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the caning of charles sumner

15 july 2010

When Preston Brooks battered Charles Sumner into semi-conscious helplessness on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1856, it might have been the opening shot of the Civil War. Historian Williamjames Hull Hoffer opines that "the caning seems to have been a critical early domino" in the run-up to the war (124). J.L. Magee's famous drawing of Sumner collapsing, pen in hand, beneath Brooks's blows, is in most history books as the emblem of antebellum antagonism. In Hoffer's new study of the caning incident, though, what's most surprising is how little politicians north and south made of the beating. Did the caning become iconic only after the fact?

Events overtook and overshadowed the caning, of course. People were being killed left and right in Kansas; Dred Scott became a far more pervasive rallying cry than Charles Sumner; and by the time John Brown showed up in Harper's Ferry, Sumner was an afterthought. (Brooks, as well as the man he was "defending," Andrew P. Butler, were long dead by 1859.) It's not that people shrugged off the event, but they soon had bigger things to worry about. And in Washington of the 1850s, it seems, the caning was just one of those things that happened. For contemporaries, it was a big deal, but it was big on the order of Dick Cheney telling Patrick Leahy to "fuck off," not big like the election of Barack Obama.

Brooks, a Democratic South Carolina Congressman, hit Senator Sumner (R-MA) in response to a recent speech Sumner had made insulting Senator Butler (D-SC). Sumner's speech had been full of vigorous denunciation of slavery, mixed with some pretty cheap personal shots at Butler. (Example: as a result, perhaps, of a stroke, Butler had developed a speech pathology. Sumner had once said that Butler's voice "gurgled forth," and now referred to the "loose expectoration" of Butler's speech.) Sumner was a very great orator, unquestionably on the right side of history, but he seems to have combined Michael Moore's gift for dulcet understatement with the personal warmth of John Houseman in The Paper Chase. With him as their friend in the Senate, abolitionists scarcely needed enemies.

So Sumner insulted Butler (who had a track record of insulting Sumner back), and in the process said that slavery was a bad thing. Brooks figured this would be a good time to take a stick, come up behind Sumner while the Senator was wedged behind a writing desk, and beat the living marrow out of him. Even given the well-known "honor culture" of the antebellum South, this seems so extreme that its very extremity may account for the muted political reaction in Washington. Affairs of honor were typically pursued when someone called your wife a whore, as tended to happen, for instance, to Andrew Jackson. They didn't normally break out over rhetorical devices. "It is not appropriate to psychoanalyze Brooks," warns Hoffer (128), but it's possible that his contemporaries chalked the attack up more to Brooks's personality problems than to sectional rivalry.

Chronic maladjustment (not rage; the attack was cold-blooded) is an attractive hypothesis for Brooks's actions. The alternative is more chilling: that someone could be so convinced of the virtues of human chattel slavery that he would construe a tongue-lashing as an insupportable atrocity. But such ideology was a factor, to some degree, in the caning. Hoffer makes the interesting observation that Brooks sneaked up on Sumner "as one might fight the bully in the schoolyard" (130) – not that Brooks was the bully, you see, but that he saw Sumner as that bully, and thus unworthy of a fair fight. It's a hideous attitude to attribute to someone, but what happened, happened; Hoffer may be correct about Brooks's warped state of mind.

A sidebar to Sumnerography has always been the notion that Sumner courted his own battery, and dramatized it by malingering for years afterward. After Sumner's speech (but before the caning), Stephen A. Douglas apparently said

Is it his object to provoke some of us to kick him as we would a dog in the street, that he may get sympathy upon the just chastisement? (64)
That actually has the ring of something that somebody later wished he'd said, but Douglas was a sharp observer who spoke notably well on his feet. He may well have detected a bit of Murder-in-the-Cathedral syndrome in Sumner's words and actions.

Hoffer's Caning of Charles Sumner contains copious background and context. It seems to be designed for teachers to use as required reading in courses about the origins of the Civil War: it's more overview than in-depth. But as the first book to be devoted specifically to this important incident, it's well worth reading. There are a few typos (on 77, the name "Butler" for "Brooks," for instance, and on 17 a perplexing attribution of Vermont and Massachusetts provenance to New Hampshire's favorite son Franklin Pierce). And on p.78, Hoffer seems to forget momentarily that the Constitution protected Sumner from civil suits for libel in Senate speeches. On the whole, though, The Caning is solidly produced and appropriately illustrated. If you have a collection of books on the "gathering storm," you must add this one.

Hoffer, Williamjames Hull. The Caning of Charles Sumner: Honor, idealism, and the origins of the Civil War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.