Secession Era Editorials Project

The Expulsion of Brooks.

Richmond, Virginia, Whig [American]

(7 June 1859)

The House Committee has reported on the case of Sumner and Brooks, and recommended the expulsion of the latter and the censure of Messrs. Keitt and Edmundson. The Senate Committee contented itself with stating the particulars of the affair, pronouncing it a breech of the privileges of the Senate, and that the course for the Senate to pursue was to complain to the House, as it had no jurisdiction over the members of the co-ordinate branch of the Legislature. The minority of the House Committee has submitted a counter-report, denying the jurisdiction of the House over its members, except when in session, and asserting that the matter complained of properly pertains to the civil tribunals of the country.

Our first impression was that, however right and proper, considered as a personal matter, the chastisement of Sumner was, the privileges of the Senate had been invaded, and the expulsion of the offending member was demanded by a due regard to the dignity of that body. But upon reflection, we are satisfied that neither House has anything to do with the affair; it did not occur in the presence of either body -- for, although it happened in the Senate chamber, the Senate was not in session, and therefore its dignity was not aggrieved. It was entirely a personal matter -- belonging to the ordinary courts of justice -- and the fact that one party or the other, or both, were members of Congress, does not affect the question in the least. A member of Congress may say what he pleases in his place; but if he publishes his speech, he becomes amenable to the law of libel or the cudgel -- just as though he were not a member. If he abuses a private individual -- not a member of Congress -- and that individual takes redress into his own hands, neither House of Congress has any jurisdiction over him -- he is amenable only to the civil tribunals. Mr. Brooks happening to be a member of the House of Representatives, the case is not thereby altered at all. In assaulting Sumner, he acted not in the capacity of a Representative, but of an individual; and it was not Senator Sumner that he caned, but a foul-mouthed abolitionist from Massachusetts.

The argument of the minority report is conclusive: neither House has any jurisdiction over its members, except in its presence. If any other rule were held, there could be no limitation to the despotic power of the House; and neither House could do much else than overhaul its members every morning for their nocturnal irregularities. Those who know much about Congressional morals are persuaded that the order of the day would never be reached, if all the nocturnal delinquents were subjected to inquiry and punishment.

There is another view. If the House should expel Brooks for assaulting Sumner, should not the Senate expel Sumner for defaming Brooks? The Senator perpetrated the first outrage -- and according to a fundamental principle of law, on his head all the consequences of his wrong-doing should fall.

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