The Caning: The Assault That Drove America to Civil War

-Stephen Puleo


A person who spots a book entitled The Caning might be forgiven for assuming that it’s yet another rip-off of Fifty Shades of Grey.  It is not.  The Caning is centred around Congressman Preston S. Brooks’ brutal assault on Senator Charles Sumner, back in 1856.  Sumner - an ardent antislavery activist - was targeted in response to a very savage verbal attack on slaveowners, including Senator Andrew Butler (Brooks’s second cousin).  The incident not only left Sumner a shattered man - despite attempts by the South to claim that he was shamming - it destroyed all pretence that the American North and South could approve their differences amiably.  In many ways, it was the harbinger of the Civil War.


The Caning starts with a biographical sketch of the two men.  Sumner was oddly detached from his family, yet a passionate enemy of slavery.  Brooks was obsessed with his family, his state and his honour, to the point he was desperate to prove that he hadn't been shamming during the Mexican War.  I suspect someone must have made a comment that rankled, as no one - including the authors - seems to suggest that Brooks’ illness was anything but real. 


The two characters in the drama are sometimes odd and inconsistent.  Sumner appeared to have few emotional ties to anyone - perhaps, like many activists in the modern day, he was more interested in ideals rather than the real world.  Brooks, apparently seeing himself as the South’s avenging angel, showed a weird blend of gallantry and hypocrisy in his bid to punish Sumner.  His first attempt at his victim was thwarted by the presence of a woman in the hall, whom the sergeant-at-arms refused to order to leave.  Brooks appears to have believed that committing such an assault would only be wrong if done under the eyes of a lady! 


It is strange, reading the book, to see how unprotected Washington was in that era.  Brooks does not appear to have been arrested, even though he managed to injury himself during the attack.  The author goes into considerable detail of the aftermath, including an observation that Brooks evaded the prospect of a challenge from outraged northerners. 


There can be little doubt that the effects of the attack were far-reaching.  (Calling it a caning actually minimised the impact.)  On a personal level, Sumner was badly injured and never recovered; Brooks, feted as a hero by the South, effectively got away with it.  He was re-elected, but died of disease shortly afterwards.  For better or worse, he never saw what would become of his beloved South in the war.


But on a national level, the effects were dramatic.  For many in the North, the attack proved that the North and South could no longer co-exist.  If a man could be silenced violently and the silencer allowed to go unpunished, they asked, what would happen next?  The common understanding of the rules no longer existed.  And, when the South refused to disown Brooks - very Southerners ever considered it, it seems - it was clear there would be war.  The deep irony of the whole affair is that it galvanised abolitionist sentiment in the North and led directly to the election of Lincoln.  Brooks had meant to punish an enemy and silence the South’s critics.  Instead, he made them stronger by giving them a cause.


It is possible to overstate the affair.  The caning of Charles Sumner took place during a time of unrest: Dred Scott, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, John Brown, etc.  It is hard to say, even with the advantage of hindsight, just how decisive it truly was.  And it, as one northerner put it at the time, the caning marked the moment where the South decided to pit clubs against arguments and shatter the united nation.  It represented a break with the rules that could never be mended.


It is also a glimpse into a very different time.  The South truly believed in its cause, including the right to own slaves.  (Although, as cynics pointed out then and since, relatively few southerners owned slaves.)  They were attached to their country - their states - in a way that far fewer people are today.  The fundamental wrongness of holding their fellow men in bondage never crossed their minds.  They wrote elaborate arguments to ‘prove’ that freemen couldn't take care of themselves, none of which hold water to us.  This was combined with a sense of honour that was starting to turn actively poisonous.  Brooks may have felt as though he had failed in some way, but his desire to protect what scraps of honour he felt he had left led him to disaster. 


The North, too, was deeply divided.  Sumner - and John Brown - might have been strongly opposed to slavery, but not every northerner felt the same way.  Racism was deeply engrained in their society (and backed by the economic point that slavery benefited the North too, a point the South felt would prevent the North taking effective action.)  The origins of the civil war were far more tangled than the good/evil dichotomy we are presented with today.  


The relevance to our time should be obvious. 


In 2016, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton and become the 45th President of the United States.  His election was, at least in part, a reaction to the ‘culture wars,’ to the growing perception that America - and the world - was threatened by progressives who used political correctness as a weapon to crush resistance.  Many of Trump’s supporters believed that the ‘left’ was willing to do anything to impose its agenda, branding its enemies ‘racists,’ ‘sexists’ and ‘bigots.’  And there was - and still is - a great deal of evidence to suggest that his supporters have a point.


And yet this is merely the tip of the iceberg.  Across America and Europe, a tidal wave of frustration and rage is rising.  The right believes that national governments are incompetent, feckless or outright treasonous; the left believes that the right is bent on imposing fascism, forcing them to resist with all of their power.  The right sees the left as deluded hypocrites who believe the rules can be ignored if it’s in a good cause; the left sees the right as evil, motivated by bigotry and racism.  This is not a recipe for peace in our time.


A second American Civil War - or a European Civil War - would be bloodshed on a scale to rival the European Wars of Religion.  The sides are not separated, but living side by side.  No one in their right mind could possibly want to fight it.  And yet, if the middle ground is lost - and if arguments are silenced by force - might open conflict become inevitable? 


Why is it that we never learn the lessons of the past?


Overall, The Caning is a must-read in this day and age ...


... Even if you think it should be wrapped in a brown paper wrapper.