Last year we were forced to wade through the constant references to Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of civil liberties during the Civil War during the debate over President Bush’s ordering of the NSA to collect intelligence from U.S. citizens without a warrant. And this year we are engaged in a semantics debate over what to call the worst U.S. foreign policy decision of the last 100 years. Does it really matter whether we call it a “civil war”? And if we have to have this silly debate do we really have to reference the American Civil War?
With the recent brain surgery of South Dakota Democratic Senator Tim Johnson comparisons with Charles Sumner are already showing signs of life. As Charles Sumner Republican senator from Massachusetts, sat writing at his desk in the Senate Chamber in May of 1856, he was assaulted by Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina. Angered by Sumner’s “Crimes against Kansas” speech, in which Sumner had criticized Brooks’ uncle, South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, Brooks struck Sumner repeatedly with his heavy cane. Sumner’s long absence from the Senate to recuperate from the attack served as a powerful symbol of the tensions between North and South in the years before the Civil War. Sumner later returned to the Senate, where he authored the nation’s first civil rights legislation. The senator was away from his desk for over three years after the incident and Massachusetts made no move to appoint someone in his place.
The Sumner case is relevant since questions will emerge in South Dakota over what to do given Johnson’s condition. Of course this is politically interesting given the governor’s power to appoint a Republican in Johnson’s place thus handing the Senate back to the Republican Party. The latest reports suggest that there is a chance that Johnson will recover sufficiently to maintain his seat.