Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Tea Party is no Preston Brooks

No matter how uncivilized we think today's political climate is, no one has risen to Preston Brooks level yet.

Aw yeah... segue to one of my favorite acts in American Congressional history...

Think back to the magical year of 1856. The United States, just five years away from The Civil War, is voting on the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This was a battle over the very soul of our country: shall we open new horizons in our country to expand slavery, or shall we attempt to contain slavery to the places where it already is practiced. The act was so divisive, so contentious, that two years later, Stephen Douglas (D-IL), a co-sponsor of the act, would face a daunting re-election campaign against a state legislator and lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. Only one of those guys has a PBS American Experience episode with Doris Kearns Goodwin providing commentary.

Yet a verbal showdown against one of the most gifted orators of the 19th Century was preferable in comparison to what happened to the other sponsor. Andrew Butler of South Carolina found himself in a terrible situation. Senator Charles Sumner (R-MA) took to the Senate floor, and produced a tirade the likes of which have seldom been equaled, no matter how much Ted Stevens tried. Seeing a favorite uncle so maligned, Butler's nephew, Preston Brooks, decided that the only rational thing to do was to grab his cane and bludgeon Senator Sumner on the floor of the Senate.

This wasn't in the heat of the moment, Representative Brooks sat down with his friends to debate what to do next, and grabbing his cane and assaulting a Senator was the result of this deliberation. He even brought along a fellow South Carolina rep to hold the rest of the Senate at bay with his pistol while he (Brooks) beat Sen. Sumner until his cane broke. Sumner was a man whose opinions of the equality of the races was miles ahead of his time, if you believe this interview with David McCullough on The Colbert Report (about minute 20, before he reads some lyrics from 'Baby Got Back'). Rep. Brooks was fined $300, but his pistol-wielding friend was censured. Senator Sumner, having suffered head trauma, spinal cord injuries, and PTSD could not return to the Senate for three years.

So, no, we're not at the point yet where a Tea Party member calmly and rationally decides to beat a member of the opposition within an inch of life. But I can't say I'd be surprised if it did happen. The difference is that while the Kansas-Nebraska Act literally effected peoples' lives - whether they could live as free men or not - today's debate uses such heightened rhetoric that it elevates mundane things like earmarks for transportation projects to the level of outlawing slavery. God help us if we do have another Preston Brooks over the debt ceiling deal.

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