Conventional wisdom lately says that Congress is broken, too divided by political ideology and arcane rules to accomplish anything but partisan gridlock. South Carolina’s tea party-dominated congressional delegation has led the effort to shut down debate, with self-appointed obstructionist-in-chief Jim DeMint placing holds on anything he can in order to maintain that gridlock.
The conventional wisdom says this is a recent development, with political figures of all stripes hearkening back to the good ol’ days when Republicans worked with Democrats, lions laid down with lambs, cats and dogs lived together and all that stuff. But while political rhetoric does seem to be particularly caustic these days, it’s nothing new — and South Carolina has maintained that tradition for over a century and a half.
156 years ago on Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Preston Brooks inaugurated the Palmetto State’s time-honored history of bat-shit crazy politics when he nearly beat Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner to death with a metal-tipped cane on the Senate floor. Brooks’ beating — which left Sumner permanently debilitated — widely inflamed the rising political tensions which led to the Civil War, and gave fellow South Carolinian James Pettigru good reason a few years later to famously call the state “too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.”
Of course, Brooks’ savage attack was not entirely without provocation. Two days earlier, Sumner had launched a barrage of personal attacks at South Carolina Sen. Andrew Butler — Brooks’ uncle — in criticizing Butler’s support of slavery. “The senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight with sentiments of honor and courage,” Sumner said. “Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight — I mean the harlot, slavery.”
Don’t you just miss the eloquence of political insults?
But while Sumner’s comments about Sen. Butler certainly would have offended Brooks, historians tend to agree that beating a fellow public official with your cane is the wrong way to handle a political dispute. It didn’t help South Carolina’s case that fellow Rep. Laurence Keitt whipped out a gun during Brooks’ attack and threatened other senators who tried to break up the melee.
In contrast to the national shock and outrage over the violent actions of Brooks and Keitts, South Carolinians fully supported the representatives’ attack. Brooks was even sent canes bearing the inscription “good job,” which reminds us an awful lot of the “You Lie” machine guns sold to memorialize South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson’s infamous outburst on the House floor.
Yes, the number of congressional beatings perpetrated by South Carolina politicians has dwindled since Brooks’ famous attack — but the off-the-wall rhetoric continues to abound in the Palmetto State. At this point, it ain’t new – just news.