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Brooksville named for Preston Brooks

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The city of Brooksville was named after US Representative Preston Brooks. He was a controversial character in his own time celebrated in much of the South while reviled in the North.  He came to national prominence with an act of violence in the turmoil in the lead up to the Civil War which started on April 12, 1861.

In 1856, Kansas was the subject of a fight over whether it was going to allow slavery or not when it became a state. There were concerns that Kansas joining the union on either side would shift the balance of power on the slavery issue. The Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 called for the residents of Kansas to decide the issue of slavery with a popular vote. There were many issues with elections at the time and election results were questioned and ignored by the losing side. The lack of faith in the election led some to attempt to settle the issue with violence. The violence in Kansas over the issue of slavery was referred to as “Bleeding Kansas” in the national press. Pro-slavery posse from Missouri attacked Lawrence, Kansas, one of the abolitionist strongholds and burned the “Free State Hotel” and ransacked of two newspapers there: the Kansas Free State and the Herald of Freedom.

On May 19 and 20 of 1856, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts gave a speech entitled “The Crime Against Kansas.” The speech was purposely inflammatory, Sumner was well known as someone who did not mince words.

Sumner’s speech largely held two pro-slavery Democratic Senators responsible for the violence in Kansas, he named them early in his speech Andrew Butler of South Carolina and Stephen Douglas of Illinois and attacked them throughout. 

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One of the sections from the speech that was considered especially contentious referred to Butler who recently had a stroke and was incapacitated at the time, saying Butler “overflowed with rage at the simple suggestion that Kansas had applied for admission as a state; and, with incoherent phrases, discharged the loose expectoration of his speech, now upon her representative, and then upon her people.” The incoherent phrases remark was particularly pointed, since Butler had difficulty speaking after his stroke. 

Sumner went on to attack South Carolina in the speech by comparing it to the Kansas territory, saying the territory had already established more scholarly institutions than South Carolina and that there was nothing in the South Carolina’s long history comparable to the “heroic spirit in a heroic cause” as the abolitionist fighting to protect Lawrence. “Were the whole history of South Carolina blotted out of existence, from its very beginning down to the day of the last election of the Senator to his present seat on this floor, civilization might lose… I do not say how little; but surely less than it has already gained by the example of Kansas, in its valiant struggle against oppression, and in the development of a new science of emigration.”

During the speech, Senator Stephen Douglas was said to have told a colleague, “That damn fool will get himself killed by some other damn fool.” By tradition, speeches given on the Senate floor which attacked political rivals were exempted from being the impetus for a duel. Although sometimes the tradition was ignored as was the case with the duel between John Randolph and Henry Clay in 1826.

A cousin of Andrew Butler, South Carolina US Representative Preston Brooks took great offense at the speech which attacked his cousin and home state. Brooks walked with a cane as the result of a duel he had with Louis T. Wigfall. Brooks and Wigfall were wounded in the duel, with Brooks shot in the hip.

Brooks sought the advice of fellow South Carolina Representative Laurence M. Keitt who advised against challenging Sumner to a duel, as he did not see Sumner as a gentleman.

It was several days before Brooks managed to confront Sumner. Brooks had waited outside the Senate for Sumner, but Sumner went directly to his carriage. On the third day, Brooks entered the Senate and waited until the Senate had adjourned.

Brooks approached the seated Sumner, “Mr. Sumner,” Brooks said, “I have read your speech with care and as much impartiality as was possible, and I feel it my duty to tell you that you have libeled my State and slandered a relative who is aged and absent, and I am come to punish you for it.” 

He then proceeded to rain blows down on Sumner as Sumner was trapped by his seat and desk bolted to the floor. During the attack, Sumner was able to rip the desk from the floor and attempt to stumble away blinded by the attack and blood streaming from his head. Brooks continued to attack Sumner and Sumner was knocked unconscious. 

The attack was reported as having lasted about a minute. Sumner was treated by a doctor at the Senate where he received four stitches. After the attack, Sumner suffered a high fever and doctors diagnosed with a spinal cord injury. Sumner returned to the Senate after several months but found himself exhausted and unable to concentrate. He went to Europe for seven months, where he kept a busy social calendar. He then attempted to return to the Senate in December of 1857, but once again found himself unable to concentrate for more than short periods of time. It was three years before Sumner was able to resume his full Senate duties.

Brooks left the chamber after the assault and was later arrested, convicted of assault and fined $300. The Senate was unable to punish him as he was not a member. In the House of Representatives, a vote to expel Brooks failed with all involved voting along party lines, except for one Democrat crossing over and voting to expel Brooks. Brooks chose to resign and let the people decide. He was reelected via a special election in South Carolina.

In January 1857, a little over a year after the caning of Senator Charles Sumner, Preston Brooks died in Washington DC. His death is attributed to a swollen throat as the result of Croup. Sumner outlived Brooks by well over a decade and was the Senate leader of the Radical Reconstructionists.

Melendez/Pierceville was renamed Brooksville by a vote shortly after the attack on Sumner. Although, the name change was not official until the Post Office accepted the renaming of Brooksville on January 10, 1871.

The accounts of the attack varied wildly with most newspapers in the South treating it as a just response to a hateful speech and the Northern newspapers treating it as further evidence of the debased and corrupt morality of the South. 

The town of Brooksville was established in 1856. The residents of the communities of Pierceville and Melendez each wanted the city to take the names of their settlement. A new name for the community had to be found. The name they chose was honoring Representative Preston Brooks, who was a hero of the day. If Brooksville had been founded in 1855 or 1857, the name would have most likely been something else. If the town had been named today, it might have been Christine Blasey Ford-ville.

The full text of Charles Sumner’s “The Crime Against Kansas” speech can be found at https://archive.org/details/crimeagainstkans00sumn/page/14.

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