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The Confederate Lawyer
November 25, 2009

Preston Brooks’ Cane
by Charles G. Mills

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 egregious.

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 one.

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 Reconstruction.

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 wronged.

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.

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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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