Sunday, April 12, 2015

Just Finished Reading - The Caning

Those that claim that slavery (or better slavery's extension into the western part of the country) did not or was not the precipitating issue that brought the Southern slave states to secede and thus inaugurate civil war, have their eyes closed to the primary source evidence of those years when these events were playing out. Stephen Puleo's book, The Caning: The Assault that Drove America to Civil War (Westholme Publishing, 2012) is certainly not in that camp.

The Caning takes a close look at that May 22, 1856 event that added yet another log to the sectional fire. I have read other books that solely focus on this subject, but few if any goes into such detail about the personalities involved or the subsequent events that were triggered by the assault on Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner by South Carolina Representative Preston S. Brooks.

At the time of Sumner's beating his state of Massachusetts was viewed as the home of the most radical of abolitionists. It was, after all, the home of The Liberator newspaper published by pacifist abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, as well as the home of industry and thus the wealth financiers who fully supported the Kansas free state campaign.

South Carolina, on the other hand, was home to slavery's most vehement defenders. Statesmen such as John C. Calhoun (who had died in 1850), James Henry Hammond, and Andrew Butler all spoke in favor of their state's cherished domestic institution. Preston S. Brooks was cut from the same cloth and had tired of the attacks on slavery, his state, and his family. It was this last, his family's honor, which was disparaged by Sumner, that drove Brooks to take out his fury on what he saw as the dishonorable and ungentlemanly Sumner.

Two days after Sumner had disparaged slavery, South Carolina,  and Andrew Butler (a kinsman of Brooks) in his lengthy and particularly abrasive speech "The Crime Against Kansas," Representative Brooks took his gutta percha cane and strode to the Senate chamber where he beat a seated Sumner over the head, shoulders, and back, leaving the senator bloodied and bruised. Sumner would not return to his senate seat on a full time basis for four years. During Sumner's absence, which supporters saw as a political advantage, and opponents saw as a ploy, he suffered from occasional setbacks and possibly post traumatic stress disorder-like symptoms.

I have mentioned on this forum before that I am not a big fan of psycho-history. However, I do believe it is important to look into events of personalities' pasts to gather information to help explain how they reacted to certain events. Here is where I think Puleo's book excels. He looks at Sumner's distant relationship with his father and other family members to understand his arrogant and close-minded approach to life. Brooks on the other hand was raised in a loving and close family situation, which caused him to cherish family above all else. It was Sumner's malicious verbal attack on Butler, Brooks' cousin, that infuriated Brooks to the point of not making an offer to duel Sumner, but rather beat him as one would, of course, do to an inferior in his home of South Carolina. Brooks saw dueling only appropriate for gentlemen, and to Brooks, Sumner was not a gentleman worthy of respect. To Brooks, Sumner had to be disciplined for his rude actions.

Puleo also shows the influence that the Brooks-Sumner caning had on immediate subsequent events. He contends it was the caning that drove John Brown to take extreme measures in Kansas only days after the attack in the Senate. He also links the caning to the election of 1856, the  Dred Scott Decision the following year, the increase in influence and power of the Republican Party, and thus the election of Abraham Lincoln, the secession of the Southern states, and the coming of the Civil War.

The only real complaint I had about the book was the omission of footnotes. Although Puleo includes a bibliographic essay to explain where he obtained his sources, I certainly prefer footnotes or endnotes when reading a work of history. I did not read anything I really felt was historically inaccurate - although I do believe historians argue whether or not John Brown heard about Sumner's caning on May 22 before he engaged his his butchery at Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas less than three days later. I suppose word could have been carried by telegraph from Washington D.C. to Kansas, but it seems quite unlikely even if transmitted, that it would reach Brown in a rather remote area of the state in such short time.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Caning and thinking about all of the events that were going on at this time. On a scale of one to five, I give it a 4.5.          

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