The Antebellum South in America (known as plantation era); historians see the Brooks-Sumner confrontation as a milestone on the US's road to the Civil War, encapsulating the collapse of civility...

by Paul Alexander

...the triumph of tribalism and the disappearance of the political middle ground; are we there now, AGAIN? Was the Mar-a-Lago FBI raid the watershed moment? No turning back? Trump vs Deepstate?

Thursday 22 May 1856, was a sunny, sleepy day in Washington, D.C. As Preston Brooks, the Democratic Representative from South Carolina’s Fourth District, strolled into the Senate chamber, the air felt hot and heavy. The Senate’s business had wound down; the galleries had almost emptied. Brooks glanced up, and waited for the last spectators to leave. It was important, he thought, that no ladies were present to watch what he had planned.

When he was satisfied, Brooks walked over to the desk of Massachusetts’s Republican senator Charles Sumner, who was busy writing and barely even looked up. Between the two men there was no love lost. Brooks, who walked with a cane after having being injured in a youthful duel, was a passionate defender of slavery. Sumner, by contrast, was one of the nation’s most outspoken abolitionists. Only days earlier he had delivered a blistering speech mocking Brooks’s cousin, Senator Andrew Butler, as a hapless Don Quixote-style knight devoted to “the harlot, Slavery”.

To Brooks, the speech seemed an intolerable affront. At first he had considered challenging Sumner to a duel, but decided against it on the grounds that the Massachusetts politician was no gentleman. But he remained determined to take his revenge. And now, as Sumner glanced dismissively up, Brooks spoke. “Mr Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully,” he said quietly. “It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr Butler, who is a relative of mine.”

At that, Sumner tried to rise, but Brooks was too quick for him. He lifted his thick gutta-percha cane, with its heavy golden top, and brought it savagely down on Sumner’s head, again and again. Sumner fell. Blood trickled down his face. He was trapped behind his desk; he could not get up. Still the blows rained down, Brooks lashing away like a man possessed. Sumner was unconscious now. At last, some of Brooks’s colleagues managed to pull him off. A pool of blood spread across the floor of the Senate.

Although Charles Sumner didn’t die that afternoon, the sheer violence of the assault struck many Americans, even at the time, as a terrible harbinger of the horror ahead. But while thousands of anti-slavery Northerners joined rallies in Sumner’s support, the reaction in the South was very different.

Ordinary people sent Brooks hundreds of new canes to replace his own shattered weapon; one was inscribed “Hit him again”. Many Southern politicians insisted that Sumner had exaggerated his injuries, dismissing the fake news of the abolitionist media. And on the fire-breathing wing of the Southern press, there was no doubt about who was really in the wrong. Brooks’s attack was “good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequences”, declared the Richmond Enquirer. Ideally, it said, the “vulgar abolitionists in the Senate” should be “lashed into submission”.

Today, historians see the Brooks-Sumner confrontation as a milestone on the United States’ road to the Civil War, encapsulating the collapse of civility, the triumph of tribalism and the disappearance of the political middle ground. I’ve been thinking about it a lot over the past couple of years. And I thought about it again this week amid the frenzied reaction to the FBI’s raid on Donald Trump’s home in Mar-a-Lago, Florida, where he is alleged to have taken — and even tried to destroy — confidential government documents.

Put aside, if you can, your own views about the rights and wrongs of the FBI raid. Perhaps it really is a sign of the overreach of the deep state, determined to smear and undermine a decent American patriot. Or perhaps it’s a welcome reminder that nobody, not even a former president, is above the law. Perhaps you think Donald Trump isn’t the kind of man who would trample roughshod over rules and conventions; perhaps you simply can’t imagine him making off with classified records and trying to flush them down the toilet. Or perhaps you think he is — and you can.

But this isn’t really the issue. Does anybody really see the fate of Donald Trump’s paperwork as the most pressing challenge facing the American republic? The more interesting question — as with the caning of Charles Sumner in 1856 — is what the whole imbroglio tells us about the health, or otherwise, of American politics.’