On May 22, 1856, Preston Brooks, a Democrat from South Carolina, beat Charles Sumner, a Republican from Massachusetts, with a walking cane on the floor of the US Senate. Brooks was a pro-slavery lawyer with a history of violent altercations. Sumner was an outspoken and passionate abolitionist.
That day, Brooks hit Sumner as he sat writing at a desk. The blows held such force that it snapped his cane into several pieces. He continued to beat him with the part of the cane that had a golden head. Sumner was nearly killed in the attack and the Senate floor was drenched in his blood. He would not be able to return to the Senate for three years due to debilitating injuries and chronic pain that would be with him for the rest of his life. Brooks was arrested and tried, but he only had to pay $300 and received no jail time. Many historians and scholars believe that this incident played a large role in the lead up to the American Civil War.
There were several other incidents like this one in the Capitol over the years. Several assassination attempts. Some coup attempts, most notably the one that targeted Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the notorious “Business Plot.” And some might say that these attacks were examples of threats to “American democracy.” But one would have to accept that the United States was a democracy in the first place.
At the point in history when the Sumner attack took place, only white men could vote. Some states still barred white men who did not own land from voting. In fact, voting rights were decided almost entirely state to state. Some states which had previously granted women and some free Black men the right to vote would often end up taking that right away with discriminatory laws, policies or intimidation.
In short, the US was never a democracy in any true sense. And thanks to a dictatorship of corporate money that has elevated the wealthiest people to near total power, it still isn’t. But regardless of supposed threats to democracy or not, the attack on Sumner was a significant event that led to the breakdown of civil discourse. Just over five years later, the fledgling republic was plunged into unspeakable horror in a war that lasted four years and has repercussions to this day.
Many people today think of civil wars as being between the regions of a country. North vs South. East vs West. This is rarely true. Over the course of the 20th century and into our present time, civil wars have been generally fought city to city, town to town, house to house. There are no clean battles on green fields where future re-enactments can be performed by adults dressed up in costumes. No amount of sentimental romanticism can sponge away its blood or brutality. They are full of horror, disease, mass graves, agony and despair. And no sane person would ever entertain fomenting one.
Today, there are some scholars and historians who are pointing to the possibility of another civil war, or at least a civil conflict in the US. Either way, the result would be nothing short of terrifying. A year ago, Donald Trump’s actions put the entire world on alert. His play at seizing the seat of American power through lies and the incitement of violence were nearly achieved. And he isn’t done trying.
The attack on Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate should serve as an object lesson in how delicate the arrangement of power can be. Violence has always been employed by the brute when they are unable to engage in rational, civil discourse. It is the language of fascism. And if we are not careful, it can usher in a reign of terror that can cause untold misery, yet has been all to common throughout human history.
Kenn Orphan January, 2022
*Photograph is of Preston Brooks (left) and Charles Sumner (right).
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