The Alexandria, Virginia ambush has a foreboding precedent in American history.
“I have read your speech twice,” Democratic Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina said to Republican Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. “It is a libel on South Carolina and also on Senator Butler, a relative of mine.”
The date was Thursday, May 22, 1856. After making that declaration, witnesses in the old Senate chamber reported to the New-York Daily Times, Brooks struck Sumner on the head and face more than a dozen times, so fiercely that Brooks not only broke his cane assaulting his fellow lawmaker with it but also wounded his own eye in a back-swing.
Sumner was defenseless behind his Senate desk. Blinded and insensible from the blows, Sumner tried to rise but then wrenched his desk from its floor bolts as he crashed down.
Others intervened as swiftly as possible, including Whig Representative Edwin B. Morgan of Upstate New York, who remembered later, “My coat and shirt-sleeves were saturated with blood from holding his head from the floor.”
Brooks, deciding against assaulting the rescuers, withdrew, as he told his nearby accomplices, “No matter – one will do for today.”
The caning of Charles Sumner was a sadistic act of political violence concocted in the halls of Congress by leading voices of what Sumner called “the slave power” in order to intimidate the Republican advocates of Free States. Sumner would be years in what would be only a partial recovery. Brooks would be celebrated for his act even beyond his death.
The very next day, threats of more assaults continued in the Richmond Whig:
“A Good Deed – …We are rejoiced at this. The only regret that we feel, is that Mr. Brooks did not employ a horsewhip or a cowhide upon his slanderous back. We trust the ball may be kept in motion. Seward and others should catch it next.”
Last week, after the Comey episode, I wrote gloomily that it was not impossible that the intemperate civil war of ideas between the urban and coastal-based Democrats and the exurban and rural-based Republicans might incite some to act “above the law.”
On Wednesday, June 14, the mass-murder plan by the now dead shooter James Hodgkinson rocked the country into prayer and fear.
Quotations from the shooter’s social media postings darkened the presumption that the attack was an act of political assassination: “I Hate Republicans and Everything they stand for. Which is Lie, Cheat, Steal, Lower Taxes on the richest people in the World…”
Reading the Twitter reports, the first thing I thought of was the caning of Sumner, because, just as in 1856, no one expects the climate of disunion to get anything but worse.
In 1856, within hours of the attack on Sumner, news arrived from the West of the pro-slavery attack on the Free-Staters of Lawrence, Kansas.
Days later at Pottawatomie Creek in Franklin County, Kansas, Abolitionist John Brown and his party massacred five captive pro-slavers.
In 2017, within hours of Majority Whip Steve Scalise reported in critical condition, the New York Times editorial board published a false allegation, later partly retracted after widespread protest on the right, that Sarah Palin had incited the attack on Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords in 2011.
Two days later, the prestigious New York Public Theater continued — while Scalise’s condition remained dire — to present its provocative interpretation of William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” that includes the blood-soaked death of an actor who has been costumed to resemble the Republican president.
Worse still, there is reporting that the shooter Hodgkinson not only opened fire because he determined those were Republican congressman practicing on the baseball field, but also that the shooter had composed what might have been a target list. Investigators found a handwritten page naming Republican members of the House Freedom Caucus in the shooter’s vehicle: Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee, Trent Franks of Arizona, Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, Jim Jordan of Ohio, Mo Brooks of Alabama and Morgan Griffith of Virginia.
In 1856, the rhetoric of violence in response to grievances came too easily to public events that would, we know now, crash into the tragedy of Fort Sumter five springtimes later.
Consider a speech before a feverish mass meeting in the Brooklyn Supreme Court Room, called on Monday June 1, 1856 to answer the Sumner and Lawrence, Kansas “outrages.”
“Gentlemen, in the days of the Roman Republic, the great Julius Caesar was assassinated in the Senate House, and the Roman Republic was in arms… Our Senator from Massachusetts…he has been struck down – for what? For his zealous adherence to the faith and principles of the fathers of our country, as he understood them, and no other crime!”
The report adds, “[Loud applause]”
In 2017, I watched on video another senator from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren, read from her new book “This Fight Is Our Fight: The Battle to Save the Middle Class,” at New York City’s Townhall.
Two days after her colleagues miraculously escaped slaughter, the senator said gleefully, “Donald, you ain’t seen nasty yet!”
The huzzahs of the crowd sounded as familiar as dread.