In these heady days of ultra partisan bickering, where the side of the good is so clearly indicated by reason, logic, and compassion, while the side of bad is indicated by paranoia, stupidity, and misanthropy, it is worthwhile to locate our moment of history within a continuum of similar contests. If our era’s fight is for health care reform (increasingly being reframed as health insurance reform, unfortunately) then we look to the nineteenth century and a much more fundamental (but no less obviously good) struggle between those who rightly saw slavery as an abomination and those who sought to continue the vile the practice on the grounds of heritage and so-called racial superiority.
Same players, although the poles were reversed. Evil back then was courted and stewarded by those calling themselves Democrats, while Republicans, newly hatched from a crazy-quilt of third parties, Democratic dissenters, and the crumbling remains of the Whigs, clearly saw if not the moral imperative of opposing slavery, at least its unsustainability as a going concern. Then as in now, there was a cloud of unknowing between the two adversaries. There were hints of existential breakdown and whispers of civil war. The cultural differences between the North and the South (surrogated in the proving grounds of what was then known as “the West,” Kansas and Nebraska, particularly) were becoming fodder for a kind of internal xenophobia like a football rivalry writ large.
Into this scene are cast players in a war before the war. Charles Sumner, Senator from Massachusetts, a man by all accounts passionate about the cause of abolition, “a slave’s best friend,” and, also by all accounts, a wholly insufferable man to know personally. Egotistical, pretentious, and (according to an associate) “a specimen of prolonged and morbid juvenility.” In other words, Sumner was an asshole. But an asshole on the side of good. In late August of 1852, he gave a three-hour speech on the floor of the Senate decrying the Fugitive Slave Act, but the once the matter of the Act itself was exhausted, Sumner’s speech because a nasty, crude invective against pro-slavery Senators Stephen Douglas (present during the speech) and Andrew Butler. Sumner went so far as to mock Butler’s speech and mannerisms, both recently impaired by a stroke. Sumner’s speech may well have gone down as one of the lowest, most shameful moments in Senate history had that been the end of it. But what transpired next at the hand of our next player quickly demoted the speech to a distant second place.
Preston Brooks. A little nothing of a Congressman from South Carolina who held to medieval concepts of so-called “chivalry” and always quick to duel (except in one instance, as we shall see) or cop some pose of self-righteousness in a manner familiar to the aristocratic mindset of “old Dixie.” He would have made an excellent, low-ranking Klingon. Brooks got word of Sumner’s speech and wanted satisfaction. The slandered Butler was Brook’s uncle. Rather than calling for Sumner’s censure (which may have ended the still-new Senator’s career. He was not at that time well known or particularly popular) Preston decided that violence was the solution. Ironically, it is Preston’s choice at this moment that made the rather unlikable Sumner a hero in the eyes of the Union. Brooks attacked Sumner, beating him bloody with his thick, heavy, gold-tipped cane. The savagery continued for several minutes while colleagues, helpless to rescue the defenseless Sumner due to the presence of Brook’s goons, could only look on in horror.
Sumner’s injuries were enough to keep him away from the Senate for three years. Headaches, blurred vision, and a severe case of PTSD probably made the man a near basket case. By all accounts, the beating also made him a something of an anti-slavery zealot.
Enter into the scene the third part in this trio of players. One Anson Burlingame, (first picture above) a Congressman also from Massachusetts. Burlingame was a robust New Englander with a serious scholarly mind and a fabulous beard. A non-descript career in the House gave way, in later life, to renown on the international stage as diplomat to the Austrian Empire and China. The Burlingame Treaty is named for him and is perhaps one of the more forward-looking, thoughtful, and fair-minded pieces of diplomatic script written in the 19th century.
Burlingame’s role in the Brooks/Sumner affair is often overlooked by casual readers of history, but it is an important dénouement to the incident. Several days after Brooks beat Sumner nearly to death, Burlingame made what he considered “the most celebrated speech” of his career, wherein he denounced Brooks (on the Senate floor)as "the vilest sort of coward.” Naturally, and predictably, Brooks challenged Burlingame to a duel. And, in one of those historical moments I would personally loved to have eyewitnessed, Burlingame instantly agreed, knowing full-well that as the challenged, he had the right of choice with regards to the weapons used.
Burlingame chose rifles.
Burlingame was a world-class marksman.
Preston Brooks was in deep cotton. He knew it. Although accepting the terms initially, Brooks eventually pulled out of the duel, claiming that he feared being murdered while in route to the Canadian border where the duel was to be held. Well, it was unlikely he would return to South Carolina upright and breathing, although I’m sure safe passage could have been arranged.
In my imagination, I savor the look of clear dismay on Brooks’ face at Burlingame’s enthusiasm for the duel. This, I’m sure was not a typical response and Brooks, like all bullies, cowered at the prospect of confronting true fearlessness. And not just fearlessness, but an almost joyful, relishing confidence. This is what you want from a comeuppance. It is a shining diamond of very basic, deep-body justice. It is not civil and it had no historical significance beyond the moment, but it is one of those tales that could have come from Homer or the Grimms. It has a folk-song spirit to it and one can almost hear the young, Beatniky Dylan hammering away at long verse of The Ballad of Anson Burlingame.
Other than the visceral appeal of a story like this, Burlingame’s example should suggest a way forward for progressives and mainline Democrats in dealing with the current crop of irrational, anti-intellectual paranoids who have essentially filled the vacuum left when the fiscal, Bob Dole style of conservative was rooted out in 2006. The Glenn Beck wing of the conservative movement could not tie Pat Buchanan’s shoes laces, but somehow they are front and center in the media, calling the president a racist, making absurd, tin-foil hat assertions about his legitimacy; overblown and unsubstantiated hyper-critiques of his policies, and saddling his administration with every legacy of previous administration. What is worse, they are beginning to join in common cause with those who would very much like to kill anyone who may have a complexion a shade darker than themselves. It is not a mass movement, it is a mob. A mob itself is only big when they gather, they do not represent a viable minority much less a popular opinion. Poll after poll tells the story. Depending on which poll you read, 60 to 70% of Americans support a public option if not outright universal health care. And even with his struggles, his seeming foot-dragging, his fidelity to the Bush administrations draconian post-9/11 detention policies, and his inability to deliver on his rhetoric (well, it has been nine months. Why aren’t we rich and powerful again?), the majority of American still support Obama personally and trust his policies. (The latter number has been decreasing steadily. I guess declaring the recession over and actually collecting a paycheck are two different things. )
To confront this mob we need a legion of Anson Burlingames. Folks who are willing to meet the crazies on their ground and call them on their bunk. It needs to happen in the venue of popular “discourse.” It is already uncivil and yawping, devoid of content, and without ethos. But to get shouted down by morons while you point to a chart says more about the chartist than it does the morons. When Barney Frank calls a Martian by its name or when Katie Couric manages to expose the fraud that is Sarah Palin, we have to know that these are the outliers of what needs to become, not a movement, but a tactic. Use the moment presented by the opposition the way Burlingame used Brook’s barbarous challenge to neuter the huff and the puff. For inside every bully is a sad, stupid, self-loathing sack of fear. Marginalization isn’t enough anymore. And logic and reason are simply too sober for the drunken shouts from the peanut gallery. The sooner the children are put to bed, the sooner adults can get on with the business of governing.