I am sure glad the latest “politician acting badly” (PAB) scandal has gone by the wayside. I don’t think I could handle any more revelations concerning what lives under Mr. Weiner’s underwear and in his mind. If I hadn’t been busy with my real work the last few weeks, I would have written more about this situation and how I’ve begun to wonder whether these PABs – representing us in the halls of government – also represent a large cross-section of the American male. Are my co-workers tweeting and emailing pictures of themselves in their off hours? How would I ever know? How does anyone know, other than the tweetor and the tweetee?
But, I’ve been toiling and tired of stringing words into legal arguments and coherent sentences, so it’s been hard to work up the head of steam I need to follow this trail of thought very far. But before I break to reset my brain along the byways of New Mexico, I want to leave behind something to think about. Quoting liberally from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s great book, Team of Rivals (pages 184-85) here’s a report of congressmen of yore acting badly. There were some really bad actors among newspaper publishers, too.
The incident occurred in 1856 during the debates regarding the admission of Kansas as a slave state. Charles Sumner was a Senator from Massachusetts and leader of the antislavery forces in that state. He was a powerful orator and known to allow others to see copies of his speeches before he delivered them, second readers, as it were, who would often temper their tone. A few days before debates were to begin on the subject of Kansas, Frances Seward, a confidant and wife of Thomas Seward, read Sumner’s draft and strongly advised her friend to remove personal attacks, including a reference to Senator of South Carolina’s slight paralysis that slurred his speech. But Sumner did not listen to the thoughtful advice.
When it came time for him to give his speech on the Senate floor during the Kansas debates, he argued vociferously against admitting Kansas as a slave state, advancing the familiar arguments laced with literary and historical references. As Goodwin reports, “The mood of the Senate chamber instantly shifted, however, when Sumner launched into a vituperative attack directed particularly against two of his fellow senators, Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina. He likened Butler to the aging, feeble Don Quixote , who imagined himself ‘a chivalrous knight,’ sentimentally devoted to his beloved ‘harlot, Slavery . . . who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him.’ Riding forth by Butler’s side, Douglas was ‘the squire of Slavery, its very Sancho Panza, ready to do all its humiliating office.’”
When Sumner finished, “Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan characterized the speech as the ‘the most un-American and unpatriotic that ever grated on the ears of the members of this high body – as I hope never to hear again here or elsewhere.'”
But what happened next was even more remarkable. As Goodwin describes: “Two days later, Butler’s young cousin, Congressman Preston Brooks entered the Senate chamber armed with a heavy cane. Walking up to Sumner, who was writing at his desk, Brooks reportedly said, ‘You have libeled South Carolina and my relative, and I have come to punish you.’ Before Sumner could speak, Brooks brought the cane down upon his head, cudgeling him repeatedly as Sumner futilely tried to rise from his desk. Covered with blood, Sumner fell unconscious and was carried from the floor.”
This was no minor beating. Sumner suffered severe injuries to his brain and spinal cord, which kept him out of the Senate for three years. But if his goal was to rile up the North with antislavery sentiment, he was successful. As the New York Tribune observed, “…the knocking-down and beating to bloody blindness and unconsciousness of an American Senator while writing at his desk in the Senate Chamber is a novel illustration of the ferocious Southern spirit.” The Boston Daily Evening Transcript reported “knots of men” on street corners describing it as “a gross outrage on an American Senator and on freedom of speech.”
In the South, the reaction to the beating was much different. Congressman Brooks was lionized in the South, where the press almost universally applauded the assault. The Richmond Enquirer spoke for many when it pronounced the act “good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequences.”
“More ominous still,” writes Goodwin, “was the reaction of the distinguished Richmond Whig, a professional opponent of extremism on sectional issues. ‘We are rejoiced at this,’ the Whig proclaimed, ‘The only regret we feel is, that Mr. Brooks did not employ a horsewhip or a cowhide upon his slanderous back, instead of a cane. . . We trust the ball may be kept in motion. Seward and others should catch it next.’”
It is hard to imagine such an event happening in the halls of Congress today. I would like to think we are more civilized today but I suspect that American politicians have technology, rather than canes, and that the methods for beating a member within an inch of his life only appear more civilized. And while members of Congress might not engage in scathing disparagement of fellow members directly any more, there are plenty of mouthpieces out there to do the dirty work, plenty of character assassins to find the dirty laundry among those who serve the public. Given the way Fox News and the Andrew Breitbarts of the world destroy those who offend our sensibilities, I have to wonder whether a cudgeling might be more humane.
And, finally, I have to hand it to Leonard Pitts whose point seems obvious, but not oft expressed. He says, “. . . as female leaders attempt to shatter the proverbial glass ceiling on bases of fairness and representative government, a case can be made that they are missing the most persuasive argument of all for why we need more women in public life: Men.”