You wouldn’t say that Preston Brooks sucker-punched Charles Sumner in the Senate chamber in 1856—but only because he used a cane. Brooks, a South Carolina congressman, began bludgeoning Sumner, the anti-slavery Massachusetts senator, while Sumner wasn’t looking, and beat him unconscious as Sumner was still bent under his desk trying to stand up.
Brooks and his supporters in the South saw the incident as an act of great valor, as the historian Manisha Sinha writes. Brooks bragged that “for the first five or six licks he offered to make fight but I plied him so rapidly that he did not touch me. Towards the last he bellowed like a calf.” The pro-slavery Richmond Enquirer wrote that it considered the act “good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequence.” Other “southern defenders of Brooks,” Sinha writes, praised Brooks for his “manly spirit” and mocked Sumner for his “unmanly submission.” It would have been manlier for the unarmed Sumner not to have been ambushed.
The impetus for Brooks’s attack on Sumner was that Sumner had mocked Brooks’s second cousin, South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, for his support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The law put the question of slavery in the territories to a popular vote, exacerbating the tensions between North and South that would eventually lead to the Civil War. Sumner gave a speech accusing Butler of having chosen “the harlot, slavery,” as his “mistress.” Brooks’s defense of Southern honor was to ambush an unarmed man reaching under his desk. As Sinha writes, Brooks later said that attacking Sumner with a cane, rather than challenging him to a duel, was an attempt to humiliate Sumner for his abolitionism by treating him like a slave. Brooks was reelected after resigning in protest of being fined for the incident.
Northern papers rightly saw Brooks’s act of violence against Sumner as an attack on free speech; Sinha cites The New York Times editorializing that “without freedom of speech, there can be no freedom any kind—and the liberties of the Republic may well be regarded as in peril when such an act can be perpetrated with impunity.”
Despite Brooks’s public bravado, many of his contemporaries understood that what he had done was an act of cowardice. Anson Burlingame, a representative from Massachusetts, denounced Brooks on the House floor. “Strike a man when he is pinioned—when he cannot respond to a blow! Call you that chivalry? In what code of honor did you get your authority for that?” Mocking both Brooks and Butler as the “gallant nephew” and “gallant uncle,” Burlingame declared, “when we utter something which does not suit their sensitive natures, we desire to know it.” The speech was so memorable that The New York Times cited it in Burlingame’s 1870 obituary.
An infuriated Brooks challenged Burlingame to a duel. Burlingame accepted. The two men were meant to meet in Canada, where, according to The New York Times, an eager Burlingame hurried after stopping in New York to ensure that his skills with a rifle had not atrophied. The Times reported at the time that the proprietor of the shooting gallery “had witnessed, in his time, some accurate shooting, but nothing that equaled this.”
A member of Brooks’s entourage was spying on Burlingame, and according to the Times, witnessed “the shooting of the Broadway gallery.” He telegraphed Brooks in Philadelphia, who suddenly decided not to proceed to Canada on the grounds that he would have to travel through “a hostile country.” Brooks’s headstone would later say that heaven itself never opened its arms to a “manlier spirit.” It is perhaps kind to describe that as an exaggeration. Brooks was a precious little snowflake who melted at first thaw.
The antebellum South was a society built on the violent exploitation of defenseless people; it is in no sense strange or odd that slaveholders would see no incompatibility between their concept of freedom and valor, and ambushing and caning a man who said something that hurt their feelings. Brooks was a hopelessly craven bully who bludgeoned a man in ambush and then shrank from a fair duel with an equal once he realized he would lose.
I don’t mean to fetishize courage, which can be possessed by good and evil alike. I tell this story to show that in politics, one defends cruelty or cowardice by cloaking it in a delusion of valor.
On May 25, witnesses say, Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate in the special election for the seat vacated by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, grabbed the Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs by his neck and slammed him to the ground. Jacobs was attempting to ask Gianforte about his position on the American Health Care Act, a bill that the Congressional Budget Office estimates would lead to some 23 million fewer people having health insurance. Gianforte defeated his Democratic opponent Rob Quist Thursday evening without ever taking a clear public position on the bill, which is deeply unpopular.
Gianforte attacked a man professionally obligated not to fight back. He initially accused Jacobs of being the aggressor and justified the assault by describing him as a “liberal reporter.” He hid from reporters all through election day, and as Brian Beutler points out, apologized only after he had won the seat.
While the reactions of Gianforte’s Republican colleagues in Congress ranged from condemnation to justification and even humor, many voices in the conservative media eagerly defended the assault (though there were notable exceptions). Pundits on Fox News explained that the California-born, Pennsylvania-raised Gianforte had merely given Jacobs a taste of “Montana justice.” Geraldo Rivera, of Brooklyn, New York, explained that Montanans “are no strangers to the more robust way of living.” The conservative pundit Laura Ingraham, who hails from the mean streets of Glastonbury, Connecticut, asked, “What would most Montana men do if ‘body slammed’ for no reason by another man?”
Physically attacking journalists for asking questions is cowardly. Every single person who defends it is engaging in an act of cowardice. The notion that Gianforte was merely channeling the rugged frontier culture of Western mountain men when he attacked someone who asked him a question is laughable and patronizing.
It is not 1856, but these are the politics of a false valor forged by fear. It is the undercurrent of a politics that defends grown men who stalk black teenagers in the night and then gun them down when they raise their hands in their own defense; it is the politics that rationalizes Ohio police shooting a 12-year-old boy with a toy gun without so much as a chance to surrender; it is the politics of mass deportation and Muslim bans and Blue Lives Matter bills. It is the political logic of frightened people who need to tell themselves they are brave. This is not valor; it is the celebration of violence against those who cannot respond in kind.
That logic is properly realized in the avatar of a president who mocks those who served and suffered while having avoided service himself; who brags about sexual assault behind closed doors and threatens to silence the women who say he assaulted them; who ridicules disabled people then denies doing so; who calls the press the “enemy of the people” when reporters write stories that upset him; who attacks religious fundamentalism from the safety of a podium in this country and then genuflects before its most powerful representatives abroad. Brooks is long dead, but the heirs to his peculiar notion of bravery govern America still.