Saturday, January 28, 2012

Bleeding Kansas, bleeding Congressmen

The famous caning of Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks on the floor of the House of Representatives, May 22, 1856. The misplaced apostrophe aside, the caption (though quietly sympathizing with Sumner) is pretty accurate. Image found here.

People don't hurl invective like they used to.

Partly because it's the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, and partly because it comes so highly recommended by Ta-Nehisi Coates (who for the last three years has been conducting a sustained and very in-depth discussion of the war, what led to it, and its aftermath--here is the list of posts), I've picked up and begun reading James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. What I like very much about it so far is that it provides considerable historical context before getting to the election of 1860, yet it reads so easily and smoothly.

Anyway. McPherson is very good about mostly staying out of the way and letting primary sources convey the heat as well as the substance of the debates of the time (which, just to confirm, for Southern representatives to Congress really did all come back to the protection and expansion of slavery--there's simply no other way to understand their own words). It's that heat and substance that leads me to present to you the image that's here on this post: Something I don't remember knowing, if I ever knew it at all, was that the speech (two days long!) that Sumner delivered that led Brooks to assault him was about the horrific events then taking place in Kansas Territory. Those events included not just the guerrilla warfare between pro-slavery people and Free Soilers, but also blatantly-rigged elections, territorial constitutions not ratified by the electorate before being sent to Congress as mandated by law (the conventions were stacked with pro-slavery types, but a majority of the population was by that time anti-slavery), two territorial governors driven out because they could not either of the two legislatures (yes, there were two existing at the same time, there for a while) to even really acknowledge the governors' authority, much less come to any sort of agreement, etc., etc. Sumners was outraged by all this and so took to the floor of Congress to speak against it.

I think of our political rhetoric these days as more heated than it should be, but it's positively milquetoast compared to Sumners' description of the Missourian "border ruffians" crossing into Kansas: "Murderous robbers[, . . .] hirelings picked from the drunken spew and vomit of an uneasy civilization, [committing a] rape of a virgin territory, compelling it to the hateful embrace of slavery" (McPherson, 149). (It was Sumner's characterization of South Carolina's Andrew Butler--a "Don Quixote who had chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who . . . though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight--I mean the harlot, Slavery."--that caused Brooks, Butler's cousin, to assault him, Sumner not being socially-elevated enough to be dignified by challenging to a duel.)

I have to admit that I laughed when I first read all this and joked to myself that it's too bad for KU fans that "drunken spew and vomit of an uneasy civilization" would be hard to work into a stadium cheer. But in the very next instant I reminded myself: Living in the Kansas Territory during that time and standing for whichever principle literally was a matter of life and death; meanwhile, for the nation as a while, by 1856 it had become increasingly clear that the South would be content with nothing less than the national government's affirmation and promotion of slavery, no matter the will of the majority of the people. The Dred Scott decision, which would come the following year, would only fan the flames and all but assure Lincoln's election, which, in the eyes of the South, was the final straw. Before Lincoln was even sworn in as President, seven states had seceded.

As I said here a while back regarding my own relatives during the time before and during the War, it's hard to remember, in the wake of all those years, just what that world and time were like for people living in the midst of them. Hard, but important. While I'm glad that we've not had Congressmen assaulting each other in the House Chamber for a long time now, I need to be a bit less glib about that time when, on occasion, such things did happen. McPherson's book is so far proving to be an admirable guide through that time.


R. Sherman said...

McPherson's is a darn good history read. It's been awhile since I read it. It may be time to pick it up again.


John B. said...

I'm glad to hear this from you. Its fluidity as it navigates a very complicated time (pre-1860) without seeming to shortchange that complexity is what I most appreciate about it. Well, that, and it serves as a reminder of just how glossed over (in the interests of time) my American history courses were: a semester to get us from native Americans to the Civil War.