With the recent tragic shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and the controversy surrounding the role political speech played in motivating the shooter (I believe he was crazy and prone to commit the crime regardless of the nature of political rhetoric in our country), my historical thoughts went to another attack against an elected official during a period of great turmoil in our nation over an issue more divisive than health care or immigration: slavery.
Consider the beating of Sen. Charles Sumner (MA) by Rep. Preston Brooks (SC) in 1856. Sumner, an eventual Radical Republican, delivered a speech denouncing the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the aftermath of Bleeding Kansas, specifically excoriating Senators Stephen Douglas (IL) and Andrew Butler (SC). Brooks, a nephew of Butler, took offense at the slight to his uncle’s honor and planned to challenge Sumner to a duel. Instead, Brooks approached Sumner on May 22, 1856 as he sat at his desk in the Senate chamber, which was nearly empty. After briefly addressing him about the speech, Brooks began savagely beating Sumner with a cane. As Sumner collapsed after briefly escaping the attack, Brooks continued to beat the unconscious Senator. Others attempted to aid, but were prevented by Brooks’ accomplice, fellow South Carolina Representative Laurence Keitt, who wielded a pistol. Sumner did not return to the Senate for three more years, while he recovered from his attack. The attack illustrated the deep divide in the country over slavery. Massachusetts attempted to prove a point by re-electing Sumner, using his empty seat as a symbol of both free speech.
The attack then, just as with the tragic shooting of Giffords, sent shock waves through the nation. However, the beating of Sumner has several distinct differences from the Arizona tragedy. First, the attack against Sumner involved another elected official resorting to violence over a disagreement over slavery. Second, there is no sign that Giffords made any inflammatory speeches that would drive someone to attack her like Sumner was beaten. Ultimately, the beating of Sumner was one event in a chain that led to war simply because we failed to compromise, while the shooting in Arizona was the act of a lone gunman with more problems than disagreements over politics.
In contrast to 1856, while we are divided politically today, I doubt we will see legislators come to violence over the issues that divide us. However, in today’s culture of 24/7 media, we are bombarded by the political discord, which influences all, including those unstable people, like the shooter in Arizona. The lessons we must learn from this tragedy is to make every effort to work out our differences over the issues today. Further, we must not resort to restricting speech in light of such events, as that serves no purpose but to prevent further dialogue.
In closing, my thoughts and prayers go out to Congresswoman Giffords and all the victims of this shooting.