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“You Lie!”: Southern Unhospitality and the Charles Sumner Attack

by Laurie Israel, Esq.

Joe Wilson’s (Rep. South Carolina) uncouth and aggressive heckling of President Obama during the President’s speech on health care reform at the Joint Session of Congress on September 9 (“You Lie!”) is now part of the fabric of United States history. Wilson’s behavior is firmly rooted in southern culture and history. There is a particular institution in the south of violence (verbal and physical) that pervades up through modern times, starting in the early history of this country. Below is a very notable example that I was reminded of this week after the “You Lie!” incident.

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The Beating of Charles Sumner by S.C. Rep. Preston Brooks

The most notable forbearer to Joe Wilson and his behavior on September 9 was Preston Brooks, another South Carolinian representative. Rep. Brooks beat Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts nearly to death with a heavy cane in the Senate Chamber in 1856 because of an anti-slavery speech Sumner had made two days previously. A South Carolinian colleague, Rep. Laurence M. Keitt, dissuaded Brooks from dueling Sumner, encouraging Books to treat Sumner as a drunkard, due to the supposedly coarse language Sumner had used in his anti-slavery speech. Sumner had compared the institution of slavery to a harlot, and said of Brooks’ uncle, a Senator and a supporter of slavery, that he “took a mistress 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.”

Two days later, Brooks accosted Sumner on the floor of the Senate, beat his head repeatedly with the thick, gold-tipped cane. Sumner, who was trapped under a heavy desk that was bolted to the floor could not escape and was left bloodied and almost dead. It took three years for Sumner to recuperate and return to his Senate duties, and he never fully recovered from the beating.

After the beating, South Carolinian constituents sent Representative Brooks many brand new canes, one of them bearing the phrase “Hit him again.” Brooks claimed that people wanted pieces of the cane as “holy relics”.

Dinner celebrations in honor of Preston Brooks’ attack on Charles Sumner were held all over the South, a mid-nineteenth century version of the media attention now being attracted by Rep. Joe Wilson.

The Crime Against Kansas

Here is the text of Charles Sumner’s speech, known as “The Crime Against Kansas” for which he received a near-death beating by a South Carolinian pro-slavery zealot. After his beating, Sumner’s speech was widely disseminated, furthering the anti-slavery movement in the United States and eventually resulting in freedom from slavery for Afro-Americans.

Brooksville, Florida is named after Rep. Preston Brooks

The city of Brooksville, Florida is named in Brooks’ honor. What is so interesting about this is that the city is not at all ashamed of its association with the attack on Charles Sumner. The Brooksville, Florida website has this to say about Brooks and the Sumner beating in the Senate:

Brooksville is about forty-five miles north of Tampa and is nestled among beautiful, rolling hills. It has experienced continuous growth while preserving its original charm. It has three city parks, a nine-hole golf course, and an excellent library. Brooksville and Hernando County are rich in southern hospitality, motivated by visions of tomorrow.Brooksville was named in honor of Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina because of the role he played in a “drama” that took place in the legislative chamber of the U.S. Congress. “State Right’s statesman Representative Preston Brooks was a man with a strong sense of fair play”. “Representative Brooks whipped out his newly polished gutta percha cane, and rapped it smartly over Sumner’s head, leaving the Senator quite senseless on the spotless Senate floor.” (According to contemporary reports, there was blood all over the floor from the attack, and Sumner could not see because of his blood around his head and in his eyes.)

“The citizens of Hernado Country admired [Brooks’] pluck and voted to give the country’s largest settlement his name.”

“The citizens of Hernado Country admired [Brooks’] pluck and voted to give the country’s largest settlement his name.”

This is on the present-day (2009) City of Brookville website.

Brooks County, Georgia is mum about the association

Brooks County, Georgia, also named after Preston Brooks, is more circumspect about its connection with Preston Brooks, and just refers to its civil war history as being the “breadbasket” of the South. In 2000, the U.S. census indicated that Brooks County was 39% Afro-American.

“You Lie!”

So the next time you hear the phrase “You Lie” (which you will many times from now on), think of United States history and the connection between incivility, southern hospitality, visions of tomorrow, and the attack on a man whose crime was to say that slavery in the United States should be extinguished. When Rep. Joe Wilson is admired for his “pluck”, think of Charles Sumner’s life and works and not Brooks’ attack with a cane. The distinction and the analogy to present-day politics is clear.

Copyright ©2009 Laurie Israel.


Laurie Israel is founder of Israel, Van Kooy & Days, LLC, a law firm located in Brookline, Massachusetts. She combines a family law practice with estate planning, tax, mediation and collaborative law. Laurie is currently on the board of directors of the Massachusetts Council on Family Mediation and the Massachusetts Collaborative Law Council. Her writings include articles on mediation to stay married (marital mediation), collaborative practice, marriage, divorce, and pre- and post-nuptial agreements. She is a frequent presenter at professional conferences.

Her websites are: www.ivkdlaw.com, www.yourfamilymatterslawblog.com and www.MediationToStayMarried.com.