On May 22, 1856, a man was brutally beaten with a heavy metal-capped cane. The attacker approached his target from behind, and then repeatedly crashed his cane into the skull of the seated victim, who tried to rise, bloodied and dazed. The assault continued for a full 60 seconds, until the victim was unconscious, and was carried from the room, as the attacker walked unchallenged from the scene of the crime.
This appears to be the type of story that could happen in any bar in America, when a bully is too far into his cups. But this shocking and horrific beating did not happen in some dive, but rather on the floor of the United States Senate. The victim was Senator Charles Sumner and his assailant was southern Congressman Preston Brooks. It seems Brooks was enraged by an anti-slavery speech Sumner had given a few days earlier. It was a very nasty speech, filled with name calling and the impugning of various gentlemen’s character. But it was only that, a speech.
It would take Sumner over three years to mostly recover, though he never fully did. Brooks, on the other hand, was censured, resigned, and was then promptly re-elected. He campaigned with prop canes, which he passed out to benefactors and supporters. And the United States moved ever closer to crisis.
I worry that we, as a nation in the 21st Century, are too often failing to remember the lessons of history, and the events of that long ago May day in the Senate in particular. We seem to have returned to a level of partisanship that declares that those with whom we disagree are not only wrong but are also un-American.
This is not a problem unique to one particular partisan view. Conservative commentator Ann Coulter once remarked, “While the form of treachery varies slightly from case to case, liberals always manage to take the position that most undermines American security.” Liberal film maker Michael Moore once tweeted that President Trump was a “loser” who held “fake power.” If you want more, a quick Google search of the term “political insults” will generate over 20 million hits. Enjoy.
I want to posit something that may seem radical in our current political landscape: Those you disagree with might very well be as good an American as you. It is possible to love this country and to passionately disagree with the policies of a President Obama or Trump. Disagreement is not disloyalty. Indeed, a healthy political debate is vital to our national governance.
I have two friends who share the same first name, and their last names differ by only a single letter. Let’s call them the “Quincy’s,” as I don’t know anyone named Quincy, so that should keep my friends from emailing each other to try to figure out whom I am talking about. These two gents are very good, very nice, and very patriotic Americans. Quincy #1 is as liberal as they come, and Quincy #2 is as far to the right as right goes. Both have contributed to their communities, their states, and the nation as a whole. If they ever met, I think there might be some kind of matter/anti-matter explosion of ideas, but I like them both, I respect them both, and I value them both.
When I jousted at the windmill of the U.S. Congress during my 2008 run for Congressional District 5, in the five counties in and to the south and west of Colorado Springs, I ran against Congressman Doug Lamborn, often cited as the most conservative member of the entire Congress. I was often advised to demonize Mr. Lamborn, to paint him as a threat to our very nation’s survival. I do, in fact, think that the policies he supports are dangerous, but I never could bring myself to call him names, nor play dirty. I strongly believe it is possible to steer a course through the troubled political waters without also dredging up mud to throw.
And so I urge you, gentle reader, to recall the events of that distant May over a century ago and take from it the cautionary tale it teaches. We can disagree, we can fight, we can rail against the policies of those we oppose, but perhaps, just perhaps, we can also call our opponents good Americans too.
My late father, my personal hero, had a motto: When you can think two things about a person, choose to think the kinder. A good maxim, I think.