The Caning of Sumner
In 1856, a pro-slavery congressman from South Carolina, Preston Brooks, beat nearly to death an anti-slavery senator, Charles Sumner. Brooks was outraged by a speech Sumner had given the previous day in which he had impugned Brooks’s cousin, Senator Andrew Butler, saying that Butler was corrupted by his relationship to his allegorical “mistress … the harlot, slavery”.
Two days later Brooks calmly walked into the senate, where he found Sumner at his desk and proceeded to beat him with his cane until Sumner lost consciousness. The event revealed how violently divided the nation was and helped precipitate the civil war that broke out five years later. Brooks was denounced in the North but praised in the South. Admirers sent him additional canes; some suggested that he go back and finish the job.
The caning of Sumner is certainly not a clear parallel to the right-wing insurrection at the Capitol on Wednesday. A Congressman acting with a very nineteenth-century sense of honour is hardly the same as the angry mob incited by President Trump.
But surely it’s disturbing that the first thing that came to my mind was an event that led to the Civil War. When people resort to political violence in the site where democratic deliberation should reign, it is a clear sign of dangerous social division.
Moreover, it is no coincidence that many pro-Trump supporters on Wednesday waved the Confederate flag. For, more than anything else, it is white supremacy that fuels American violence. And surely there cannot be anyone left who thinks this history is really behind us.
A few years ago I visited Columbia, the capitol of South Carolina. I was shocked to see a cenotaph commemorating Preston Brooks, a man best known for attempted homicide in the defence of slavery. My visit came shortly after the Confederate flag had been removed after protests following the 2015 murder of nine African Americans in Charleston by a white supremacist.
But though the flag was down, other monuments to white supremacy remain around the statehouse: statues of “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, who had led a violent rebellion against attempts to establish a bi-racial democracy in the South following the Civil War and of Strom Thurmond, who ran for president in 1948 on a segregationist platform. And there is the cenotaph devoted to Brooks on the University of South Carolina campus.
The violence of white supremacy remains a cancer on American democracy, as Charles Sumner knew. Sumner, who helped found the Republican Party to rid his nation of slavery, must be turning in his grave today.
Essay by Daniel Geary from Dublin Review of Books