CONNECTIONS: Our pugilistic politics

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By Tuesday, Jun 6 Viewpoints  9 Comments
In 1856, Republican U.S. Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts is set upon by Congressman Preston Brooks, a Democrat from South Carolina.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

Well that was shocking…

In Montana, the Republican candidate for the House of Representatives, Glen Gianforte body slammed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs. Jacobs was doing what reporters do: asking a question. What he got in response was chocked, knocked to the ground, and his glasses broken. The Gianforte campaign quickly issued a statement blaming the reporter. Just as quickly, the statement was contradicted by an audio recording and refuted by eyewitnesses. In a single 24-hour period, Gianforte was arrested, charged, and elected to Congress.

In Texas, on the last day of the legislative session, two Representatives exchanged blows and threats on the floor of the state house. Here’s what happened. Outside the Chamber, there was a demonstration in opposition to Texas SB4 – a law penalizing sanctuary cities. State Rep. Matt Rinaldi announced that he called Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to arrest the demonstrators. His action enraged Hispanic legislators and violence erupted.

The Texas House of Representatives.

The Texas House of Representatives.

In a statement, Rinaldi said state Rep. Poncho Nevarez “threatened my life on the House floor. I was pushed, jostled and someone threatened to kill me.”

Nevárez admitted he put his hands on Rinaldi “but was I going to shoot the guy? No, he’s a liar and hateful man.”

It makes you want to temporize and say, “Now, now boys, learn to use your words.” The problem is these are our elected officials, not the third grade class.

Is this shocking because it is unique? No, the level of discourse is not actually at an all-time low. We have gone lower.

In 1856, a Congressman laid aside rhetoric and took up his cane. Representative Preston Brooks (D-SC) repeatedly struck Senator Charles Sumner (R-Mass) in the head. As a result Sumner lay bleeding, semiconscious, and near death on the floor of the United States Senate.

Sumner was a leading Abolitionist. He delivered a speech arguing that Kansas should be admitted to the Union as a free state. It was not a kind speech. Employing a colorful metaphor, Sumner called slavery a harlot to which some legislators were enthralled. Unstinting in his use of adjectives, he called those legislators “brutal, vulgar men without delicacy or scholarship” and “noise-some, squat, and not proper models for an American senator.”

It was May 19 in Washington D.C. In the Senate Chamber, the room temperature was 90 degrees and soon the emotional temperature was equally high. Brooks, a member of the House, was not present but word spread. Three days later, Brooks entered the Senate Chamber, raised his cane, and struck Sumner from behind. Brooks swung so hard and so repeatedly that his cane broke. It took three years for Sumner to recover.

Sumner supporters insisted his Senate seat remain empty awaiting his return as a tribute and a reminder. Supporters of Brooks’ sent dozens of canes to replace the broken one. It was a tribute; a salute to their hero. Each, attacker and attacked, was a hero to his side. Hard to understand how one who speaks maliciously or acts maliciously could be a hero? It was 1856 and the country was deeply divided; as it turned out the country was irreconcilably divided. The issue was slavery, and the result was Civil War.

Demonstrators outside Texas State House.

Demonstrators outside Texas State House.

Is that where we are today? Are we a country irreconcilably divided? Rather than one issue, we seem unable to discourse rationally about climate change, immigration, health care, taxes, Russian espionage, or the man in the White House. If we have gotten to a place where one side cannot or will not listen to the other, where each side intends to obstruct the other and progress is halted, what then? In 1856 secession was an option because the slave-holding states were geographically contiguous. Today, states on one side of the political debate are a sea of red in the center of the country; states on the other side are two slivers of blue separated by a continent. With money and population concentrated in the slivers, geography may force us to find a way to communicate.

Yet here is the real horror: the stories out of Montana and Texas are not shocking. Not because violence erupted among legislators once before in our history but because in this century we seem to have been slowly desensitized, inured, and no longer shocked by coarse language, violence, false denials, half truths, and the simple belief that winning is more important than how you won. It is sad if the leaders of a country are bad guys; it is a horror if the people expect them to be bad and no longer demand good.

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9 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Steve Farina says:

    I would like to direct readers to George Washington’s Farewell Address.

    Also, Carole…surely, as a historian you must realize the Civil War (as it is commonly referred to) – or War Between the States – was about the States right to govern themselves, and in particular to secede from the Union. It was not about slavery, per se, until the North was getting its butt kicked and Lincoln needed a galvanizing point to prop up his army ranks. This war was the war that centralized all power in the federal government, essentially removing the rights of the states. That is what Lincoln was trying to and managed to accomplish. The federal government has become even more encroaching ever since.

    1. Michael Wise says:

      The Civil War happened because the Southern states demanded the right to maintain slavery. Not because they demanded the right to maintain a different gauge for their railroad tracks or different rules about inheritance or different taxes or tariffs or different rules or institutions about any other issue at all. It was not about the general question of states’ rights. It was specifically about the invocation of states’ rights to preserve slavery. Abe Lincoln was a shrewd politician, who moderated how he described the Union’s war aims in order to keep the border states in line and waited until after the Union success at Antietam before attacking slavery directly. Those are local details of the two hundred year conflict over the curse of slavery, from the Constitutional Convention to the Missouri Compromise to the Kansas-Nebraska Act to the Dred Scott usurpation [talk about activist judges … ] to the Fort Sumter spark to the Jim Crow-era reversal of reconstruction to the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the 1960s.

      But for slavery, there would have been no Civil War. The legal foundation of expanded federal power after the Civil War is the 14th amendment, which protects the (personal) rights of individuals against infringement by state government. (The fifth amendment, among others, protects individuals’ rights against infringement by the federal government). Some of the first cases applying the 14th amendment dealt with claims by businesses about economic injustice imposed by state law, not claims by individuals about racial discrimination by state officials. The social situations that further extended federal power in the 20th century were world war and deep depression. Despite the obvious expansion of the federal government, states still have plenty of rights and powers. Which is fortunate, because more than ever we need competent, sensible state and local governments while the nominal head of the federal government is an incompetent embarrassment.

      Washington’s farewell message is a wistful masterpiece, which reminds us of the Constitutional Convention’s second serious omission. Not only did the Convention postpone the inevitable confrontation over slavery, but it also failed to anticipate or deal with the curse of faction. Checks and balances among institutions (including between levels of government) fail if factional loyalty matters more than welfare or justice and all of those institutions are controlled by the same faction. By 1797, it was already too late for Washington to admonish the country against party politics. To forestall tyranny, we have had to improvise legal and political tools and social conventions that are analogous to the Madisonian checks and balances in the formal institutional system. We will soon see whether those improvisations work.

      1. Steve Farina says:

        Actually, Mike, the Congressional Globe (predecessor to the Congressional Record) disagrees with you:
        Resolved, That the contest now existing between the government of the United States and the disloyal organizations now existing in certain States which are now waging an unjustifiable war upon the constitutional authority of the government, should be treated and regarded by all loyal citizens not as a sectional war, nor an anti-slavery war, nor a war of conquest or subjugation, but simply as a war for the maintenance of the government

        The Southern States seceded from the Union, much the way the Colonies did from the Crown. They were pretty upset about paying such high taxes (about 70% of the national income).
        Also, in his first inaugural address, Lincoln actually SUPPORTED an amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which would have been the 13th Amendment) proposed by Ohio Congressman Thomas Corwin that said: “No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by laws of said State.
        A brief study of who owned slaves in the North, compared to the South at the time of, and after, the War Between the States would show how pathetic the argument is that it was a war about slavery (maybe just look at US Grant).

        As for states rights, we see how solid Article 97 of the Mass Constitution is as we watch a pipeline being laid in Sandisfield.

      2. Steve Farina says:

        Also, to describe Washington’s Farewell Address as wistful purposefully dismisses the cautionary warning of succumbing to “the Spirit of Party”, which I imagine as local head of one of the divisions is something unwittingly embraced (I am attempting to state that without personal insult, Mike, so I hope it comes across appropriately).
        As a side note, being late at night I inadvertently did not credit the author of the paragraph starting, “Also, in his first inaugural…” which was recently penned by Chuck Baldwin in an email correspondence I received from him regarding the War Between the States.
        So finally, yes, there was slavery in America during the time period we are discussing. Slaves were held by citizens of the Union in both Northern and Southern states. The atrocity of slavery thrust primarily upon Africans, and utilized in more than just our nation, was coming to a natural end as the social conventions (to borrow the phrase) were changing worldwide – look at England and the influence of Wilberforce.
        The War was about the secession of the Southern States, as they had declared independence from the Union. One of two resolutions which were similar in reasoning is mentioned above – and according to the government archives they both passed overwhelmingly (only 2 votes against), clearly stating the intention of the war from the perspective of Congress – the War Between the States was being fought to preserve the Union.

  2. John H Hart says:

    Blue or red I find myself afraid to enter any conversation about our national and/or international situation because there is this underlying anger throughout this country on both sides. Creating fear and anger among the citizens is no way to be govern.
    as always Carole, thank you.

    1. Steve Farina says:

      I agree, John, which is exactly why I included the link to Washington’s Farewell Address. It is worth the read.

  3. Dennis Irvine says:

    Wars are complex events:

    Drake’s Well 1859

    “Drilled by Edwin Drake in 1859, along the banks of Oil Creek, it is the first commercial oil well in the United States.”

    The importance of the Drake well was in the fact that it caused prompt additional drilling, thus establishing a supply of petroleum in sufficient quantity to support business enterprises of magnitude.[2]

    1 Barrel of Oil = 23,200 Hours of Human Work Output

  4. C. D. Baumann says:

    Deflection ~ A turning aside or off course. The departure of an indicator or pointer from the zero reading on the scale of an instrument. Merriam Webster. Dr. Owens article is spot on and poignant drawing our attention to two very disturbing incidents in the nations political arena. A perfect opening statement “Well that was shocking…” She continues brilliantly discussing two disturbing political issues one in Montana the other in Texas. Dr. Owens then gives a splendid reflection of discourse from the U.S. Senate in 1856. As the skilled wordsmith that she is Dr. Owens then asks “Is that where we are today?” where she proceeds to present supporting issues to which we should all have the greatest concern. Her closing statement is spot on and should raise the question in each individual despite all this great nation has stood for is this now where we stand? Yet the entire discussion of this article focus on these ten words “The issue was slavery, and the result was Civil War.” The perspective of the Civil War can be and has been debated in sufficient volumes to fill many library shelves. The point, I believe, of Dr. Owens article states the deep division paralyzing this once great nation. Pointing out that we have become desensitized to unacceptable behavior in our political system. And the discussion falls upon a debate of the Civil War. Your point well make Dr. Owens “but because in this century we seem to have been slowly desensitized,” the unacceptable becomes acceptable, rage and violence are common place, lies become fact, and profit trumps morality, that just an example of business as usual on Capital Hill. Have we actually come to the place were the nation has forgotten it’s founding principles “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence …” My thanks Carole for another splendidly researched article.

    1. Steve Farina says:

      Perhaps you should read Washington’s Farewell Address, which was the very first thing I brought up. It very specifically addresses the issue discussed in the article, warning us against “The Spirit of Party”.
      It is very appropriate to our nationwide political condition, as we ll as this article. My comment about the War Between the States was meant as an aside, but nonetheless worth mentioning as it was brought up inaccurately in the article.

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