Profiles in Incivility

Another fortnight spent scanning the headlines, searching for any glimmer of a glimpse of a shred of a sliver of a hope for any sort of national reconciliation… .

Any luck? Of course not. How absurd. No sign of any such chimera was to be found.

As the nation’s oldest newspaper, we accept our responsibility and blame ourselves. Far too often, in attempting to provide the best approximation possible of the truth as it stands at a given moment, we have yielded to temptation and used language that was less than moderate.

Whenever those in leadership roles—whether high and mighty, as in the halls of Congress, or obscure and diminished through past decades of neglect, as here in our newsroom—the use intemperate language gives license to others, fostering a downward spiral.

History abounds with dire precedents. One of the most extreme took place when New Hampshire’s own Franklin Pierce was president.

Paradoxically, if “Handsome Frank” were alive today, he’d make a perfect poster boy for the sort of politician many say we could use a lot more of. His greatest achievement—or so he’d hoped—was finding a middle ground to solve the greatest issue of the day.

Vast swathes of western land had been ethnically-cleansed, the original inhabitants decimated by gunfire and disease and subdued by force and chicanery. Now railroad barons were salivating over the prospect of free land to exploit. What was lacking was law and order—organization. States.

The nagging obstruction to all this potential progress was, ironically enough, a compromise: the Missouri Compromise, barring any more slave states north of a certain latitude.

Pierce helped two fellow Democrats, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina, solve that problem by signing their Kansas-Nebraska Act, putting the decision into the hands of the citizens.

What could be more democratic?

What could possibly go wrong?

“For over six years,” wrote Albert Castel, in Civil War Kansas: Reaping the Whirlwind, “ever since Kansas was opened up as a territory by [the Kansas-Nebraska Act] of 1854, its prairies had been the stage for an almost incessant series of political conventions, raids, massacres, pitched battles, and atrocities, all part of a fierce conflict between the Free State and pro-slavery forces that had come to Kansas to settle and to battle.”

Just a third of the way into this protracted bloodbath, on May 19th and 20th, 1856, Senator Charles Sumner [R-Mass.] made a nearly fatal mistake.

Abandoning verbal prudence—not to mention economy and concision—Sumner spent two days arguing for the admission of Kansas as a free state—no slavery allowed. In doing so he vehemently denounced the Kansas-Nebraska Act and had harsh words for its authors. Sen. Butler was subjected to particularly insulting language:

“The Senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight with sentiments of honor and courage. Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean the harlot, Slavery.”

This was, of course, going too far.

Butler’s cousin, Rep. Preston Brooks [D-S.C.] felt obliged to defend family honor. Ever alert to slights, as a young man Brooks had suffered the indignity of being thrown out of South Carolina College for brandishing firearms while threatening police officers.

Accordingly, on May 22nd, Brooks entered the Senate and quietly approached Sumner as he bent over his desk, franking copies of his speech for mailing to his constituents. Without warning, Brooks brought his stout, gold-headed cane down on Sumner’s head. With more than a dozen blows, he nearly bludgeoned him to death.

In so doing, Brooks was adhering to an oft-overlooked point of ethics. Initially, he had considered challenging Sumner to a duel. A colleague, however, Rep. Laurence M. Keitt [D-S.C.], reminded him that dueling was a practice reserved for gentlemen of equal social standing. No gentleman would have spoken as Sumner had, therefore Sumner was no gentleman. Keitt did Brooks the additional service of standing by with a drawn revolver, to hold at bay anyone who might try to interrupt Sumner’s chastisement.*

Dramatic as it was, this demonstration of the dangers of inflammatory language failed to achieve its desired effect. Northerners continued denouncing slavery in terms that Southerners found insulting, eventually resulting in a Civil War.

Despite centuries spent observing and reporting on unfortunate events such as these, we regret to say we have no simple solutions to offer. No one is advocating a return of race-based chattel slavery—at least, not literally. Yet public discourse is rancorous, and only becoming more so. Where it might end, we fear to guess.

In 2011, Barack Obama, who had been falsely accused of lying about his birthplace, mocked Donald Trump, the loudest source of those lies, at a televised dinner. He could have done it without a microphone: Trump was in the audience, gritting his teeth.

Last month, Trump posted online Obama’s home address in Washington, D.C. Hours later, a few blocks from Obama’s home, Secret Service agents spotted a wanted man who had taken part in the January 6th insurrection. They gave chase and soon arrested Taylor Taranto, 37, a Navy veteran. In the van he was driving, they found guns and explosive components. A little earlier, he had posted, “We got these losers surrounded! See you in hell….”

* Neither of these sticklers for proper decorum died of old age, though Brooks did die in bed.  “He died a horrid death,” said an official dispatch, “and suffered intensely. He endeavored to tear his own throat open to get breath.” Keitt, unsurprisingly, joined the Confederacy. He was mortally wounded on his first day in combat, leading an infantry regiment which then collapsed in disarray.

† We hope today’s Republicans will forgive us the use of this term. Calling it “The War of Northern Aggression” would confuse too many of our readers.

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