Freeman: The civility wars

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(HOST) Commentator and author Castle Freeman has been thinking about civility, politics and American history.

(FREEMAN) "Civility" is a word we hear a good deal these days – "civility," as in lack of. We’ve had a summer of angry voters at public meetings shouting about health care reform; angry demonstrators, also shouting, waving angry placards in Washington, D.C.; and an even angrier South Carolina representative interrupting the president’s recent speech in congress to shout, "You lie!" That’s a lot of shouting. As a nation, we seem to have gone all red in the face.

Journalists have fairly flocked to deplore what a New York Times op-ed columnist the other week called a loss of all sense of civility in our public political discourse. Now, to be sure, the volume of that discourse has gotten pretty high and its tone pretty low; but you can’t lose what you never had. Before we drown ourselves in tears over our lost civility, we should dust off our history books.

In 1856, the nation was engaged in a momentous struggle over the question whether Kansas was to come into the Union as a free or a slave state. On a day in May of that year, the Honorable Preston Brooks, another South Carolina representative, entered the Senate chamber, approached Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts at his desk, and commenced beating him with a heavy walking stick. Sumner was left unconscious and bleeding on the floor of the Senate. When other senators tried to help him, one of Brooks’ House colleagues held them off with a revolver.

Sumner nearly died. The consequences for Brooks, however, were less than harsh. Not only was he not reprimanded, he was treated as a hero in his home state, and people all over the South chipped in to buy him a new stick – many new sticks, in fact – to replace the one he’d broken over Sumner’s skull.

Brooks’s attack was not unprovoked. The gentleman was a nephew of Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina. Butler was Sumner’s adversary on the question of slavery. The Massachusetts senator had earlier abused Butler in an address that ridiculed his infirmity of body and speech, the result of a stroke. In the same address, Sumner went after another Senate opponent, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, whom Sumner called "a noisome, squat, and nameless animal." How’s that for civility?

Those antique political leaders were an admirable group in many ways. Compared to our generation, they were more colorful, more eloquent, and perhaps more honest; but – as the Brooks-Sumner affair suggests – it would be tough to prove that they were more civil.

The press needs to quit taking the national loutishness so seriously. It makes good copy, but, really, how much is there to say about it? How much is there to learn from it? The fact is that the United States, particularly in its political life, is not a nation of ladies and gentlemen. It is not, it never will be, and we do well to remember that it never was.

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