Joe Wilson as Preston Brooks
No, calling the President a liar is not the same thing as beating a fellow Senator to a pulp with a cane. But there was something intriguing about the response to the Joe Wilson outburst that reminded me of the infamous 1856 caning of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner by South Carolina Senator Preston Brooks.
Consider a bit of the background to that incident. The Democrats passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 and allowed citizens of the new territory to decide on their own whether or not they should have slavery. This so-called “popular sovereignty” provision encouraged militant abolitionists from Massachusetts and militant pro-slavery activists from neighboring Missouri as well as the Deep South to flock to Kansas. The two camps became armed and often deadly – particular when John Brown massacred a pro-slavery family at Ossawatomie Creek. After pro-slavery zealots burned much of the abolitionist stronghold of Lawrence to the ground, Radical Republican Senator Charles Sumner gave his famous “Crime Against Kansas” speech. Not only did Sumner castigate the pro-slavery “border ruffians”, but he directly attacked the honor of some top pro-slavery politicians. Chief among them was South Carolina Congressman Andrew Butler, who Sumner accused of frequenting a “harlot” – slavery. He mocked Butler’s “love for slavery, who though ugly to others was beautiful and chaste to him.”
Butler’s cousin Senator Brooks took this verbal assault on his fellow South Carolinian as an affront to his honor and defended it as all honor-laden men do: with violence. Brooks nearly whipped Sumner to death in the well of the US Senate.
The reaction to the incident went a long way toward galvanizing support for the anti-slavery Republican Party in the North; many conservative Northerners thought of Sumner as an annoying radical, but they would never see a fellow Northerner so abused this way. More common was the charge that Preston Brooks had introduced the discipline of the plantation – the whip or cane – into the halls of the Senate. If any Northerner thought slavery would remain a purely Southern institution they were convinced otherwise by Brooks’s outburst – or so many Republican papers argued.
As for Brooks, South Carolinians by the hundreds sent him new canes and held him up as a great hero to Southern honor and the institution of slavery.
Border state conservative Unionists who fretted over the fate of the union in such polarized times made sure to condemn BOTH Sumner for his intemperate remarks and Brooks for his boorish behavior.
So how is any of this similar to what Joe Wilson did yesterday – other than the fact that both he and Brooks come from the same state? Wilson’s outburst was a violation of decorum, but it was hardly akin to beating a man nearly to death.
What did strike me as similar was the charge I heard floating around on MSNBC and elsewhere in the political pundit world: that Joe Wilson’s heckle resembled that of the town hall-screamers. Part of what made it so troubling – for Republicans in particular – was the eerie similarity between a Member of Congress and a semi-deranged Larouchie screaming nonsense at town halls. I think this observation is spot on – Joe Wilson really looked like a town hall screamer.
Obama’s speech – especially his emphasis on the need for civility in this debate – only underscored just how irrational so many of the vehement opponents of health reform are. The Wilson “You lie” scream reminded Democrats and wavering Independents of the nature of the opposition to health reform.
And like with Brooks’s fellow Southerners, Wilson received amens from Rush Limbaugh and others on the far right.
There is and always has been a serious set of criticisms to the Obama plan. And some Congressman, like Rep. Ryan, have offered detailed counter-proposals. But the town halls of the last month showcased a visceral sort of hatred that has seemingly invaded the halls of Congress. Instead of tamping down the budding extremism surrounding some of this opposition, we have a Republican Congressman channeling that very rage. What is the next barrier to fall?
Again, this is not to say that the Sumner caning and the Wilson outburst are moral equivalents. Nor, I should hope, would it mean the ultimate outcome of the two are the same. But it does suggest that when the passions of the outside world overcome the decorum of the US Congress – the most august democratic institution on the face of the earth – we have crossed into new territory. Let us hope we as a nation pull back from the brink.