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Political partisanship draws blood

Guest Blogger

You think political discourse has reached a new low? Williamjames Hull Hoffer, author of “The Caning of Charles Sumner: Honor, Idealism, and the Origins of the Civil War,” would like to remind all handwringers that things could be worse. A lot worse.

By Williamjames Hull Hoffer

Partisanship is running rampant through Washington, D.C. An upcoming by-election promises to be the scene of voter anger, even revolt against the established parties. Demagogic politicians, would-be kingmakers and potential presidential candidates are stirring up crowds. Rhetoric is at an all-time fever pitch. The major political parties are at each other’s throats. Corruption is a constant theme and the nation’s new media is stirring the pot.

Then, all hell breaks loose. A representative from South Carolina beats a senator from Massachusetts into bloody unconsciousness on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

What, you say? You did not hear about that last part? That is because the year is 1856, the debate is over slavery’s expansion, the new media are the mass circulation dailies, and the beating is Democrat Preston S. Brooks’s caning of Republican Charles Sumner.

One might be forgiven for seeing the United States as condemned to repeat its past because it has failed to learn from it. Partisanship is stalking the halls of Congress, Main Street and neighborhoods everywhere. The nation’s leaders appear unable to resolve their differences without flailing away at each other.

But we have a great deal to be thankful for, not the least of which is they are not literally flailing away at each other, as they were in the 1850s — the decade historians call “The Impending Crisis.” It is also highly unlikely any states of the Union, whether red, blue, purple or magenta, will attempt to secede, precipitating civil war.

However, we might well be concerned at the rancor permeating our national conversation. It seems highly unlikely that anyone can get a good perspective on things from a debate that looks like two children flinging mud at each other on the playground.

It is good to look at the events on May 22, 1856, in the U.S. Capitol, reflect and ponder the meaning of it all. What would seem to be merely an outbreak of extremism was actually a more complex clash of cultures. Brooks believed himself, his state, his region and his family to be dishonored by a speech Sumer gave on May 19th and 20th called “The Crime Against Kansas.” The only appropriate response was to punish the brash abolitionist.

For his part, Sumner had spoken that way because he found the slave South and its defenders immoral perpetrators of a great evil. His idealism compelled him to use extremist language to persuade free state voters, particularly in Massachusetts where he was up for re-election, to resist those who would urge compromise and caution.

Instead of reacting with one voice to condemn the violence on the Senate floor, the nation responded according to the divisions already festering, ready to explode.

Thankfully, neither the honor culture nor slavery are with us today. We can at least agree on that. Very few of us would tolerate such behaviors, much less die for them. Considering how far we have come since that troubled time in the 1850s, we may have learned something after all.

By Rachel Hartigan Shea  |  July 14, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  
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