Friday, February 22, 2013

Book Review: THE CANING by Stephen Puleo (Westholme Publishing, 2012)

I can't bring myself to completely agree with the argument at the heart of this readable and detail-filled history, but that's certainly not for Puleo's lack of trying.  South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks' 1856 assault on Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor is probably mentioned only briefly, if at all, during the typical history class on the pre-Civil War era.  The contemporary strife in "Bleeding Kansas," which led, among other things, to the founding of the Republican Party, featured a cast of frequently unsavory thousands, plus a theatrical madman or two (think John Brown), and thus seems to carry more import.  In Puleo's view, however, Brooks' cudgeling of Sumner with a gutta-percha cane following the latter's inflammatory, insult-filled oration "The Crime Against Kansas," served as the flash point for a number of events that drove America into war at last.  In certain instances, such as John Brown's murderous raid on Pottawatomie, Kansas and massacre of pro-slavery settlers there, there is ample evidence that the caning did serve as a goad to direct action.  The North's horrified reaction to the beating also helps to explain why the Republican Party, after only two years of existence, did much better in the Presidential election of 1856 than anyone had expected.  As we move towards Lincoln's election and the caning recedes further into the past, however, Puleo's arguments regarding the significance of the event begin to weaken.  Where I think Puleo is on soundest ground is in his vivid description of the reaction to the caning as revealing the vast gulf in moral values that had opened up between North and South during the antebellum era.  Broad historical movements are hard to personalize; it sometimes takes a one-on-one conflict like this one to crystallize people's true feelings (or disagreements) about the Zeitgeist.

Puleo tries as hard as he can to be fair to both Brooks and Sumner, which is admittedly difficult given that the former nearly killed the latter (and did, in fact, condemn Sumner to a long period of frequently agonizing rehabilitation).  In so doing, he places a great deal of emphasis on Sumner's self-righteousness and lack of empathy for others and on Brooks' strong sense of "Southern chivalry" and devotion to his native state and relations (one of whom, Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina, was mercilessly attacked by Sumner during his speech, triggering the normally placid Butler's violent reaction).  As a result of the caning, both men inevitably became transcendent symbols of either heroism or villainy, with the distinction depending upon which side of the Mason-Dixon line you were sitting.  Some contemporary observers commented on the sections' utterly different reactions to the caning, but few seemed to have fully appreciated their sinister import for the future.

Puleo's attempts to link the caning to the Dred Scott decision and other pre-Civil War milestones are less successful.  In discussing Dred Scott, for example, he takes a detour to discuss how personal grief may have led Chief Justice Roger Taney to throw all caution to the winds and show the full extent of his pro-Southern (actually, it was more anti-abolitionist) prejudices when writing the majority opinion for that unfortunate decision.  The caning may also have played a role in hardening Taney's feelings, but explicit evidence to that effect is somewhat lacking.  John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, meanwhile, was more ambitious in scope, and thus less dependent on the caning as a trigger, than was the rage-fueled Pottawatomie raid, which took place immediately after the caning.

Despite the iffiness of the central argument, this book is well worth reading if you have particular interest in the antebellum era -- and even if you don't.  In 2013 America, after all, gulfs in moral values frequently seem as wide as they did in 1856...

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