Capitol Punishment

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Under Brooks’s odd interpretation of the code duello, Sumner was so inferior that he’d have to sneak up on him.

He proceeded to do just this. On the afternoon of May 22, 1856, Brooks spotted his prey writing at his desk in a nearly empty Senate chamber.

“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—” Brooks began, standing before the desk and clutching a thick gutta-percha cane with a gold head in one hand.

Sumner began to stand up, and Brooks’s nerves seem to have snapped. He left off his speech and began to strike the senator on the head with the cane. Sumner’s legs were trapped under his heavy desk, which was bolted to the floor, but this did not deter his assailant. All but mesmerized by the flogging he was meting out, Brooks flailed away until Sumner ripped the desk out of the floor and staggered up the Senate aisle, blinded by his own blood, and collapsed on the floor. Even then Brooks did not relent, beating his unconscious victim until his cane broke.

Sumner was eventually helped to a Senate anteroom and then to his home, where he murmured incredulously, “I could not believe that a thing like this was possible.” Long after his physical wounds had healed, he was plagued by nightmares, headaches, and other symptoms of posttraumatic shock. It would be three years before he resumed his full duties in the Senate, but he did eventually regain his place, remaining a staunch abolitionist and battling valiantly for the rights of black Americans during the war and Reconstruction.

Preston Brooks was fined three hundred dollars, but his fellow Southerners blocked the House from expelling him.

“Every Southern man sustains me. The fragments of the stick are begged for as sacred relicts [sic],” Brooks later crowed, and he was soon inundated with commemorative hickory sticks and gold canes from throughout the South. A group of Charleston merchants bought him a cane inscribed “Hit him again,” and Southern newspapers enthusiastically seconded the idea. The Richmond Enquirer advocated caning Sumner “every morning” and concluded: “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.”

Brooks’s celebrity was cut short by his death from the croup in January of 1857. He was much mourned in the South and given a grand funeral service in the House. Yet his eulogists were shortsighted. Throughout the North, Brooks’s death was seen as a divine judgment. Mass rallies denouncing his “cowardly attack” had already been held in every major city and even many small towns from New England to Iowa. In Boston five thousand people crowded into Faneuil Hall to denounce “not only … a cowardly assault upon a defenceless man, but…a crime against the right of free speech and the dignity of a free State.”

The enemy on each side was now very much less than human. Many white Northerners for the first time saw the institution of slavery as something that directly affected their own freedom. Even Ralph Waldo Emerson was now convinced that Preston Brooks was the product of a culture in which man was “an animal, given to pleasure, frivolous, irritable, spending his days in hunting and practising with deadly weapons to defend himself against his slaves and against his companions brought up in the same idle and dangerous way…”

Anticipating Lincoln and the war ahead, Emerson concluded, “I do not see how a barbarous community and a civilized community can constitute one state. I think we must get rid of slavery, or we must get rid of freedom.”

We are fortunate enough not to be faced with any such irreconcilable issues (with the possible exception of abortion rights). This makes it all the more imperative that we do not cause needless harm by demonizing each other as members of irreconcilable, “alien” cultures. We should particularly keep this in mind when the editorial writers return with another of the periodic alarms, this one over “class warfare.” In early July, for instance, an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal urged Republicans to press for new tax cuts, or “instead of class warfare between the Haves and the Have-Nots, we may well have a war between the resentful Haves and the resentful Almost-Haves.” Rhetorical class war may be the natural state of a state, but while dollars and cents can always be compromised, deciding what constitutes a human being of course cannot.