Capitol Punishment

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Our recent politics have brought the editorial handwringers out in force, decrying a new outbreak of “partisanship,” as when, at the end of the impeachment process, The New York Times declared that “Americans yearn for a Congress that can actually accomplish something. Reverting to more party warfare will hurt both sides. The trick will be for lawmakers to look beyond their trenches to see where the public interest lies.”

Has all the mudslinging that has come to cover Washington really ushered in a dangerous new era of division? The answer is less clear than it might appear to those who managed to spend the Clinton impeachment hearings glued to C-SPAN . An objective observer could even conclude that our two major parties have never been closer on most issues, domestic and foreign.

Yet the rhetoric has been extreme, and political rhetoric has a nasty habit of creating its own reality. This is the case even in the claustral, clubby atmosphere of the United States Congress, and anyone who thinks that body reached a new low over the past year need only recall the caning of Charles Sumner.

Sumner had been elected to the Senate in 1851. A tall, darkly handsome man, he soon established himself as a brilliant orator, an unyielding foe of slavery, and a classic Puritan prig. According to his biographer David Donald, he boasted of having “never allowed himself, even in the privacy of his own chamber, to fall into a position which he would not take in his chair in the Senate.”

Indeed, Sumner seems to have spent most of his time in his chamber writing and rehearsing the prodigious speeches he would give, from memory, on the Senate floor. Longfellow wrote that he delivered them “like a cannoneer…ramming down cartridges,” speeches crammed with facts, figures, biblical and classical allusions, and Latin quotations—but never jokes. “You might as well look for a joke in the book of Revelations,” Sumner himself liked to say.

He possessed at least two more attributes characteristic of his native Massachusetts: a sharp tongue and the unshakable conviction that he was doing the work of the Lord. He had, above all, a talent for seeking out his adversaries’ weak spots. He was particularly adept at needling Andrew Pickens Butler, an older senator from South Carolina whom Sumner had sat next to when he was first in the Senate. Butler had been fond of the younger man, asking him to verify his own classical quotations. Sumner was fond of Butler too, opining in his typically solipsistic manner that “if he had been a citizen of New England [Butler] would have been a scholar, or, at least, a well-educated man.”

Yet if Sumner was a blunt man, an unsparing man, he was also no more or less than a man of his time. His passing insults were more than answered in kind. Indeed, the whole decades-long national debate over slavery can be seen as one of steadily escalating insults, each one building upon the last until what had begun as a debate over the basic humanity of African-Americans ended with whites on both sides questioning the humanity of each other . It was this development, as much as anything, that would make the Civil War inevitable.

In the Senate, things came to a head in May of 1856, with a speech in which Sumner coined the phrase “The Crime Against Kansas.” This was his incendiary crescendo, a brilliant oration given over the course of two days, at the height of the real fighting going on out West. Before the packed Senate galleries Sumner quoted Cicero, Livy, Virgil, Dante, Milton—and Cervantes. Butler was Don Quixote with his Dulcinea, “the harlot, Slavery.” Sumner averred that “the Senator touches nothing which he does not disfigure—with error, sometimes of principle, sometimes of fact…. He cannot ope his mouth, but out there flies a blunder.” For that matter, if “the whole history of South Carolina [were] blotted out of existence…,” civilization would lose “surely less than it has already gained by the example of Kansas…”

The speech was a sensation—and not the first time Sumner had transgressed the very generous bounds of what was regarded as reasonable political discourse at the time. “That damn fool will get himself killed by some other damn fool,” the Democratic leader Stephen Douglas muttered afterward. At least one other member of Congress was thinking along the same lines.

“I felt it to be my duty to relieve Butler and avenge the insult to my State,” wrote Preston S. Brooks, a cousin of Butler who had been elected to the House from South Carolina and who had sat watching with rage from the gallery while Sumner attacked his absent relative.

But how to do this? To Brooks, Sumner’s speech had already proved him no gentleman and therefore unworthy of being challenged to a duel. He deserved nothing more or less than a public whipping, but there was another problem. Charles Sumner was a very large man, strong and well built. Brooks was nearly as big, a six-foot thirty-six-year-old veteran of the Mexican War, but he remained afraid that Sumner might simply grab the whip out of his hand if he approached him directly. Under Brooks’s peculiar interpretation of the code duello, Sumner was such an inferior creature that he would have to sneak up on him.