GLEN COVE, NY — When my father was a child, one
of his adult cousins showed him one of her prize possessions, the cane
that South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks broke over Massachusetts
Senator Charles Sumner’s shoulders.
Congressman Brooks was the nephew of South Carolina Senator
Andrew Pickens Butler. In 1854, Senator Butler and Illinois Senator
Stephen Douglas drafted one of the compromises that delayed the War
Between the States. Senator Sumner, who obviously did not believe that
peacemakers are blessed, hated the compromises and wanted to destroy
the Southern social order immediately. In 1856, he gave a speech in
the Senate in which he attacked the South in general and Senator Butler
in particular with a highly offensive sexual metaphor and mocked the
effects of a stroke on Senator Butler’s speech and posture. Senator Butler was not in the Senate
during this verbal assault, making Sumner’s conduct even more
Congressman Brooks read and re-read Sumner’s speech,
went to the Senate chamber, called Sumner a liar, and then beat him
with his cane until it broke. The use of a cane carried with it an
implication that Brooks was the social superior of Sumner — that Butler
was not worthy of a fight. Congressman Brooks and his constituents
lived by a strong code of honor. While this code sometimes led to immoral
excesses (Brooks once fought a duel), the idea that one was honor-bound
to defend one’s elderly and infirm relative was an admirable
Congressman Brooks resigned from Congress, ran for re-election, and was promptly
re-elected. He received many new canes as gifts and died the following year.
Ten years later, Sumner emerged as one of the most vicious architects of radical
Most people today instinctively believe that Congressman Brooks was wrong. This
belief has its origins in the modern liberal notion that the government should
have a total monopoly on the use of violence. It is part of the same mindset
that wants to end the private ownership of firearms and that despises any vestige
of the immunity from government violence that the Church once had.
The modern liberal attitude was exemplified in an episode at Yale during the
Vietnam War. Antiwar protestors attempted to disrupt a meeting of the Yale Political
Union. They were promptly physically ejected by student sergeants-at-arms. The
police watched, did not intervene, and indeed one of them praised the student
sergeants-at-arms. For the following week, the liberal community at Yale voiced
their outrage in a total tizzy against the student sergeants-at-arms for ejecting
the protestors and against the police for not intervening.
A common thread of weakness runs through both the idea
that one should not avenge the ridicule of the infirmities of one’s
uncle and the idea that an organization may not keep order at its own
meetings. Men should act, not cry on the shoulder of government, when
Classical liberalism, at least in some ways, believed in human freedom. It has
now deteriorated to a belief that only the government may correct problems with
force. Government is, by its nature, the voice of people who are either powerful
or interested in politics. Giving these people complete control over legitimate
force is the road to serfdom. The temptations of power are too great to allow
anyone to have a complete monopoly on violence.
It is probably not possible to recover a society in which
Conservative congressmen can cane lying radical Senators — but it is
a shame that we cannot.
The Confederate Lawyer column is copyright © 2009
by Charles G. Mills and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com.
All rights reserved.
Charles G. Mills is the Judge Advocate or general counsel for the
New York State American Legion. He has forty years of experience in
many trial and appellate courts and has published several articles
about the law.
See his biographical sketch and additional columns here.
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