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Partisanship & Violence In Congress: The Caning Of Senator & Abolitionist, Charles Sumner (1811-1874) (R-MA)

Partisanship and Violence in Congress — Not All partisanship Is Bad, but Some partisanship Is Catastrophic

By George LandrithConstituting America

Washington is a city that has long been known for partisanship. Even as respected and honored as he was, George Washington was viciously and unjustly attacked by partisans.

Thomas Paine who helped build support for America’s independence by writing the historic political pamphlet “Common Sense,” accused Washington of corruption and wrote that “the world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an impostor; whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any.”[1]

Partisans for Thomas Jefferson and John Adams viciously attacked each other with such labels as: atheist, tyrant, coward, fool, hypocrite, and weakling. Jefferson’s allies accused Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”[2] Adam’s partisans called Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”[3]

Partisans are strong supporters of a political party or cause. There is nothing wrong with being a partisan as long as it is healthy partisanship and the cause is within the bounds of the Constitution. But Partisanship becomes unhealthy when support for the cause becomes disconnected from fact, reason, constitutional limits, or basic right and wrong.

In 1856, regional tensions between North and South were intensifying, and the U.S. Senate Chamber became a cage fight arena of sorts. On May 19, 1856, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, a deeply committed abolitionist, gave a fiery speech in which he lambasted his opponents and specifically attacked his colleague Senator Andrew P. Butler of South Carolina. That may have been uncivil. But three days after that speech, on May 22, 1856, Senator Sumner was on the Senate floor affixing the franking stamp to copies of his speech which he intended to mail to supporters. Unknown to Sumner, Senator Butler’s cousin, Congressman Preston Brooks, entered the Senate Chamber and clubbed Senator Sumner into unconsciousness with a cane. Witnesses said that Sumner never saw it coming and the beating was so severe, that it took him years to fully recover.

That is a classic example of toxic congressional partisanship. But it wasn’t uncharacteristic of the time. In the decade leading up to the Civil War, Congress was plagued by toxic partisanship. During that time, Members of Congress often carried firearms in the chambers, made death threats against each other, engaged in fistfights and even group brawls.

Sadly, unhealthy, corrosive partisanship is nothing new. But acknowledging that bitter hyper-partisanship has been around a long time, is not an attempt to justify or normalize it. Obviously, civility should be our standard. We can engage in robust debate. But threats and violence have no place in a constitutional republic.

In the last few decades, it seems that partisanship has grown more heated and occasionally even veers into toxic partisanship. We have seen more and more veiled threats and in some cases actual violence motivated by partisanship.

The mass shooting of GOP Members of Congress in June 2017 by an angry, and likely, mentally ill Democrat campaign volunteer on Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign is one of the most recent and most egregious examples of toxic partisanship gone way too far.

A more subtle version of hyper partisanship is now in vogue. Calling upon supporters to “confront” political opponents wherever they may be, is clearly an attempt to put them in fear for their safety — without actually crossing the red line of doing them physical harm. But it is nonetheless an attempt to threaten the opposition and bully them into submission. This cannot be tolerated in a free society.

When partisanship displays itself as robust disagreements and debates about important public policy and political issues that fall within the limited powers given to government, partisanship is not a bad thing. We need a robust debate. It isn’t necessary for everyone to agree on everything. But when partisanship becomes threats of violence or worse still, actual violence, it is a sign that something is deeply wrong.

The truth is politics is a surrogate for violence and war. In a less civilized society, those who can enforce their will upon the rest of the populace become the rulers. In establishing a constitutional republic, the Founders were attempting to set aside that age old “rule by force” model of government. Instead, they created a system where the voice of the people ruled — without enforcing their will through threats and violence.

The Constitution was a compact that we would accept election results, and if we were unhappy with those results, we would redouble our efforts to win the next election. In that social compact, we agreed not to subvert the system and revert to the “rule by force” model of governance.

But an integral part of that compact was also designed to reduce the friction points, and maximize personal freedom in an ordered society. Thus, we also agreed in that compact that certain issues were off the table — certain issues would not be subject to a vote and our individual rights could not be endangered by an overzealous majority. For example, our Constitution gives the federal government a short and specific list of limited powers. So the majority wins on that short list of powers, but it doesn’t win on everything that it wants. Some things are beyond the government’s or the majority’s power.

Additionally, most of the Bill of Rights limits the power of the government and the majority. No matter how many Americans dislike your political opinions, you are free to speak and write them. No matter how small a minority your faith may be, you can freely exercise your religious beliefs. No matter what the majority or government may say, you have the right to own firearms to protect yourself and keep a check on government. No matter how unpopular you may be, you may not be denied due process or a fair trial. No matter how much the government may want your property, it may not take it for public use without just compensation. These are only some of the limits on the power of government built into our constitutional system.

The majority’s power and the government’s power was limited on purpose — not by accident or oversight. Many things were simply off limits and not subject to a majority vote. By doing this, the Founders hoped to avoid the problems so often associated with democracies — that too often they became an exercise of three wolves out-voting two sheep about what is for dinner.

The Founders believed that a significantly limited government would reduce the surface area for political friction that could rub raw and blister our civil society. Simply stated, they did not want the majority to be able to impose its will on every conceivable issue.

As government has grown in the powers it asserts and the control it claims of its citizens rights, the chances for serious conflict dramatically increase. This is one of the many reasons, why we should cling to the Founders vision of a constitutional republic with limited powers. One of the dangers of an ever expanding government is that it leads to more friction points and more conflict as government imposes it will on an unwilling minority on an ever growing list of issues that were once off-limits for government.

As Americans, we should be civil and eschew threats and violence. We should argue for our beliefs with vigor, but we should not attempt to use the power of numbers to impose our will by force when the Constitution does not give us that power.

Every bit as important — Americans should respect the concept of limited constitutional powers. That means the majority is limited in what victories it can claim. Without limits on government, an over-zealous majority will eventually so trample the minority, that they will begin to feel that their only option is revolution. Those seeking to impose their will on the minority, should keep in mind that the social compact is designed to give the majority its way only on those matters that are properly within the government’s power. But it is also designed to protect the minority from an over-zealous majority that believes its views are correct and should be imposed on all.

On a practical level, if we are smart and responsible, we will support government that circumspectly exercises only those powers that it was actually given in the Constitution. This is one more way that the Founders hoped to avoid toxic and hyper-partisanship. Then with that foundation, we can freely discuss, debate, and argue actively for our views on what public policy should be. That would be healthy partisanship. We need more of that in Congress and in the populace.