A Turning Point in American History, the Beating of U.S. Senator Charles Sumner and the Beginning of the War Over Slavery
Early in the afternoon of May 22, 1856, ardent pro-slavery Congressman Preston S. Brooks of South Carolina strode into the United States Senate Chamber in Washington, D.C., and began beating renowned anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner with a gold-topped
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This was an odd book to read and a difficult one to review. On the one hand, it’s journalistic approach to the topic makes it much more accessible and, in many places, more interesting, than the half-dozen or so more scholarly books on the topic. But the accessibility comes with a certain amount of sensationalism (not that the caning incident itself lacked for sensationalism), a confused chronology, and a tendency to view the entire buildup to the civil war through the lens of the incident that
The author acknowledges in the introduction that he is dealing with events that have been much discussed and written about in American history. His one contribution, he suggests, is a fuller picture of Preston Brooks, the cane-er in the famous 1856 incident in which Brooks savagely beat, and nearly killed, Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner after Sumner delivered a fiery anti-slavery (and anti-South Carolina) speech on the Senate floor. Brooks was a South Carolina congressman and a distant relative of Senator Andrew Butler, also of South Carolina, who was one of the primary targets of Sumner’s famous speech, “The Crime against Kansas.”
In Puleo’s narrative, Brooks is a moderate, responsible family man who acts as he feels he must under the code that defines his life, while Sumner is a brash, arrogant bomb-thrower from a dysfunctional family who could have made all of the points he wanted to make without personally antagonizing Butler and others. Puleo does not go so far as to exonerate Brooks, but he comes too close for my comfort–largely, I believe, because this sympathetic picture of Brooks is a way for him to distinguish himself from the many others who have written books on this very subject. But, even with the narrative on his side, Brooks comes off as a needlessly violent hothead whose life is governed by a deeply flawed conception of shame and honor. That he became a hero to the South after his attack shows, at a very minimum, that the cultural values of the North and the South were, at the middle of the 19th century, too far apart to coexist in the same nation–something that Puleo points out frequently and analyzes well.
My primary objection to _The Caning_, however, is that it can’t seem to decide whether it is a dual biography of Sumner and Brooks or a history of America from 1856-1860. It frequently moves from one mode to the other, giving biographical details of its primary characters in some chapters and rehearsing the standard “steps to the Civil War” details (the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision, the Lecompton Constitution, etc.) in others. As a result of this scattered approach, it does neither job as well as it would have if it had chosen one approach to its topic and stuck with it.
For all this, however, the book held my interest throughout. Though I knew most of the information it presented, I found it a succinct, well-written explanation of a critical event in Antebellum American history and a decent situation of that event in the larger historical context.