We Haven’t Seen Political Violence Like This in America Since… the Civil War

The murder of Trump supporter Jay Bishop by Black Lives Matter rioter Michael Reinoehl in Portland Saturday night was a watershed moment, an introduction of the political violence that has been common in many other countries but has seldom been seen in America. However, it does have antecedents: the heated runup to the Civil War is the most exact analogy, which is not all that surprising given that we may now be careening toward a second one.

The political violence broke out in the Kansas Territory. Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois was the main architect of the principle of popular sovereignty, the idea that slavery would be approved or outlawed in the new territories by popular vote. Douglas, who had presidential aspirations, drafted the Kansas-Nebraska Act to establish new territories by those names in part of the land that had been acquired in the Louisiana Purchase and was still unorganized. The act stipulated that Kansas and Nebraska would decide by popular sovereignty whether to allow slavery or not. Since both territories lay north of the 36°30' parallel, slavery should have been outlawed in both of them, according to the Missouri Compromise.

That should have been the end of the matter, with popular sovereignty definitively ruled out for Kansas and Nebraska. Instead, Douglas and his allies were determined to repeal the Missouri Compromise and won President Franklin Pierce over to the idea that doing so would be the best way to bring peace to the nation once and for all over the slavery question. Slavery would be voted up or down in various states and territories, and all would be well.

Congress approved the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Pierce signed it, and all was not well. As Rating America’s Presidents: An America-First Look at Who Is Best, Who Is Overrated, and Who Was An Absolute Disaster explains, the fatal weakness of the principle of popular sovereignty immediately became obvious: proponents and foes of slavery rushed into Kansas and Nebraska in order to tip the vote in their direction. Armed conflict ensued and persisted throughout Pierce’s presidency; “Bleeding Kansas” became a symbol of the intractability of the slavery issue and the absolute ineffectiveness of President Pierce.

In a message on the unrest in Kansas dated January 24, 1856, Pierce claimed that “serious and threatening disturbances in the Territory of Kansas” had been “speedily quieted without the effusion of blood and in a satisfactory manner.” However, he admitted that “disorders will continue to occur there, with increasing tendency to violence.” In a proclamation on Kansas issued on February 11, 1856, Pierce called on outsiders “to abstain from unauthorized intermeddling in the local concerns of the Territory,” and warned that “any endeavor to intervene by organized force will be firmly withstood.”

Few paid any attention. Kansas continued to bleed. Three months after Pierce’s proclamation, pro-slavery forces in Lawrence, Kansas, attacked free-staters, destroying the offices of two abolitionist newspapers and a hotel that abolitionists frequented. The Pierce administration did nothing and could do nothing. The sacking of Lawrence was emblematic of its failure.

Likewise emblematic of the outrageously overheated state of the public debate, much like ours today, was an incident that unfolded on the floor of the Senate in May 1856. On May 19 and 20, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts delivered a lengthy speech entitled “The Crime against Kansas.” In it, he resorted to lurid imagery to make his case, saying: “Not in any common lust for power did this uncommon tragedy have its origin. It is the rape of a virgin Territory, compelling it to the hateful embrace of Slavery; and it may be clearly traced to a depraved longing for a new slave State, the hideous offspring of such a crime, in the hope of adding to the power of Slavery in the National Government.”

Sumner also mocked Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina in terms that strongly hinted of the widespread belief among abolitionists that slaveholders were primarily interested in their female slaves for sexual use: “The senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight, with sentiments of honor and courage. Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and 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.”

Rating America’s Presidents details how Southern honor was offended, and Southern honor would be avenged. On May 22, Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina, Butler’s cousin, entered the Senate chamber and made for Sumner’s desk. He told the senator: “Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.” He began beating Sumner over the head with a heavy wooden cane and did not stop when Sumner began bleeding profusely and knocked his desk loose from the floor (it was bolted down) in an attempt to get away. Brooks didn’t stop until he had broken his cane. He later recounted: “I...gave him about 30 first rate stripes. Towards the last he bellowed like a calf. I wore my cane out completely but saved the Head which is gold.”

Both men were hailed as heroes. Southerners inundated Brooks with canes to celebrate his attack and replace the one he had broken over Sumner’s head. The cane was not the only thing that was broken. The Union was as well.

Sound familiar?

Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch and a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. He is author of 21 books, including the New York Times bestsellers The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) and The Truth About Muhammad. His latest book is Rating America’s Presidents: An America-First Look at Who Is Best, Who Is Overrated, and Who Was An Absolute Disaster. Follow him on Twitter here. Like him on Facebook here.

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