PRESTON BROOKS was a member of the South Carolina State house of representatives in 1844. Brooks was elected to Congress in 1853 as a Democrat. On May 22, 1856, Brooks beat Senator Charles Sumner with his Gutta-percha wood walking cane in the Senate chamber because of a speech Sumner had made three days earlier, criticizing President Franklin Pierce and Southerners who sympathized with the pro-slavery violence in Kansas. In particular, Sumner lambasted Brooks’ kinsman, Senator Andrew Butler.
At first intending to challenge Sumner to a duel Brooks consulted with fellow South Carolina Rep. Laurence Keitt on dueling etiquette. Keitt instructed him that dueling was for gentlemen of equal social standing, and suggested that due to his coarse language in public, Sumner occupied a lower social status lower than a drunkard. Keitt argued that a duel was too good for Sumner.
Two days after the speech, on the afternoon of May 22, Brooks confronted Sumner as he sat writing at his desk in the almost empty Senate chamber. Brooks was accompanied by Keitt and Henry A. Edmunston of Virginia.
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 on the head with his thick cane with a gold head. Sumner was trapped under the heavy desk (which was bolted to the floor), but Brooks continued to bash Sumner until he ripped the desk from the floor. By this time, Sumner was blinded by his own blood, and he staggered up the aisle and collapsed, lapsing into unconsciousness. Brooks continued to beat Sumner until he broke his cane, then quietly left the chamber. Several other senators attempted to help Sumner, but were blocked by Keitt who was holding a pistol and shouting “Let them be!” (Keitt would be censured for his actions.)
South Carolinians sent Brooks dozens of brand new canes, with one bearing the phrase, “Hit him again.” 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.”
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 thought of him as a hero and returned him to Congress.
However, Brooks’s attack on Sumner was regarded in the north as the act of a cowardly barbarian. One of the bitterest 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 backed out of the challenge, claiming that he would be murdered on his way north. Burlingame’s reputation as a deer hunter and a deadly shot with a rifle could also have been a factor. Brooks remained in office until his death in 1857. He is buried in Edgefield, SC.
JOHN (Honest John) JAMES PATTERSON was a businessman and U.S. Senator from SC. Born in Pennsylvania Honest John was perhaps the most successful swindler during Reconstruction. In fact, when there was a suggestion that the Republican Party should reform he replied, “Why, there are five more years of good stealing in South Carolina!” His greatest swindle was the manipulation of the Columbia, Greenville and Blue Ridge Railroads. The state spent $6 million and received nothing in return. Some estimates claim that Patterson absconded with more than a third of the money for the railroad venture.
Honest John was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1872. During that time, U.S Senators were selected by the state legislature. Patterson claimed the election cost him $40,000 in bribes to each state Legislator – bribed by the state’s own money which Honest John had stolen from the railroad swindle.
BENJAMIN TILLMAN (Pitchfork Ben) served as SC governor from 1890 to 1894, and as a U.S. Senator from 1895 until his death as a Democrat. Tillman also was a founder of Clemson University and served as one of its earliest trustees.
As a young man he was involved in the execution of a black state senator, Simon Coker. Two of Tillman’s men executed Coker with a shot to the head. Tillman ordered that a second shot was needed just in case he was “playing possum.” Tillman believed that the payment for the death of one white man should be the death of seven blacks.Tillman began to attract statewide attention through his diatribes against blacks, bankers and aristocrats who he claimed were running and ruining the state. Tillman believed that farmers were “butchering the land by renting to ignorant lazy Negroes.”
He was present at the Hamburg Massacre (near current day Aiken, SC) in July 1876, during which an African-American federal militia was overthrown and its arms seized. After their surrender 6 members of the militia were killed in cold blood by a group of armed white citizens led by Tillman’s fellow “Red Shirts.”
As governor Tillman was largely responsible for calling the State constitutional convention in 1895 that disenfranchised most of South Carolina’s black men and instituted Jim Crow laws. As Tillman proudly proclaimed in 1900:
“We have done our level best [to prevent blacks from voting]…we have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate the last one of them. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it. We do not intend to submit to Negro domination and all the Yankees from Cape Cod to hell can make us submit to it.”
He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1894, and was re-elected in 1900, 1906, and 1912. He served from 1895 to his death in 1918. A hotheaded and intemperate debater, Tillman became known as “Pitchfork Ben” after a speech he made on the Senate floor in 1896. In this speech, Tillman made several references to pitchforks and threatened to go to the White House and “poke old Grover [Cleveland] with a pitchfork” to prod him into action.
During his Senate career, he was censured by the Senate in 1902 after assaulting his counterpart SC Senator John L. McLaurin. As a result, the Senate added to its rules the provision that “No senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.”He was also barred from the White House.
Reacting to news that Booker T. Washington had dined at the White House with President Theodore Roosevelt and his family, Tillman predicted, “The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again.”
COLEMAN BLEASE was elected SC governor (1910) and U.S. Senator (1924) favored complete white supremacy in all matters. He encouraged the practice of lynching, was steadfastly against the education of blacks, and he even derided one of his opponents for being a trustee of a black school. Blease once buried the severed finger of a lynched black man in the South Carolina gubernatorial garden.
In 1903, he praised Lt. Gov. Jim Tillman for the murder N.G. Gonzoles, editor of The State newspaper, who wrote editorials against Blease and Tillman. Blease often advocated imprisonment for reporters or editors who published candidates’ speeches.
In addition, Blease failed to enforce laws and even encouraged breaking the law. His black chauffeur was fined twice for speeding and both times Blease pardoned him. Blease enjoyed the use of the pardon and he stated that he wanted to pardon at least one thousand men before he exited office because he wanted “to give the poor devils a chance.” He far exceeded his goal and it is estimated that he pardoned between 1,500 to 1,700 prisoners, some of whom were guilty of murder and other heinous crimes. Blease received payments to pardon criminals.
Blease had one positive opinion – he was for the drinking of beer. He stated:
“I also, in this connection, beg leave to call your attention to the evil of the habitual drinking of Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola and such like mixtures, as I fully believe they are injurious. It would be better for our people if they had nice, respectable places where they could go and buy a good, pure glass of cold beer, than to drink such concoctions.”
JOHN JENRETTE (Congressman 1975-80) is most famous for two actions during his days as a Congressman. First, he had sex with his then-wife, Rita Jenrette, behind a pillar on the steps of the Capitol Building during a break in a late night session of Congress. The comedy group “Capital Steps” takes their name from this escapade. Second, he was charged with and convicted for accepting a $50,000 bribe in the FBI Abscam sting operation conducted by the FBI in 1980. Jenrette was sentenced to two years in prison, of which he served 13 months. He had not been videotaped taking bribes, as some of his colleagues had, but he was recorded saying he’d been given cash by an associate.
In January 1981, Jenrette’s second wife, Rita, said she was seeking a divorce. Rita found $25,000 in $100 bills (much of it FBI bribe money) in her husband’s brown suede shoes. Rita didn’t help relations with the constituents back home when she once called them “cornballs.”
Rita is probably best known for (1) telling us that she and John had sex on the steps of the U.S. Capitol (and that became a hot stop on the Washington Sex Scandals tour for out-of-towners; and (2) posing nude in Playboy. She also wrote that she found him on Capitol Hill “drunk, undressed and lying on the floor in the arms of a woman who I knew was old enough to be his mother.”
In 1989 John Jenrette was convicted of shoplifting a necktie from a department store in Bailey’s Crossroads, VA. and was sentenced to 30 days.