Friday, September 11, 2009

Joe Wilson in Historical Perspective

A contemporary political cartoon of Preston Brooks beating Charles Sumner on the Senate floor.

May 3, 1910. Senate candidate Frederick Hale (R-ME) horsewhips newspaper editor Charles Thornton Libby for allegedly slandering Hale's mother in the rural Six Town Times. Hale is later elected to fill a Senate seat once held by his father, and has a long career in the United States Senate.

September 4, 1813. Future President Andrew Jackson, horsewhip in hand, approaches future Senator Thomas Hart Benton (D-MO) in a Nashville hotel and shouts, "You damned rascal! I'm going to punish you!" As Jackson attacks Benton, Benton's brother Jesse Benton shoots Jackson point blank in the back. Jackson is carried from the scene, and as he's being treated, the blood from his wound soaks through two mattresses. Years later, when Jackson is President, Tom Benton becomes his most loyal ally in the Senate.

In 1851, when Charles Sumner (R-MA) joins the Senate, Benton tells him he has joined the Senate too late. "All the great issues and all the great men are gone," Benton says. "There's nothing left but snarling over slavery..."

July 11, 1804. Former Vice President Aaron Burr fatally shoots former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in a duel. After the duel, Burr flees to South Carolina (the future home state of both Preston Brooks and Joe Wilson). In 1807, Burr conceives a treasonous plan to raise a private army and go to war against Mexico, and attempts to enlist the support of Andrew Jackson. Jackson's nephew Stockley Hays joins Burr's abortive expedition, and is later on hand to thrust a sword at Jesse Benton after Benton shoots Jackson in the back. (A metal button on Benton's coat deflects the blade and saves his life.)

Preston Brooks

May 22, 1856. After a speech in which Senator Charles Sumner ridicules Senator Andrew Butler (D-SC),* Butler's kinsman Rep. Preston Brooks (R-SC) attacks Sumner on the floor of the Senate with a gold-tipped walking cane. (Brooks has to walk with a cane because he was shot in the hip in a duel with future Texas Senator Louis Wigfall.) Brooks beats Sumner until Sumner is blinded with his own blood and falls unconscious. Sumner spends three years recovering before he can return to the Senate. Brooks becomes a hero in his home state of South Carolina, and receives dozens of new canes as gifts from constituents. He apologizes to the Senate, explaining that he meant no disrespect to the Senate, and that if he had meant to kill Sumner, he would have used a different weapon.

*In his speech, Sumner said of Butler: "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."

February 27, 1859. Rep. Daniel Sickles (D-NY) murders U.S. attorney Philip Barton Key, son of Francis Scott Key, in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, after discovering his wife Teresa in an affair with Key. In his murder trial, Sickles is acquitted, using the first successful plea of temporary insanity in history. Sickles later serves controversially as a Union general in the Civil War.

February 5, 1860. Lawrence Keitt (D-SC), who had drawn his pistol to prevent other lawmakers from intervening to help Senator Sumner, starts a brawl on the House floor. The brawl ends when Rep. John Potter (R-WI) pulls the toupée from the head of Rep. William Barksdale (D-MS). Potter holds up the toupée and exclaims: "Look, boys! I've scalped him!" The House dissolves in laughter and the brawl ends.

1 comment:

Jim H. said...

Ah, the good old days!

Reminds of the the line in McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove" in which a vigilante murder is justified by saying of the victim, "He needed killin'."

Thanks, Rob, for providing a little historical perspective.

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