Posts Tagged ‘Preston S. Brooks’

Como bien ha analizado la historiadora Joanne Freeman en su excelente libro Field of Blood: Congressional Violence in Antebellum America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), previo a la guerra civil el Capitolio era un lugar peligroso. Separados cada vez más por el tema de la esclavitud, los legisladores recurrieron a métodos más violentos para tratar de imponer su posición. En otras palabras, la guerra de secesión se comenzó a pelear en los hemiciclos del Congreso años antes de que la primera bomba confederada cayera sobre Fort Sumter el fatídico día 12 de abril de 1861.

En este nota que comparto con mis lectores, la escritora Livia Gershon comenta uno de los episodios más famosos de violencia ocurridos en el Capitolio. El 22 de mayo de 1856, el Representante Preston S. Brooks, un esclavista de Carolina del Sur, atacó con una bastón al senador por el estado de Massachussets y abolicionistas, Charles Sumner. El severo ataque fue en respuesta a un discurso de Sumner criticando a la esclavitud y a los senadores que la defendían.

En el contexto del asalto contra del Capitolio el pasado 6 de enero, creo conveniente continuar subrayando que la violencia es un elemento intrínseco en la historia política estadounidense.

A dramatic portrayal of the 1856 attack and severe beating of Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner by Representative Preston S. Brooks of South Carolina.

A dramatic portrayal of the 1856 attack and severe beating of Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner by Representative Preston S. Brooks of South Carolina
via LOC

Political Divisions Led to Violence in the U.S. Senate in 1856

The horrific caning of Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate in 1856 marked one of the most divisive moments in U.S. political history.

As we prepare for a new term of government in the wake of the recent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, we might wonder just how contentious federal politics can get. But let’s not forget that time when South Carolina congressman Preston Smith Brooks assaulted Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner with a cane in the Senate chamber, beating him so badly that his skull was exposed and he lost consciousness, was covered in blood, and nearly died. As historian Manisha Sinha writes, this 1856 attack highlighted and magnified the divisions that would cause the country to come apart less than five years later.

Charles Sumner | American Battlefield TrustWhen Sumner joined the Senate in 1851, Sinha writes, his anti-slavery beliefs quickly made him enemies. Opponents blocked him from committee appointments, denied him the floor, and heckled him when he spoke.

Brooks’s attack came after Sumner gave his May 1856 speech “The Crime Against Kansas,” in which he condemned the actions of pro-slavery forces. Brooks claimed that he was provoked by Sumner’s insulting words about another senator, who was a distant relation of his. But, Sinha points out, under the prevailing southern code of honor, the appropriate response to a personal insult from a social equal would be a challenge to duel. Instead, Brooks resorted to a form of violence reserved for social inferiors—notably including the enslaved. Many southerners praised Brooks specifically for using a demeaning form of physical force. As a public letter to Brooks from five Charleston residents put it, “You have put the Senator from Massachusetts where he should be. You have applied a blow to his back… His submission to your blows has now qualified him for the closest companionship with a degraded class.”

Charles Sumner

Senator Charles Sumner was beaten nearly to death by Representative Preston Brooks on the Senate floor in 1856
via Flickr/Boston Public Library

Sinha writes that abolitionists drew the same comparison, to different ends. The New York Tribune asked if Congress was “a slave plantation where Northern members act under the lash, the bowie-knife, and the pistol.” Robert Morris, a Black Boston lawyer, wrote to Sumner that “no persons felt more keenly and sympathized with you more deeply and sincerely than your colored constituents in Boston.”

The attack on Sumner also highlighted divisions in the nation when it came to ideas of masculinity. Some in the South reviled Sumner’s “unmanly submission.” This was in line with pro-slavery rhetoric that tied abolitionism to feminism and accused white male abolitionists of effeminate “sickly sentimentality.” Northerners, on the other hand, were more likely to embrace a bourgeois idea of masculinity rooted in self-control and to view Brooks’s attack on an unarmed man as cowardly.

For many in the North, Sinha writes, the incident called to mind the question of whether slavery was compatible with a republican form of government. The New England Anti-Slavery Convention warned that slaveholders were trying to “crush out” freedom of speech on the floor of Congress, as they had done on their plantations.

As we think about division in our own time, it’s worth considering the historical context of political anger and division in the past.

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