Mother Jones interviews Joanne Freeman, author of The Field of Blood, examining physical violence in Congress in the run-up to the Civil War. If the book is as fun as the interview, it promises to be a rollicking read!
That’s a great example both of the performative aspect of it and the ways in which it’s more than performance. Both North and South had an enormous response to the caning, partly because it came after a string of Southern attacks against Northerners, partly because of the brutality of it, and the fact that it took place within the Senate chamber itself—which Brooks tried to avoid. He tried to catch Sumner outside so that he could avoid precisely what happened, which is the symbolism of a Southern congressman striding into the Senate and beating an abolitionist to the ground. I remember reading through Sumner’s letters, and letter after letter after letter, from adults, from schoolchildren, [they’re] not even sure what to do with their emotions, talking about crying when they heard what happened. The power of that moment for Northerners is easy to underestimate.
The same goes for the other side of the equation. Many Southerners took abolitionism generally—and abolitionists specifically—as an insult, as well as a threat and a danger. There was a feeling that Brooks gave Sumner just what he deserved. Sumner had stood up and made a rousing speech attacking the spread of slavery into Kansas, had insulted the South, had even insulted a few Southern congressmen. So to many Southerners, their response was, “Thank you so much for defending our honor and our interests and silencing him.” There was one letter I found from a woman who was a Northerner, and I believe she married a Southerner, and she says in the letter, “If Brooks had done it anywhere but in the Senate and not over the head, then nobody would have any objections at all.”