Saturday, September 05, 2009

Historical Image of the Day

Charles Sumner, senator from Massachusetts, 1851-74

To close my Senator series, I want to talk about somebody a lot of people were suggesting was one of the greatest senators in history, Charles Sumner.

Sumner's courage and bravery cannot be questioned. But what I think keeps him down a bit is his lack of skills as a legislator. He's most famous for being beaten by South Carolina senator Preston Brooks during an anti-slavery speech on the senate floor in 1856. Because it was on the senate floor, Brooks was immune to charges. Brooks nearly killed Sumner with his cane; Sumner was out of the Senate for 3 years recovering from his injuries.

This happening to Sumner was far from unexpected. A biographer says this about him:

Distrusted by friends and allies, and reciprocating their distrust, a man of "ostentatious culture," "unvarnished egotism," and "'a specimen of prolonged and morbid juvenility,'" Sumner combined a passionate conviction in his own moral purity with a command of nineteenth-century "rhetorical flourishes" and a "remarkable talent for rationalization." Stumbling "into politics largely by accident," elevated to the United States Senate largely by chance, willing to indulge in "Jacksonian demagoguery" for the sake of political expediency, Sumner became a bitter and potent agitator of sectional conflict. Carving out a reputation as the South's most hated foe and the Negro's bravest friend, he inflamed sectional differences, advanced his personal fortunes, and helped bring about national tragedy."

I think this is fairly accurate. I imagine the Republicans have more equivalents to Sumner today--he kind of acted like Michelle Bachmann. He was a provocateur far more than a legislator. He did play a leading role in attacking Andrew Johnson during Reconstruction, but he was far from alone in that sentiment and I'm not sure that he did anything unusual in his leadership on this issue.

What did Sumner do to get beaten by Preston Brooks? I'm quoting from his Wikipedia entry, but it's accurate with what I am familiar with:

Sumner said [Stephen] Douglas (who was present in the chamber) was a "noisome, squat, and nameless animal ... not a proper model for an American senator." He also portrayed [Andrew of SC] Butler as having taken "a mistress 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." Not content to leave his assault on a political level, Sumner's three-hour oration took a cruel, personal turn as he mocked the 59-year-old Butler's manner of speech and physical mannerisms, both of which were impaired by a stroke that Butler had suffered earlier.

So this wasn't the classiest of guys. He was offensive for a good cause and I have no love lost for anyone he attacked, but this is not the hallmark of a great legislator. To his everlasting credit, no one did more for African-Americans during the Civil War and Reconstruction and his spirit led to the Civil Rights Act of 1875, the last major piece of legislation to help African-Americans for 80 years. That said act was not enforced and overturned by a Republican dominated Supreme Court in 1883 is no fault of his.

So Sumner deserves credit for much of what he did. But I think being a first-rate senator also means having some ability to function as a senator--to pass legislation, to craft compromise, to show legislative leadership. And Sumner didn't really have any of these qualities.