• Mariah Norman

The Caning of American Progress

Progress itself was being caned to death before our eyes. The American vision had been blinded by a sea of our own MAGA red blood.

President Taylor covered in blood, a rebuke to his promise the Union would unite peacefully (Samuel Corum/Getty).

Sacred chambers overlook the heart of American democracy atop a grandeur hill, history unfolding as a certain reverence persists in the air, lingering like the promise of liberty. A constant breath. Sometimes long and all consuming, inflating our lungs in a relished sigh of security. Sometimes quick and rackety, yet a breath nonetheless.

It’s here on Capitol Hill that centuries of scorching scandals run rampant.

Senators and congresspeople alike sidestep sin on their respective floors, a never ending waltz of private interests as they attempt to keep the legislative lungs expanding through one labored breath at a time. But few scandals have blatantly burned the revered chambers of the Capitol building to the level of scalding temperatures reached on May 22nd of 1856.

The United States was on the brink of Civil War. Tensions became thick enough to slice with a knife as every citizen and congress member anxiously awaited a nightmare that was sure to manifest. It was becoming increasingly evident that their disagreements were irreconcilable, and understandably so. Personally, a “middle ground” on the enslavement of human beings isn’t a ground I’d choose to walk on—or consider progress for that matter.

Congress found themselves in a heated debate on whether Kansas would be admitted into the Union as a slave or free state, a topic that especially piqued the interest of Senator Charles Sumner. A fierce abolitionist from Massachusetts, Sumner delivered an impassioned speech entitled “Crime Against Kansas” to his fellow Senate members, asserting that the atrocities of slavery would bring shame to the Kansan name. Far from finished, Sumner also began firing personal insults at prominent Senators of his opposing party, most scathingly directed at Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina. While Butler wasn’t present in the chamber himself, his distant cousin—Representative Preston Brooks—was.

And he was not happy. So unhappy that three days after Sumner delivered his address, Brooks cornered him in the Senate chambers after they’d adjourned for the day. Before anyone could register the horrific scene in front of them, Brooks mercilessly beat Sumner over the head with his metal-topped cane, striking him over and over again until Sumner was blinded by a sea of his own blood and fell unconscious.

In this lithograph, Senator Brooks is faceless because he was deemed innocent (NY Public Library).

The country was stunned. Yet still, no one could quite agree that beating a fellow congress-member unconscious within the sacred Senate chambers, in the name of slavery, was inherently… not the best. Brooks resigned, but was immediately re-elected and regarded as a hero of the South, receiving a slew of canes from adoring fans. Contrastingly, Sumner was forced to spend three years out of the Senate in order to heal from his wounds, slipping into the silent solitude of martyrdom. The nineteenth century equivalent of becoming a fleetingly trending hashtag on Twitter.

Wednesday, January 6th, 2021. History repeats itself when we spend too much time blinded by the present.

Everyday, we seem to commit crimes against ourselves, far beyond just Kansas territory lines. The spirit of Charles Sumner’s exasperation lingers in the darkness we succumb to today, millions of Americans neglected in a time of unprecedented crisis and division. Much like his own ill-received speech, calls for a dismantling of white supremacy are “too aggressive.” Demands for health care being treated as a human right amid a global pandemic are “unrealistic.” Pleas for basic financial stability and livable wages in an economic recession are “greedy.”

We call out fascism when we see it—this time by the name of Donald Trump rather than Andrew Butler—then are left to deal with his violent white nationalist distant cousins. (The 2021 kind, not the Preston Brooks circa 1856 kind. Though I can see how that could be confusing.)

So when a mob of confederates, neo-Nazis, and Trump supporters, ironically waving Blue Lives Matter flags as they stampeded through flimsy police barriers, inhabited the heart of our democracy in an unorganized coup attempt, it felt like progress itself was being caned to death before our eyes. The American vision had been blinded by a sea of our own blood red MAGA hats.

The red color materialized on January 6th, as at least four lost their lives (Sean Rayford/Getty).

The country, like in 1856, was stunned. But many of us, including myself, were not surprised in the slightest. We still can’t quite agree that white people breaking into the capitol with little to no retaliation or repercussions—especially in contrast to Black Lives Matter protests over the summer—is inherently… not the best. Republican senators walked back into the same chambers where their lives were threatened just mere hours earlier, and voted to overturn free and fair election results. The now former President himself declared his love for the insurrectionists, practically sending out a mass shipment of canes as a thank you.

Americans tend to have a culture of an unwavering instinctive pride. In our most embarrassing moments, the reflex from our nation’s leaders is to claim that: This is not America.I used to believe them.

Deep down maybe I never actually did. But oh how I desperately wanted to. Because if this was, in fact, America, then I was intrinsically un-American. But as a descendant of slaves, America is all I’ve ever been able to call home. It is my home. I care so deeply about this country and the people in it; even when it hurts me beyond words, even when I’d be better off giving up and escaping at the first opportunity.

That love and hope and stubborn commitment to justice is everything this rag-tag democratic experiment was intended to be. To strive for the more perfect union that we are so incredibly far from. But we must accept that the imperfections, the bigotry, the hatred, that is America too. We cannot disregard the canings and insurrections as mere flukes, but the consequences of the choices we failed and succeeded in making.

On January 20th, two marines hold battered doors, scars of the attack just two weeks ago (Melina Mara/AP).

There are moments in history that serve as turning points. Their irreversible societal implications ignite something that disrupts the fabric of our country. The Caning of Charles Sumner was one of those American moments, and it sparked the Civil War. The Insurrection of the Capitol seems to be the latest addition to that list.

And so, it is time to ask ourselves, what do we want this moment to spark in our country?

We must latch onto this transient malleability and use it to shape America into what we require of ourselves. Recentering our politics to the People (our citizens and community members) instead of the Person (the lies and greed of individual corrupt politicians) is imperative to implementing the structural change that would meet this moment.

On Wednesday, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were inaugurated as the President and Vice President of the United States. We enter a new era as we still drip MAGA-red blood from the cane wounds of the previous one. It is our job as citizens to push for the spark of change we deserve after such an ugly moment, and not sacrifice ourselves for the sake of unity or bi-partisanship. There is no “middle ground” for slavery, and there’s not one for police brutality or many other prevalent issues either.

But through it all, canings and insurrections alike, the lungs of that revered building perched atop Capitol Hill have labored through each steady breath, long before 1856 and—we can only hope—far beyond 2021 as well.

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