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Let Us Hope that We Shall See the Unraveling of the Republican Party. Here’s a bit of history of what can happen to a political party through an unconscionable and impulsive act:
Here is a political cartoon showing South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks, a pro-slavery Democrat, nearly fatally caning Republican abolitionist, Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner, in the Senate chamber, after Brooks accused Sumner of insulting his uncle,Senator Andrew Butler,in an anti-slavery speech. This occurred on May 22, 1856.
Again, we find ourselves in a period of civic unraveling, in which abusive public discourse and partisan politics tear at the threads of our society. As House Democrats launched an impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump, the president responded with a thinly veiled threat against the life of the whistle-blower who prompted the latest scandal.
For years, the near-fatal caning of Republican Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner in May 1856 had been excused by Preston Brooks, using as a pretext the alleged dishonoring of Brook’s cousin in a speech by Sumner. The idea that chivalry alone drove Brooks, a Democrat from South Carolina, to attack Sumner had been promoted by Brooks himself. This sham immediately became clear when Brooks approached the anti-slavery senator, while he was working at his desk on the Senate floor on May 22, 1856. “Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully,” Brooks told Sumner, who was in the process of stuffing his speech in envelopes to be mailed to constituents. “It is a libel on South Carolina – and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.”
Sidney Blumenthal, the author of a recent book on this event – All the Powers of Earth (1856-1860) – highlights a New York Times article in the aftermath of the attack that reported: “A well known personal friend of Mr. Brooks publicly stated, tonight, before a dozen gentlemen, that the assault was premeditated and arranged for at a private conclave, held last evening, at which the individual (Brooks) who made the statement was present.
The attack was a terrific boon to Sumner’s nascent Republican Party. “The most effective deliverance made by any man to advance the Republican Party was made by the bludgeoning of Preston S. Brooks,” Blumenthal quotes Pennsylvania Republican Alexander McClure saying. “It caused many scores of thousands of Democrats of natural anti-slavery proclivities to sever their connection with the Democratic Party.”
The real masterminds of the attack, a group of Southern Democrats known as the “F Street Mess,” who Blumenthal argues orchestrated the near-assassination of their colleague. (The group’s name comes from a boardinghouse on F Street in Washington, D.C., where the key leaders of the slave power, who held a firm grip on power in the Senate through committee chairmanships and other interlocking relationships, lived. Their influence over the Senate is documented by author Alice Elizabeth Malavasic in her book, “The F Street Mess: How Southern Senators Rewrote the Kansas-Nebraska Act.”)
The Republican Party would run its first candidate for president that fall of 1856, coming short of the White House by losing Illinois and the border states. Its second nominee, Lincoln, would solve that problem. By then, the F Street Mess had orchestrated the destruction of the Democratic Party, splitting it in two and, by putting two candidates forward, effectively guaranteeing Lincoln the victory, then using his win as a pretext to secede.
Who knows if we might have something of a repeat for the present Republican party, barring, of course, a public caning of a Democratic Senator or the secession of the red states or another civil war. Hopefully, Trump may have unintentionally succeeded in unraveling the Republican party. Time will tell.
(My thanks to Ryan Grim of The Intercept for bringing this to my attention.)