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History’s lessons for the Jan. 6 committee

This isn’t the first time a House committee investigated political violence in the Capitol

Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina beats abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts in the Senate chamber in 1856 in a lithograph by J.L. Magee. (New-York Historical Society/Getty Images)

When the House select committee released its findings, it seemed clearer than ever that the attack inside the U.S. Capitol building imperiled democratic government itself. According to the committee, the violent incident “asserts for physical force a prerogative over governments, constitutions, and laws,” which threatened to produce “a ‘reign of terror.' ”

The stakes could hardly have been higher.

This was not the House committee investigating Jan. 6, however, but rather one probing the events of May 22, 1856 — the day Rep. Preston S. Brooks (S.C.) walked into the Senate chamber and brutally assaulted Sen. Charles Sumner (Mass.) with his cane. A few days earlier, Sumner had delivered a speech criticizing slavery, South Carolina and even Brooks’s cousin, Sen. Andrew P. Butler. Brooks claimed he had no choice but to seek vengeance. His manhood, honor and loyalty to his constituents demanded it.

The committee’s prompt and thorough investigation of Brooks’s attack revealed the necessity of exposing political violence, something the Jan. 6 investigation probably will confront in the weeks and months ahead.

While Brooks freely admitted his guilt, it was up to the select committee to decide how the House should respond. The more conservative Senate had already determined that even though the attack had taken place on its turf, it had no authority over Brooks. It was up to the House about how — and even whether — to discipline him.

The House established the committee the day after the caning, and the next day Speaker Nathaniel P. Banks appointed its members: two proslavery Southern Democrats and three northerners from the newly emerging Republican Party. They conducted a thorough investigation and produced a report in just eight days.

The committee interviewed more than 20 witnesses, most of them congressmen or staffers who had observed the incident or its aftermath. Unlike today, no subpoenas were necessary because no one declined an interview request. Once the investigation was underway, no one challenged the committee’s fundamental authority. Everyone, evidently, wished to have their say. The committee requested no documents; all the evidence came from interviews.

Committee members quizzed witnesses over the details of the assault. Had Brooks given Sumner enough time to realize what was happening before commencing his blows? Was it a two-way fight — a “rencounter” in the parlance of the day — or a one-sided surprise attack? To what degree were Brooks’s friends and fellow Southern Reps. Lawrence M. Keitt and Henry A. Edmundson in on the plan? Was the cane of sufficient heft to seriously threaten Sumner’s life? Answers and questions alike betrayed a whole spectrum of preconceived notions about the appropriate use of violence as well as the morality of slavery.

Truth was no less partisan in 1856 than it is today. The Democratic and Republican members, divided not just by partisan differences but regional ones, brought to their work vastly different preconceptions about whether Brooks’s violence was justified or whether it warranted punishment. All asked leading questions. Indeed, recognizing the significance of how questions were framed, and which questions were even posed, the committee took votes on whether some of the more controversial questions were acceptable.

But this practice was not enough to secure a unified verdict from the committee. Instead, it produced not one but two reports, reflecting the regional and political split within its ranks. The majority report, signed by the three northern Republicans, decried the assault as an outrage that threatened personal safety, free speech and constitutional government. Nonsense, countered the two Southern Democrats. Their minority report argued that the caning was a proportionate response to Sumner’s slander and that Congress had no authority over such matters anyway.

Six weeks later, the House debated the reports for several days before voting to expel Brooks by a 121 to 95 margin — not sufficient to carry a motion that required two-thirds support, but more than enough to signal that Brooks’s violence was unacceptable. All Southern representatives except one voted against expulsion — a disturbing portent of further regional division.

Brooks responded in a speech that rejected the House’s authority to adjudicate the matter at all. After all, the case had gone through the criminal justice system, resulting in a guilty plea and a $300 fine. He also defended his act. He lobbed a few insults, referring to various northern congressmen as a “feminine gentleman,” a “cock that crows and won’t fight” and a “Falstaffian member” of “corporeal rotundity,” like the famously fat and buffoonish Shakespeare character. He also indicated his readiness to fight any northerner who wanted to take him on and even threatened that if the House continued to persecute him, it could result in a broader “revolution” that would end up “drenching this Hall in blood.”

Brooks ended his speech with a fiery declaration: “Mr. Speaker, I announce to you and to this House, that I am no longer a member of the Thirty-Fourth Congress,” and strode from the room. Even though the vote had fallen short of expulsion, he believed honor required him to resign. South Carolina called a quick special election to fill the vacant seat, and — surprise, surprise — his constituents reelected Brooks unanimously. He reclaimed his seat Aug. 1, little more than two months after his brutal assault on Sumner.

The 1856 select committee did its job. It investigated, exposed what happened and communicated its findings to Congress and the wider public. The Republican committee members recognized the importance of telling the story of Brooks’s violence, making it difficult for anyone to deny or forget what happened. They wanted to hold Brooks accountable. They wanted to guard against future acts of political violence.

Did they succeed? In some ways, yes. They persuaded a majority of their peers in the House that Brooks deserved to be expelled and prompted Brooks to resign. More consequentially, they invigorated the rise of the Republican Party, a newly emerging organization that derived a deeper sense of purpose from the attack. The new party scored significant electoral gains in November 1856 from the image of “Bully Brooks,” that emblem of southern enslavers’ vicious despotism. Four years later, Abraham Lincoln drew on this same outrage against the “Slave Power” in his presidential campaign.

In other ways, however, the Republican committee members’ efforts backfired. Brooks’s resignation proved meaningless thanks to his immediate reelection. And they turned Brooks into a martyr in the South, giving the push for Southern secession a mighty new figurehead. Even as they energized the young Republican Party, they also deepened the sectional divide, placing physical violence closer to the center of people’s expectations about what the future held.

What does this mean for the committee investigating Jan. 6?

It is vital to establish the truth, both the facts of what happened and their broader meaning for U.S. politics. Exposing any assault on American democracy and holding accountable all involved — those who planned the event and incited the violence as well as those who forced their way into the Capitol — is crucial to preventing the normalization of such violence and reducing the odds of further incidents. Just like in the 1850s, publicizing misconduct can inspire voters to oppose the perpetrators and their sympathizers at the ballot box, which will help to protect democracy.

At the same time, 1856 reveals the limits probably facing the Jan. 6 committee. Truth and its meaning are as partisan as they ever were. It’s hard to imagine a committee report changing many minds about the meaning of the attack. And while the outcome may energize voters horrified by what happened and who was complicit, it could spur other voters to rally behind martyrs, as happened with Brooks. The good news: A second Civil War is unlikely, thanks to more robust governmental power and the absence of an all-encompassing issue such as slavery that splits the country into two clear sections. Yet the story of the 1856 select committee exposes how there are no perfect solutions to this sort of political violence.