Friday, February 10, 2012

Another great historical note from David McCullough

David McCullouogh is one of my favorite historians. I can't get enough of his documentaries with Ken Burns and I've just finished his book, "1776." I'm currently in the middle of "The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris."

The book chronicles the lives of several Americans who spent years in Paris studying art, history and medicine and how that time impacted both their own lives and professions as well as the rest of the US. A few of the influential Americans profiled in the book are James Fennimore Cooper (American aristocrat and author of 'The Last of the Mohicans'), Samuel Morse (an artist who eventually invented Morse Code) and Harriet Beecher Stowe (the author of 'Uncle Tom's Cabin and influential abolitionist).

The book combines my love of history with my interest in Parisian culture/ 'la vie parisienne."In fact, reading about the Louvre prompted me to take Erin back to the Nelson-Atkins museum last Saturday afternoon.

But about halfway through the book, I found a nice quote that touches on one of my other passions; social justice and nonviolence. So, as I often do, I wanted to share this quote.

"In the nearly twenty years since his student days at the Sorbonne, Charles Sumner had become one of the most eloquent and disputatious figures in American politics. With his imposing height,his rare command of the English language, and his deep, powerful voice, he could rouse and inspire audiences as could few others, and when unleashing his passion for causes, he seldom failed to provoke storms of criticism, even outrage. He had argued for world peace, spoken out fearlessly against the Mexican War and slavery, and with little or no apparent concern over whom he offended.His friends worried for his safety. 'For heaven's sake don't let him do himself harm while trying to help other people,' Thomas Appleton wrote to his father from England.

It was Sumner's continuing part in the 'question' of slavery, above all, that had propelled him to national prominence. He was one of the founders of the Free Soil Party and,in 1851, at age forty,was elected to the US Senate. Having once concluded - while observing how black students weretreated at the Sorbonne - that the attitude toward and treatment of African - Americans at homewas contrary to the 'natural order of things,' Sumner had made plain his hatred of slavery and never gave up on it. 'I think slavery a sin, individual and national,' he wrote, 'and I think it the duty of each individual to cease committing it.'

The assault had taken place on May 22nd, after Sumner, earlier in the week, delivered his longest,most strident and contentious speech yet, 'The Crime against Kansas,' as he called it....He would expose 'the whole crime' of slavery, 'without sparing language,' Sumner told a friend in advance,and he did it [through a two day speech on the Senate floor]. He denounced not only 'the reptile monster' of slavery, and the 'swindle' of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which was the center of the debate, but he singled out for acid scorn several members of the Senate who had perpetuated 'human wrongs,' one of whom, Senator Andrew P. Butler of South Carolina, was not present to reply. Sumner likened Butler to a silly old Don Quizote in love with 'harlot slavery.''He cannot open his mouth bout out there flies a blunder.'

To no one's surprise, the speech was immediately denounced in the South and acclaimed in the North.The abolitionists, and especially in Massachusetts, were overjoyed. 'The speech,' wrote Sumner's close friend Henry Longfellos, 'is the greatest voice on the greatest subject that has yet been uttered.'

An incensed congressman named Preston S. Brooks of South Carolina, who was a slaveholder and a kinsman of Senator Butler, brooded for more than a day over what he ought to do to defend the honor of South Carolina in the face of such insults."

Brooks eventually decided to sneak up on Sumner from behind and attack when Sumner was trapped in a bolted in desk and all alone. Brooks attack was so brutal that Sumner never recovered from the bodily injury and brain damage. Brooks was fined $300 and elevated to hero status among citizens in the South.

A few things from that quote stand out to me:1) Sumner, like his other abolitionists friends, is a hero of the Kingdom and of the United States.2) It's incredible how much our acceptance of morality/ immorality is impacted by the group-think around us.3) Travelling to other societies helps us better understand the positives and negatives of our own culture.

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