In 1856, United States senator and noted abolitionist Charles Sumner delivered a fiery three-hour speech on the senate floor in which he condemned slavery and those content to see the practice continued. He was particularly unkind to fellow senator Andrew Butler.
Two days later, while Sumner wrote letters at his desk in the empty Senate Chamber, Preston Brooks, a congressman from South Carolina and Andrew Butler’s nephew, approached Sumner. Brooks is reported to have 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.” And then he began to savagely beat Sumner with his metal-capped walking stick.
Sumner was unable to rise from his desk to defend himself, as it was bolted to the floor. He was finally able to tear the desk from the floorboards and, blood pouring down his face, stagger into the aisle to collapse. Brooks continued to beat him until his cane broke, at which point he quietly left the chamber and the unconscious Sumner.
Tensions were high in America at this time, it being less than five years away from the beginning of the Civil War. This division was perhaps no better illustrated than by the aftermath of the attack.
While Northerners were horrified, Brooks was heralded as a hero in the South. In an editorial, The Richmond Enquirer declared, “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.”
The House moved to expel Brooks, but the vote fell short. Back home, Brooks was sent dozens of new canes, at least one of which was accompanied by a note which read, “Hit him again.”
This all occurred more than a century ago, and it’s easy to think of it as ancient history. We, as a nation, are much more advanced today, right?
I’m not so sure.
Flash forward to September 9th, 2009. In a joint session of congress, president Barack Obama discusses his tumultuous health care reform plan. In the middle of the president’s remarks, congressman Joe Wilson (who, like Preston Brooks before him, represents South Carolina) jabs a finger at the president and shouts “You lie!”
This outburst is not only against congressional rules, it is a nearly unthinkable breach of decorum.
Unthinkable, that is, at any other time.
While our nation isn’t facing a civil war, we are divided by an ideological rift that seems nearly as severe. The public “discussion” of health care reform has become anything but. The discourse has coarsened to the point that it’s become scary. Protesters carry signs portraying Obama as Hitler; a supporter of the administration had a finger bitten off during a scuffle; and some protestors have arrived at events openly carrying guns.
And while no-one has yet sent Joe Wilson a new cane in the mail, he did receive more than $1 million in new campaign donations in the days following the outburst. On September 15, the House approved a "resolution of disapproval" against Wilson, on a near party-line 240-179 vote… in other words, most of Wilson’s fellow Republicans didn’t see the need to register disapproval at what he did.
The parallels are unmistakable. More than 150 years ago, this sort of furious name-calling and righteous anger let to the most divisive and bloody period in our nation’s history.
I wonder what the next three and a half years will bring?