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Violence in Politics: A Thing of the Past?

We have a tendency to believe that we live in times of unprecedented political strife, due in large part to the mechanisms the media utilizes to whip up emotional engagement with whatever news story happens to be at the forefront of their coverage. And, after decades of experimentation, media outlets have become quite skilled at capturing attention, if necessary by manufacturing outrage, and then maintaining that attention span as long as possible. But, in reality, our modern politics are not the knock-down, drag-out affairs of the past. This week, Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi referred to President Donald Trump as “morbidly obese.” The president’s response, as is often the case, was a barrage of tweets, calling attention to the original insult while dismissing the source as a non-entity. While name-calling might reasonably be considered the province of schoolchildren, it is hardly the worst thing American politicians have done to one another while in the midst of a public dispute.

In the 1850s, much of the federal government was embroiled in a debate over the institution of slavery. In particular, the question was not yet whether it ought to be abolished throughout the nation (that question would not be decided for nearly another decade, and required the deaths of more than 600,000 soldiers to settle the issue.) Rather, the issue at hand was whether slaveholders should be allowed to move into territory not yet organized into states, and continue their slaveholding practices in those regions. In 1820, the Missouri Compromise established the idea that slavery would be permitted south of Missouri’s southern border in territory acquired via the Louisiana Purchase, as well as in Missouri itself, and might reasonably be extended westward if further territory was acquired. The Compromise of 1850 effectively repealed that notion, as the state of California petitioned for statehood without allowing slavery. But, to the vast majority of the voting public, California was so far distant as to be almost imaginary—it had little to no effect upon their lives if slavery was permitted or prohibited in that newly-christened state. Of far greater interest was the fate of the territories being formed along the western frontier in the Great Plains. In 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, formally organizing the Kansas and Nebraska Territories. The region was part of the Louisiana Purchase, and hence theoretically the question of slavery in the area had already been decided. But citizens of Missouri demanded the right to move into Kansas, taking their slaves along, and the debate threatened to spiral out of control.

In order to put off any renewed debate over the future of slavery (and open the possibility of creating a trans-continental railroad through the newly-organized territory), a coalition of senators created a proposal to repeal the Missouri Compromise, and allow the inhabitants of a territory to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery at the time they petitioned for statehood. The bill was almost universally supported in the South, regardless of political affiliation, and it received marginal support from Democrats in the North. Texas Senator Sam Houston, who opposed the proposal, cautioned that its passage would stir up passions best left undisturbed—but his position fell on deaf ears among fellow Southerners. Northern Whigs vehemently opposed the bill, but could not rally enough opposition to prevent its passage. In 1856, the Kansas Territory possessed enough inhabitants who met voting qualifications that it could petition for statehood. But, the question of whether slavery should be permitted or not remained a key dividing point. In many ways, Kansas was the first battleground of the Civil War, and how its slavery debated ended promised to have great ramifications for the country as a whole. Two different conventions in Kansas adopted state constitutions, one allowing slavery, and one banning it. Both went to the U.S. Senate for a final decision on the matter.

Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner was a lifelong abolitionist and one of the champions of the movement to end the expansion of slavery. Initially a Whig, he joined the Free Soil Party in 1848, and the Republican Party in 1854. As the Senate debated the future of Kansas, Sumner rose from his seat and delivered a blistering speech spanning two days in May. He utilized sexual imagery to depict slaveowners as rapists determined to use violence and fear to spread slavery throughout the land. In particular, Sumner singled out the authors of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of two years prior, Senators Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina. Douglas seemed disinclined to respond to the attacks, which he saw as the histrionics of a colleague overcome by abolitionist fervor. Butler, on the other hand, was infuriated, not only for the attacks upon himself, but also for the manner in which Sumner characterized his home state as worthy of being “blotted out of existence.”

Andrew Butler suffered from a wide variety of physical ailments in 1856, but he had a much younger cousin, Preston Smith Brooks, serving in the House of Representatives at the same time. Brooks fancied himself a gentleman, and considered challenging Sumner to a duel over the honor of South Carolina. But, upon consulting with colleagues, he determined that dueling was reserved for gentlemen of equal status, and because Sumner had used such scurrilous language on the floor of the Senate, he did not merit being challenged to a duel. Instead, Brooks determined to beat Sumner for his insolence. On May 22, 1856, Brooks approached Sumner, who sat at his desk in the nearly-empty Senate chamber. Looming over the older Senator, Brooks announced he had read the transcript of Sumner’s speech twice, and found it to be an act of libel against the state and against Butler.

Before Sumner could react, Brooks struck him with a gold-headed cane, knocking him to the floor and trapping him under his desk, which was bolted to the floor. Brooks continued to attack, beating Sumner with his heavy cane while two fellow House members prevented any intervention from other Senators or the chamber staff. Sumner managed to wrench his desk free and escape, staggering up the aisle of the Senate chamber. Brooks continued the beating, even after the cane he employed broke, and once satisfied by the damage he had wrought, quietly left the Senate chamber, escorted by his friends. Sumner was left unconscious and covered in blood.

The beating evoked a truly disturbing response in the legislature. A motion to expel Brooks from the House failed, although he chose to resign his seat on July 15. Supporters throughout the South sent Brooks dozens of canes, some of them inscribed with slogans such as “Good Job” or “Hit Him Again.” Some Southern lawmakers made rings from the broken cane used to beat Sumner, and wore them on chains around their necks as a measure of support for Brooks. A special election held in South Carolina returned Brooks to his office in Congress, and he was reelected in the November 1856 campaign. Legislators from across the country began arming themselves before attending to their duties in the House and Senate. The state of Massachusetts chose to keep Sumner’s seat in the Senate empty, a poignant reminder of the violence that had scarred the chamber and laid bare the hatred that fueled the national debate over slavery.

For all of the virulence that seems to permeate American politics of late, it is nowhere near the levels of enmity found 164 years ago on this date, when a Congressman beat a Senator to within an inch of his life, provoked only by that Senator’s words. We would do well to remember that so long as our political battles are conducted via media appearances and Twitter rants, we live in a far safer time that what our forebears had to face.


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