American Politics Has Been Worse. And It’s Been Better

We all hear or read volumes of information during the course of our time in school, and some facts stick while many others slide out of our heads. One of the stories, or names, that always “stuck” from my United States history courses was that of Preston Brooks.

If you are not familiar, Preston Brooks served in the House of Representatives from South Carolina in the 1850’s, and he was a staunch advocate of slavery as an enduring institution in our country. As a politician in the Antebellum South, he was not unique in that way.

But, what made him so famous was that in May of 1856 he assaulted Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the floor of the Senate itself, beating him nearly to death with a cane. Senator Sumner was a fierce abolitionist, and two days before he was beaten, he had delivered a fiery speech in which he denounced Brooks’ cousin, South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, calling him a “pimp for slavery.”

The South was generally indifferent to the whole affair, while the North was mortified. Representative Brooks resigned his seat not so much to calm his critics (he was only mildly punished), but so that he could run in a special election to reclaim his seat, figuring that his constituents would vote him back into office as a sign of support.

This is exactly what they did in the summer of 1856, sending the Northern states a clear message of disdain for what they viewed as anti-Southern bullying. Brooks died of natural causes only a few months later bringing that chapter of the American political wrestling match to a close. Open war would of course break out four years later.

I have thought of the beating of Sumner by Brooks often in the past year as I have watched the American political scene grow more and more nasty and dysfunctional with every passing day.

On one hand, the story is a consoling one. “At least no one has gotten beaten on the Senate floor in the past year,” I tell myself with some odd mix of comfort and lament. Yes, it could always be worse. In the 1850’s and 1860’s we were on the fast train to outright war, and we literally wound up killing each other in droves all over politics.

At the heart of it were questions of the human person and slavery, yes, but a closer look at the events reveals that it had everything to do with clashing views of federal versus state power, the facts of economics, and the cultural identity of the entire South. Slavery was a critical question but it was a surface issue for much deeper fissures that simply were not going to be fixed without a fight.

As bad as all that was, we should be careful thinking we are a whole lot better off today. We are not killing each other en masse (yet), but we’ve done our share of rioting when we do not get our way this past year. The emotional rhetoric of the prior era was frequently an attempt to justify one’s position on the major questions of the day based on the Bible (America was heavily Mainline Protestant then) or on higher philosophical principles.   Today, we simply get emotional, and the only reasons we can offer come down to: “Because I feel like it.” Which is another way of saying every man is his own emperor, and that is a dangerous situation for any culture.

Besides all that, the Civil War, bad as it was, took place at the dawning of industrial America when most of our country was still engaged in farming, and when most men and women over 16 years of age were stably (even if not always happily) married. Which meant that many experienced the war, that trampled crops and broke up families, as a very destabilizing and exhausting reality. It was not a “thrill.”

Today, when fewer are married, and fewer young (energetic) men and women own property, there is very little cost to starting a fight. We have much less to lose these days if we decide to be reckless.

Add to this the reality of a 24 hour news cycle and lighting fast social communication networks that channel emotional hiccups into national protests within hours, and we are sitting on top of a powder keg of social instability that the 1860’s world would have been shocked over, even while they were busy killing each other.

Even the violence of that era should be distinguished from the current moment, even though both are lamentable. Many living through the Civil War saw a methodical type of higher order to the fight, and the killing, that served as a brake on the violence, ironically enough. The violence in the Civil War was not random. We have no more brakes of that sort to our truly random violence these days because our notions of any type of higher order are either radically compromised or non-existent.

Christian practice, daily prayer, works of mercy, stable homes, sacrificial family life, community prayer, sacraments, reasoned engagement of the Scriptures and Church teaching are all very stabilizing forces, even though history has shown they are not perfectly stabilizing forces. But, they are a lot better than Twitter. We would be wise to hold very tight, right now, to these parts of our tradition that are the glue we need in our very fractured world. In these things, I place my trust. In these things, the fractured world is still redeemed.

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About Father Nathan Reesman

Father Reesman is a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. He is the Shared Pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish, and also of Saint Frances Cabrini Parish, both in West Bend, Wisconsin.
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