In this our third post in our series examining the serious and striking comparisons between the U.S. in the months (and years) before the 1860 presidential campaign and the 2016 presidential campaign, we look at another event that preceded the 1860 presidential campaign but cast a long shadow over it: the caning of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner.
As you know, Sumner was an abolitionist who gave a speech condemning the Kansas-Nebraska Act in May 1856. In his speech, Sumner excoriated the authors of the Act, which potentially allowed slavery into the North; these were Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina. In his devastation of Butler, Sumner said in part,
The senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight with sentiments of honor and courage. Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean the harlot, slavery. For her his tongue is always profuse in words. Let her be impeached in character, or any proposition made to shut her out from the extension of her wantonness, and no extravagance of manner or hardihood of assertion is then too great for this senator.
Brooks’ nephew, Preston Brooks, was a Representative to the House at the time. Declaring his uncle insulted, Brooks fulfilled the contemporary Southern ideal of chivalrous honor by waiting until Sumner was almost alone in the Senate chamber, then going up to him supported by two friends and stating “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 began beating Sumner, who was still sitting at his desk, on the head with a heavy gold-topped cane.
Sumner fell to the floor unconscious and covered in blood as Brooks continued to beat him, while Brooks’ friends, Virginia Congressman Henry Edmundson and South Carolina Representative Laurence Keitt, held back the few men present who tried to intervene. Keitt actually took out his revolver and threatened them. Finally, two Representatives were able to stop Brooks, and Sumner was carried out of the Senate.
Sumner’s recovery was long and difficult, and he was out of office for months. Brooks resigned when a motion to remove him was raised, then voted back into office by his constituents, and continued to serve until his sudden death in 1857.
Northern public opinion was beyond outraged: that someone could attack a U.S. Senator in the Senate and get away with it was beyond belief. Southern public opinion was jubilant: abolitionists who had been “suffered to run too long without collars [had been] lashed into submission”, according to the Richmond (VA) Enquirer.
Everyone expected that this event would break the camel’s back—if it did not start a literal war over slavery, it would start a legal war on slavery led by antislavery and, hopefully, formerly neutral Congressmen who would kill it through legislation. But that did not happen. In fact, very little happened as a result of the caning. Few Northern lawmakers wanted to be responsible for starting a war. But more importantly, even fewer had any faith left in the democratic system in the U.S. It had been taken over by the Slave Power, and compromise after compromise with slavery in Congress had made it impossible for Congress to kill it.
Here is what a New York Times editorial said about the caning on May 28, 1856, when hopes were high that such a completely out-of-bounds attack would lead to action:
…malignity always overreaches itself and neutralizes its bitterness by its own folly. The assault on Senator Sumner is a notable proof in point… If [Brooks] could have foreseen, as any but a maniac must have done, that for every blow inflicted upon the head of Mr. Sumner, the cause of Slavery must lose at the least ten thousand votes, he probably would have desisted from his foul and cowardly deed. …true to their instincts, and blinded by the madness that must lead to their utter defeat, [the South] has chosen to defend the outrageous scoundrelism of their self-appointed champion…
…Mr. Brooks may congratulate himself upon having done more to add to the [antislavery] Republican Party, and to give vigor and permanency to the Anti-Slavery sentiment of the North, than all the Free Soilers have done in Congress.
Flash forward to 2016 and Donald Trump, whose bigotry, xenophobia, and misogyny have led him to make statements considered beyond the pale on a regular basis for over a year now. Each time he crosses a new line, editorials like the one above appear, predicting that now he has finally gone too far and will assuredly lose his following and the presumptive Republican presidential nomination. Democratic politicians have confidently predicted a drop in Trump’s poll numbers, with former supporters potentially moving to support Clinton instead.
Yet it has not happened. Just as Brooks went calmly on with the full support of his like-minded constituents, so goes Trump. Americans know that Congress is just as paralyzed and poisoned in 2016 as it was in 1857, often unable to address immigration, women’s reproductive rights, gun control, or the other issues that stand in for slavery today for the same reason Congress couldn’t act on slavery in the 1850s—one side would not let it. Proslaveryites (at that time almost all Democratic) had a stranglehold on Congress. That’s what people back then meant when they talked about the Slave Power. Just as the Republican majority today will not even allow a vote in the House on gun control, having imposed a gag rule on the subject, so the Democratic majority then would not allow a vote on slavery, having imposed a gag rule on that subject in 1834 (it was rescinded a decade later, but had a long-lasting effect). When Congress does address these important issues today, the conservative majority is almost assured that the vote will go their way, stripping more Americans of their civil rights.
As liberals look on with dismay and continue to await the moment when Trump actually says or does something that strips him of his popularity with conservatives, one can’t help thinking about Preston Brooks, and fearing the worst.