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Pre-Civil War rumblings in Congress

Author explores early signs of division

By Elizabeth Rabin

For The Free Lance-Star

ON May 22, 1856, Preston Brooks, a congressman from South Carolina, beat Charles Sumner, a senator from Boston, in the Senate chamber with a malacca cane. Time and distance makes this statement now sound like an accusation from the game Clue. But in the years before the Civil War, Brooks’ act signaled the widening distance developing in contemporary American society.

Abolitionist rhetoric and pro-slavery response had led from fiery words to physical violence that spread even to the halls of American government. Stephen Puleo’s latest nonfiction book, “The Caning: The Assault That Drove America to Civil War,” focuses on the confrontation between Brooks and Sumner and explores the events that led up to it.

Puleo’s book is an accessible, interesting read for those who are curious about the Civil War but may be intimidated about where to start. The author, who has taught at Suffolk University, confidently outlines the personal histories of Brooks and Sumner as well as the regions each man represented.

Sumner was a Boston native who fought what he thought was the good fight against slavery by using the most inflammatory remarks at his disposal. Brooks was a young Southern man determined to avenge what he felt were personal insults toward his land and his family, even if it meant violence.

Readers will not only find “The Caning” a compelling read, but they may be surprised to find multiple parallels to today’s political climate. The debate over the legality of slavery often hinged on what was or wasn’t explicitly spelled out in the Constitution, much like many hotly debated issues today. Many editorials of the day insisted that “apathy was not an option nor were insipid calls for calm, reason or cooler heads.” Again and again, citizens from both pro-slavery and abolitionist states emphasized how they were incapable of even understanding their opponents’ arguments.

As our current political discussion continues to be stormy, these same sentiments come up whether the issue is health care or the federal deficit.

With attitudes like these in 1856, violence, not just between statesmen, but between American citizens was inevitable. The time for talk was over; many illustrations of the caning acknowledged this by showing Brooks’ cane overcoming Sumner’s pen. While “The Caning” may be a jumping-off point for history buffs in the making, the book is also a grim reminder of what can happen when a healthy debate becomes a polarizing argument that neither side is willing to lose.

Elizabeth Rabin is a freelance writer in Spotsylvania County.

By Stephen Puleo

(Westholme, $28, 400 pp.)

Permalink: http://news.fredericksburg.com/books/2012/10/29/pre-civil-war-rumblings-in-congress/

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