Violence on the Floor
September 29, 2019 9:24 AM   Subscribe

How Senator Charles Sumner’s speeches condemning slavery and exposing its connection to rape spurred a pro-slavery gang of Senators called the “F Street Mess” to plotting, leading to the near-fatal caning of Sumner by “deeply insecure screw-up” Senator Preston Brooks and “creating the opening for Lincoln’s rise.” Ryan Grim of The Intercept reviews the new volume in Sidney Blumenthal’s extended biography of Lincoln and his times, which explodes the myth that Brooks “chivalrously” beat Sumner for insulting Brooks’ cousin.
posted by sallybrown (17 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
Wikipedia:
The official telegram announcing [Brooks's] death stated "He died a horrid death, and suffered intensely. He endeavored to tear his own throat open to get breath."
posted by pracowity at 10:35 AM on September 29, 2019 [2 favorites]


On a related note I would highly recommend Joanna Freeman's "The Field of Blood" for an in-depth exploration of how commonplace Congressional violence was prior to the Civil War.

Her research only recently brought to light just how bad it got because she did deep dives into people's personal correspondence and diaries. Prior historians had been relying on the official public records of the time, which she disocvers were being unofficially (and sometimes officially) censored to make the Congressmen of the time look less overtly thuggish.
posted by Ndwright at 10:39 AM on September 29, 2019 [13 favorites]


Wow, I had no idea that my hometown, Brooksville FL was named for this jerk. I just thought it was because there are creeks in the area. Now off to find out what the original name was.
posted by Maxwell's demon at 10:59 AM on September 29, 2019 [4 favorites]


Now off to find out what the original name was.
Wikipedia article on Brooks: The city of Brooksville, Florida (previously known as Melendez)
posted by thelonius at 11:43 AM on September 29, 2019 [2 favorites]


Also from the Wikipedia article on Preston Brooks:
Brooks was widely cheered across the South, where his attack on Sumner was seen as a legitimate and socially justifiable act, upholding the honor of his family (and the South as a whole) in the face of intolerable insults from a social inferior (and the North as a whole). South Carolinians sent Brooks dozens of new canes, with one bearing the phrase, "Good job". The Richmond Enquirer wrote: "We consider the act good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequences. These vulgar abolitionists in the Senate must be lashed into submission." The University of Virginia's Jefferson Literary and Debating Society sent a new gold-headed cane to replace Brooks's broken one. Another cane was inscribed "Hit him again". Southern lawmakers made rings out of the original cane's remains, which they wore on neck chains to show their solidarity with Brooks.
I initially had it in mind to describe this as "owning the libs" 19th-century style but given that Brooks and his allies were committed to the practice of literally owning people perhaps a different word choice is called for. Nevertheless the congratulatory reactions to a despicable and brutal act seem eerily familiar today.
posted by Nerd of the North at 12:22 PM on September 29, 2019 [27 favorites]


Nevertheless the congratulatory reactions to a despicable and brutal act seem eerily familiar today.
Anyone who has read about 1850s American politics (the real events, described by professional historians, not the whitewash that passes for Civil War memory) has been having eerie feelings of deja vu for at least 10 years now.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 12:39 PM on September 29, 2019 [10 favorites]


I find it interesting that these guys were willing to openly go to bat for slavery as an institution, but reacted with extreme violence when (accurately) accused of raping the people they enslaved (did they object to being accused of rape? Miscegenation? Adultery? All of it?). I had no clue Sidney Blumenthal wrote books about Lincoln but I love the approach of delving into the lives of the lesser known characters of this era to paint the proper context. Joanna Freeman’s work sounds fascinating as well!
posted by sallybrown at 12:41 PM on September 29, 2019 [3 favorites]


which explodes the myth that Brooks “chivalrously” beat Sumner for insulting Brooks’ cousin.

Do people really still get taught this? because holy shit even when I was in school (not in the South, I should note) it was acknowledged as a vicious episode.
posted by atoxyl at 1:20 PM on September 29, 2019 [6 favorites]


The Speech, for the record.
posted by BWA at 2:40 PM on September 29, 2019 [3 favorites]


Do people really still get taught this? because holy shit even when I was in school (not in the South, I should note) it was acknowledged as a vicious episode.

I wouldn't be surprised if some people get taught this, no. Consider that idea of the victimization of the secessionist States is central to the Lost Cause ethos. Abolitionism, the addition of free states and territories to the country, and the passage of Personal Liberty Laws were all interpreted as attacks on the Southerners' "freedom"; a powerful speech attacking slavery, particularly in imagery derived from the taboo topic of the rape and sexual exploitation of enslaved people, is a mortal threat to this worldview.
posted by thelonius at 3:04 PM on September 29, 2019 [1 favorite]


I was aware of the episode, but I remember it being mostly as an example of escalating tensions in the run-up to the civil war. I don't remember any reason being given other than one was a northern abolitionist and the other was from the south.

Really lazy writing on the wikipedia page for Brooksville:
A minor controversy arose in the summer of 2010 when local media and residents brought attention to the origin of the town's name, calling it "shameful".[22] The suggestion was made that the town should change its name in order to distance itself from its pro-slavery history. The idea was opposed by locals and not entertained by the city council.
Opposed by locals except for, you know, the locals who were the ones who raised the issue in the first place. Hinting at "outside agitators" while talking about honoring slavers is not a good look.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 4:14 PM on September 29, 2019 [3 favorites]


Well, there's a reason this local doesn't live there anymore...
posted by Maxwell's demon at 6:17 PM on September 29, 2019 [2 favorites]


For anyone interested in other works related to politics of that era, I wholeheartedly recommend The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 by David Potter. I'd place this next to McPherson's "The Battlecry of Freedom" in a small bookshelf of necessary Civil War era history. Period aside, its one of the best books of history I have ever read, coupling the standard narrative of events with clear and nuanced analysis of the political undercurrents of the times and the personalities involved.
posted by hwestiii at 7:26 PM on September 29, 2019 [5 favorites]


There's a tendency in news media writing about history or science to try and frame everything as a big discovery. It makes it more interesting to some people I suppose, not to mention easier to sell to an editor, but it is so annoying.

There's not really any support in the piece that "chivalry alone" was consensus historical opinion. FWIW in high school I had a fairly anti-abolitionist textbook (and explicitly anti "Radical Republican" despite the 1860's breed of them being the good guys) and it certainly discussed the caning as being about slavery.
posted by mark k at 11:33 PM on September 29, 2019 [2 favorites]


Do people really still get taught this? because holy shit even when I was in school (not in the South, I should note) it was acknowledged as a vicious episode.

We learned about the episode as color leading up to a Civil War segment. That said, it was always framed as a pro-slavery guy delivery a violent beatdown on an abolitionist. (I vaguely remember something about an "insult," but the chivalric framing was not really there for me.) There IS a place where a hint of that framing remains in place -- and that is the US Senate, eesh!

(Anecdata from me, millennial born and raised in the South, though not the deep South, but sufficiently "the South" to have learned that "the Civil War wasn't about slavery.")
posted by grandiloquiet at 7:17 AM on September 30, 2019 [1 favorite]


I find it interesting that these guys were willing to openly go to bat for slavery as an institution, but reacted with extreme violence when (accurately) accused of raping the people they enslaved (did they object to being accused of rape? Miscegenation? Adultery? All of it?)

Might have been all of it. I think it was Frederick Douglas who wrote that the wives of plantation owners would gossip behind a friend's back about whether her husband fathered one of his slaves, but would never admit their own husband could do that.
posted by riruro at 9:14 PM on September 30, 2019


For people interested in understanding the period leading up to the US Civil War, I recommend Donald Cole's biography of Amos Kendall, one of the founders of the Democratic Party, a slaver and slavery-apologist, fierce opponent of abolitionists, and the Bannon/Miller/Sessions to Andrew Jackson's Trump. Kendall spent his entire career spinning lies and whipping up fervor in southern and border states against abolitionists and other opponents of slavery, to further the political careers of men like Jackson and Van Buren.

He ended up opposing the war fiercely, not out of hatred for slavery, but out of interest in seeing the union preserved (and commerce uninterrupted--he owned a major stake in Morse's telegram and the war threatened his profits). Having spent his entire life speeding the nation toward greater disunion, he then blamed northern abolitionists for rising political hostility. Up until the attack on Fort Sumter, he insisted that the only sane policy for averting war was for northerners to accede to every southern demand (sweeping enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law chief among them). After southern secessionists began attacking federal bases and troops, he reluctantly backed the war, but with the caveat that secessionist traitors be brought to heel as quickly as possible so as to establish a truce and give the south everything they'd asked for in the first place.

Even before the war began, Kendall saw the writing on the wall for Union victory and eventual Reconstruction policies; as an elder statesman and career partisan newspaper publisher, he began laying out the case against Reconstruction even before the start of the war, insisting that immediately upon establishing a truce, federal troops must retreat, all seized property (including slaves) be returned to secessionists, and no charges be brought against anyone save for the highest-ranking secessionist officers.

Amos Kendall is the historical embodiment of every modern-day GOP architect of division, white supremacy, patriarchy, and oligarchic dominion who has spent their political lives tearing this country apart and now blames "the left" for the havoc they have wrought.
posted by sugar and confetti at 8:23 AM on October 1, 2019 [5 favorites]


« Older Award winning reporter and Rappler co-founder...   |   🍳 👩🏽‍🌾🌯 🍜 🍤 🍝 Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments