Anger rules

Published May 23, 2024

By Carter Wrenn

Pompous, mean tongued, to abolish slavery – in 1856 – Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner tore into two senators who owned slaves, calling one ‘a noise-some, squat, nameless animal,’ saying the other had a mistress, ‘the harlot, slavery.’

Sitting at his desk in the empty Senate chamber two days later, head bent, leaning down writing, Sumner never heard South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks  walking down the aisle behind him.

High cheekbones, thick curly goatee, Brooks had been kicked out of college for threatening a policeman with a gun; in a duel a year later shot a man, also got shot himself – the bullet shattered his hip. Limping, owning slaves, angry at Sumner, lifting a cane with a gold knob at the top Brooks slammed Sumner in the head. Rage growing, slammed him again. And again. Blood streaming down his face, rising, Sumner staggered, fell to the floor unconscious – Brooks kept right on pummeling him.

It took Sumner three years to recover.

People across the south sent Brooks canes.

Massachusetts Congressman Anson Burlingame called Brooks a ‘vile coward.’ Brooks challenged Burlingame to a duel. Burlingame, an excellent marksman, chose the weapons: Rifles. Brooks cancelled the duel.

Brooks never spent a day in jail – that winter had croup, struggling to breathe tried to tear his throat open with his own hands. Died.

Fights like that weren’t unusual in Congress back then – fifty congressmen brawled on the House floor in 1858. We’ve never seen that in our times. But, then again, they never watched rioters storm into the Capitol to stop the Electoral College vote counting.

Last Thursday night as I turned a page reading that story, a TV news channel played a video of a House Committee meeting. Strutting, voice biting, Marjorie Taylor Greene mocked a Democrat congresswoman’s ‘false eyelashes.’

“That’s beneath even you, Ms. Greene,” Democrat Jamie Raskin shook his head. Enraged, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez snapped: “That’s absolutely unacceptable. How dare you attack the physical appearance of another person” – moved Greene be barred from speaking again.

“Are your feelings hurt?” Greene mocked.

The Republican Committee Chairman ruled Greene could go on speaking – a Democrat asked if that meant she could talk about Greene’s “bleach-blonde, bad-built, butch body?”

Greene shouted: “I think my body’s pretty good.”

Insults flew. Anger ruled. Shaking his head Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman posted on Twitter it was “worse than the Jerry Springer show.”

On the loose again the demon of unrest didn’t whip anyone with a cane last Thursday night. But a congressman said, “I’m just glad the chairs are too big to throw.”