Congressman. Brooks, the son of Whitfield Brooks and Mary Carroll, was born on August 6, 1819, on the family plantation near the town of Edgefield. He attended Moses Waddel’s academy at Willington and went on to South Carolina College, from which he was expelled in 1839 just prior to his graduation. Following the death of his first wife, Caroline H. Means, whom he had married on March 11, 1841, Brooks married her cousin Martha C. Means in 1843. His second marriage produced four children. In 1844 Edgefield District elected him to the General Assembly, where he served a single term. During the Mexican War, Brooks served as captain of the Ninety Six Company of the Palmetto Regiment and then returned to private life as a planter. In 1852 Brooks stood for election to the U.S. House of Representatives as a States’ Rights Democrat and was elected to the Thirty-third (1853–1854) and Thirty-fourth (1855– 1857) Congresses.
A political moderate, Brooks had a career in Congress that revolved around the issue of slavery in the territories, specifically the political repercussions of the Wilmot Proviso and the Compromise of 1850. Believing sectional compromises on slavery and tariff legislation never worked in the South’s favor, he favored a policy of congressional nonintervention regarding both the national economy and slavery in the territories. He welcomed the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 as a sign of the North’s willingness to open all the western territories to settlement by southerners. But when northern Democrats insisted that Congress or territorial governments could restrict the legal protection of slavery, Brooks’s enthusiasm for the Democratic Party and his hope for the Union began to wane.
Brooks is best known for his assault on U.S. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts in May 1856. Following the eruption of violence on the Kansas frontier, Sumner delivered a speech unusually harsh by the Senate’s standards. He assailed South Carolina’s role in American history (especially during the Revolutionary War) and even attacked by name Senator Andrew P. Butler (who was a distant cousin of Brooks). With the aged Butler unable to defend himself or his state, the task fell to his nearest relative, Congressman Brooks, whose familiarity with South Carolina’s traditions of family honor was surpassed only by his fluency with the code duello. After considering his alternatives and waiting for Senator Sumner to apologize publicly, Brooks decided to punish Sumner. On May 22 he entered the Senate chamber after the Senate had adjourned and found Sumner at his desk. Brooks delivered several blows to Sumner’s head with a gutta-percha cane, and the senator fell senseless to the floor.
Violence among congressmen and senators was not unknown before the Civil War, but heightened sectional and party tensions propelled the Brooks-Sumner affair to national prominence. To many northerners, the incident highlighted the impetuousness of proslavery advocates. Many southerners appreciated Brooks’s courage, and several state legislatures passed resolutions supporting him. The historian William Gienapp considered the affair to be a key factor in the emergence of the Republican Party in the North.
A special House committee recommended Brooks’s expulsion, but its report failed to receive the necessary two-thirds vote. Though Brooks denied the House’s constitutional jurisdiction over the matter, he resigned in July 1856 and was subsequently reelected to fill his own vacancy. He died suddenly on January 27, 1857, in Washington, D.C., and was interred at Willow Brook Cemetery, Edgefield.
Gienapp, William E. “The Crime against Sumner: The Caning of Charles Sumner and the Rise of the Republican Party.” Civil War History 25 (September 1979): 218–45.
Mathis, Robert Neil. “Preston Smith Brooks: The Man and His Image.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 79 (October 1978): 296–310.