The famous but vaguely recalled historical incident is generally referenced whenever a commentator wishes to indicate the depths of internecine strife to which the United States once descended, and which the country is possibly in danger of reaching again. Typically, we hear, “Divisive as things are today on the political scene, they can’t compare to the days just prior to the Civil War, when one politician actually beat up another on the floor of the Senate.” Then the argument moves on, with the rhetorical touchstone having been lightly and carelessly stroked.
But behind all such bland, automatic, and generic references lies an absolutely fascinating and complex story, full of rich specifics. Author Stephen Puleo has invested a huge amount of intelligent research into the matter — the events surrounding and including the moment on May 22, 1856, when Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina thrashed Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with a gold-topped wooden cane on the floor of Congress — and he has cast the facts into The Caning, a compulsively readable narrative which does honorable, evenhanded justice to all the players and issues of the era, while teasing out not only similarities with our present antagonistic politics but also some educational differences.
Part I of Puleo’s story succinctly and cogently establishes the national conditions and political currents leading up to the public beating. Currently at the center of the burgeoning anti-slavery debate was the state of Kansas, recently deemed acceptable to host slavery by no less an authority than President Franklin Pierce. Several famous cases of runaway slaves restored to their owners also inflamed feelings on both sides of the issue. Senator Sumner, dogmatically abolitionist, chose to deliver a two-day, multi-hour speech ranting against the Kansas decision and many other topics, in which he gratuitously insulted his colleague, Senator Butler of South Carolina. Here we pause dramatically to flash back to the birth of Sumner and the familial and personal characteristics that shaped him into an emotionally constricted yet principled ideologue.
Part II brings us up to the cliffhanger moment of the caning, and also focuses on Preston Brooks, the antagonist, revealing with lucid details the antithetical societal and cultural forces that shaped the Southern partisan, a man for whom, unlike his opponent, family and honor outweighed everything.
Part III opens with the central Chapter Eleven, “The Caning,” a mighty tour-de-force of vivid reenactment. The reader feels a tingling “you are there” set of thrills. This section continues with the incredibly complicated aftermath and fallout of the assault, which was taken up by both Northerners and Southerners as an emblematic torch for their respective causes. From the vigilante actions of John Brown to the dignified yet fervent speeches of Lincoln, Sumner and Brooks served as irreplaceable talismans and goads to action. This section climaxes with the untimely death of Brooks from an infection, followed by his cis-Mason-Dixon canonization.
Part IV traces the widening ripples of the altercation, from its impact on the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision (“perhaps the most controversial American judicial decision in history”), through John Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid and Lincoln’s election. Along the way we get the heroic and pathetic return of a still debilitated Sumner, four years after his caning, to the Senate for a final rabble-rousing speech. Puleo caps everything off with an account of Sumner’s death in 1874 — an era intimately connected with 1856 yet incredibly distant too — and an assessment of how history has treated each principal in the battle.
The elements of this tale that pertain directly to the concerns of 2012 are myriad and vital, rendering this book an important lesson as well as an entertaining excursion to the past. The way that even a noble cause like abolition can be seduced into supporting outlaw actions such as those of John Brown. The role of the media in stoking the fires of contention. (Puleo lists a mere sampling of the dozens of newspapers he surveyed.) The impact of bias confirmation in determining our political stances. The divergent roles of high-minded and demagogic politicians. So many similarities both inspire and cause despair at how little has changed in human nature.
The strangenesses of this era are the other side of the coin. For one thing, Puleo’s account make these actors and their causes seem positively Shakespearean compared to our own times. I don’t think it’s mere distance that elevates the discourse and stakes. I just can’t fathom anyone one hundred years from now writing an equally lofty and tragic tome about the 2012 elections. Nor is it completely possible to compare Springsteen to Longfellow, or Jon Stewart to Ralph Waldo Emerson. And, in a trivial but gratifying manner, the reader also encounters many quaint and charming tokens of the past. Jefferson Davis addressing the citizens of Boston from the balcony of Faneuil Hall?! I particularly liked the tribute offered to Sumner by the inmates of the Boston Female Orphan Asylum, “where young girls were lined up in front of the building waving handkerchiefs and displaying on a white banner a wreath of evergreen covered with flowers, along with a sign that read: ‘We weave a wreath for Charles Sumner.’ ” And the loony French doctor who treated Sumner with applications of burning cotton wool along his spine is pure steampunk.
In deftly and charmingly explicating this ancient scandal, Stephen Puleo has simultaneously rescued an important part of America’s heritage while shining a light that helps illuminate our forward path.
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.