Southerners Weigh in on Brooks

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

In following the aftermath of Charles Sumner’s caning by Preston Brooks, we have largely focused on northerners. As those posts went up, I searched for Southern defenses of Brooks. Andrew Butler made a speech on his behalf, but as a directly interested party he makes a poor substitute for a sectional response. His kinsman caned Sumner on his behalf. Robert Toombs’ after the fact approval and John Slidell’s obvious indifference speak better to a sectional attitude.

To them we could add James Mason. Preston Brooks’ constituents planned to throw him a celebratory dinner to express “their complete indorsement of his Congressional course”. The authors didn’t necessarily mean for politicians to accept their invitations. Rather they wrote to get back a public letter on a subject. Mason obliged, his letter appearing in the fifth volume of Sumner’s Works:

He [Brooks] has shown himself alike able and prompt to sustain the rights and interests of his constituents in debate and by vote, or to vindicate in a different mode, and under circumstances of painful duty, the honor of his friend. I would gladly, therefore, unite with you were it in my power, in the testimonial proposed by his generous constituents

For the same occasion, Brooks’ supporter back home invited the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis. He wrote back

It would give me much pleasure, on any occasion, to meet you, fellow-citizens of the Fourth District of South Carolina; and the gratification would be materially heightened by the opportunity to witness their approbation of a Representative whom I hold in such high regard and esteem. […] I have only to express to you my sympathy with the feeling which prompts the sons of Carolina to welcome the return of a brother who has been the subject of vilification, misrepresentation, and persecution, because he resented a libellous assault upon the reputation of their mother.

Clearly, Brooks had many Senatorial friends and admirers. They include some of the most powerful men in the nation, who could easily have ignored invitations from his constituents or responded without speaking to the substance of their invitation. The editorial notes in Sumner’s Works waste no time pointing out that Toombs, Slidell, Mason, and of course Davis spent the first half of the 1860s in the Confederate government.

The editors also found a less Southern man, geographically if not politically, to say a few kind words for Brooks. Then running for president, James Buchanan attended a college graduation in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. One of the students gave an anti-Brooks speech to enthusiastic applause. The student sat down next to Buchanan, who corrected him loudly enough for the whole room to hear:

My young friend, you look upon the dark side of the picture. Mr. Sumner’s speech was the most vulgar tirade of abuse ever delivered in a deliberative body.

James Buchanan

The student protested. Surely the Old Public Functionary didn’t approve of what happened? Buchanan answered:

Mr. Brooks was inconsiderate, but that Senator Butler was a mild man.

The next President of the United States didn’t go all the way out and say Sumner had it coming, but he tried. Dismissing a dangerous attack on a sitting Senator as “inconsiderate” and expressing his sympathy for Butler spoke volumes. It also fit neatly with Buchanan’s long career of being thoroughly inclined to do a solid for any proslavery man who happened along.

 

Thoughts on Puerto Rico

Gentle Readers, I guess this is something I’ll be doing more often again for all the worst reasons.

Some people believe that moral responsibility comes from one’s actions, mixed to some degree with one’s intentions. Many also believe that what one doesn’t do doesn’t count. We never have an obligation to act, but by acting we can incur obligations on ourselves. Standing aside means one hasn’t done anything right, but also nothing wrong. I don’t buy that and, if you get right down to it, I don’t think many people really do. Rather inaction becomes innocent to us largely when we feel like we should do something, but haven’t.

That must sound judgmental; moral reasoning can’t manage any other way. What we do and what we don’t do touches the lives of others. We can’t foresee every possibility or imagine the chain of causation across the world and down centuries; it would be absurd to insist that we should and hold us responsible for failing at it. But we must take responsibility for the foreseeable consequences of our actions and inactions. We choose them at the same time as, and because of, the choices we make to act or not.

This brings me to Puerto Rico, now devastated by Hurricane Maria. Everyone who had any right or business to know knew that Maria would probably sweep over our colony and cause tremendous devastation. We knew it just like we knew Texas and Florida would need help when hurricanes struck them. The United States is a rich country with a ludicrously expensive military that boasts tremendous logistical capability. When disasters strike, it’s out job to step up and do what we can. We have the ability. If we lack the willingness, then we must admit what we have chosen: to let people suffer and die while we quietly watch. This is true anywhere in our impressive reach, but the way human beings inevitably operate we feel that obligation most keenly for people we consider our own.

Puerto Ricans are Americans, the same as I and most of you are. They have every right to expect their government, which is also ours government, to be ready on hand with plans, resources, vehicles, and people to come to their desperate aid. More people live on the island than in about half of our states, millions of lives at risk. The island lacks power and will for months. It’s residents face floods. Most of them have no clean drinking water. This is a humanitarian catastrophe that beggars belief. The Trump administration had no plan to help the island. They and the GOP majority in Congress now expect to vote some kind of aid bill through toward the middle of the month, which Washingtonian friends tell me means they might get it done by Christmas; I hope they’re wrong. The residents of Puerto Rico mostly don’t have white skin. If they did, the full logistical might of the United States government and its bottomless coffers would have opened for them. Supplies and aid workers would have been lined up to flow in. 

People have already died from American inaction. More will soon, possibly for months on end. Natural disasters claim lives and we can’t blame anyone. You can’t legislate away a hurricane or arrest a flood. But our government has chosen the side of the hurricane, whilst boasting of the insufficient amount of aid scraped together already. It has forbidden members of Congress from going to the island, for fear they will report the truth. The man at its head had more important things to do than help, namely picking Twitter fights with Puerto Rican politicians who go out in deep water by themselves to find people in need and improve his golf game at our expense. Most of those who die will be the most vulnerable, the poor, the elderly, the disabled, and children. I don’t know how to explain this except as an act of mass murder, done to the people of Puerto Rico in all our names. When Joseph Stalin orchestrated a famine in Ukraine, we didn’t shy away from calling it that. We must hold ourselves to the same standard. This is America in 2017. No one deserves to be treated so monstrously, but here we are.

Private charity can’t replace the resources of the American state -most charitable organizations actually rely on state aid to do their work- but if you can help, then here are some good organizations.