senator Albert Brown of Mississippi, whom Brooks spoke with shortly after the incident, describes Brooks’s justification for the attack: “Regarding the speech (of Mr. Sumner) as an attrocious [sic] libel on South Carolina, and a gross insult to my absent relative (Judge Butler), I determined, when it was delivered, to punish him for it.” The select committee recommended expelling Brooks from Congress, but the resolution did not secure the necessary two-thirds vote when it reached the House Floor. On July 15, 1856, Brooks resigned in protest, but was quickly returned to the seat he vacated by a special election held just one month later.