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Opinion

February 3, 2013

A Boston historian's account of the beating that led to Civil War

A haughty, self-involved United States senator from Massachusetts was recognized on the Senate floor and began to speak ...

It’s not what you think. This is not a story about Elizabeth Warren in the Senate, nor a review of John Kerry’s speech there on, well, anything. It is a prelude to what author and Suffolk University faculty member Stephen Puleo calls the incident that pushed America to civil war: the caning of Senator Charles Sumner by South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks.

Puleo’s book, “The Caning: The Assault That Drove America to Civil War,” is a vivid account of the May 22, 1856, incident on the floor of the Senate in which Brooks nearly beat Sumner to death with a gold-topped, gutta-percha cane. The skill with which Puleo introduces the events surrounding and following the incident brings life and significance to the black-and-white illustration of Sumner cowering under the attack we may have contemplated with mild amusement in school textbooks.

Puleo’s account of the caning is unique in that it presents the background stories of the principals in full. Much has been written about Sumner, and Puleo does not skimp on his profile of the Massachusetts abolitionist. As Puleo recounts, Sumner was a learned individual but cold toward family and friends, absolutely convinced that his views were in the right and that those who disagreed were not only incorrect, but vile, and entitled to the full wrath of public personal insult that he unsparingly delivered. Indeed, one historian called Sumner “the best-hated man in the chamber.” Puleo also presents a portrait of Brooks as devoted to his family and South Carolina that has not been presented so thoroughly before, which brings perspective — but certainly not absolution — for the action Brooks took against Sumner.

The caning of Sumner occurred during a perfect storm of events concerning the debate over the extension of slavery in the United States in the mid-19th century. The most significant controversy on which the book focuses is the question of whether Kansas would be admitted to the union as a free state or a slave state. Puleo masterfully interweaves the debate and horrific violence, including murder raids by John Brown, which took place in Kansas, with sectional attitudes and debates within the Senate on the issue involving Sumner, Stephen Douglas of Illinois, Andrew Butler of South Carolina and James Mason of Virginia, among others. He also describes the growing abolitionist sentiment in the north — particularly in Boston — concerning the passage of the Fugitive Slave Acts. Puleo, a noted historian of Boston, describes the marching of two escaped slaves through the streets of Boston to the harbor by federal agents in order to return them to their owners, and the rage of Bostonians at the sight.

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