MCCONNELL: People think Congress is divided, but no one has ‘almost beat to death a senator on the floor of the Senate’ like in 1856

The Caning of Charles Sumner
A lithograph of the Caning of Charles Sumner John Magee/Wikimedia

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, during a speech Thursday in Kentucky, colorfully addressed the seemingly massive chasm between his party and Democrats in Congress.

The healthcare fight, the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, and the dual congressional investigations into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia all cleaved open partisan lines during the first half of 2017.

McConnell said it may look bad now, but he said it’s nothing compared to Congress in centuries past.

An NBC reporter relayed from the speech (emphasis added):

“I frequently have people come up to me and say, gosh, you guys seem like you just don’t do anything together, seem like you guys don’t like each other. And I always respond as follows, I say, anything you may have heard any of us say about each other pales in comparison to what Thomas Jefferson and John Adams said about each other. And it ain’t anywhere closer to what Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton said about each other. And we haven’t had a single incident where a congressman come over to the Senate and almost beat to death a Senator on the floor of the Senate. We haven’t had a single incident like that. So my point is, we’ve always had big debates in this country, what’s different today is that we all hear about it.”

The incident to which McConnell was referring to is the caning of Sen. Charles Sumner in 1856 by South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks.

Sumner, who was vehemently anti-slavery, spoke out on the Senate floor and ripped Sen. Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina for their desire to admit Kansas to the US as a slave state.

Brooks took exception to the attacks on Butler. Two days later, he decided to take up the issue with Sumner on the Senate floor, according to the official Senate history of the encounter.

From a post on the incident from the official Senate website:

“If he had believed Sumner to be a gentleman, he might have challenged him to a duel. Instead, he chose a light cane of the type used to discipline unruly dogs… Moving quickly, Brooks slammed his metal-topped cane onto the unsuspecting Sumner’s head. As Brooks struck again and again, Sumner rose and lurched blindly about the chamber, futilely attempting to protect himself. After a very long minute, it ended.”

Brooks immediately resigned. He was subsequently reelected, but died soon after his reelection.