By Will Broaddus
---- — Whenever Stephen Puleo talks about “The Caning,” his new book about Congressman Preston Brooks’ 1856 assault on Sen. Charles Sumner, people want to know one thing.
“Things are so partisan today, how partisan were they then?” he said.
Puleo, who will speak at Beverly Public Library Monday at 9:30 a.m., thinks the issues that led to civil war were on another level than ours today.
“The things that divide us now, like who pays what taxes, health care, illegal immigration,” he said. “You read the debates that were taking place in the 1850s in Congress — should one man be able to own another, break up a family, literally — for me kind of makes today seem more manageable.”
Brooks, the pro-slavery congressman from South Carolina, walked into the Senate chamber and beat the abolitionist senator from Massachusetts more than 30 times with a metal-topped cane.
Sumner had delivered a five-hour speech over two days that condemned slavery and attacked South Carolina Sen. Andrew Butler, who was Brooks’ second cousin.
Brooks hit him until his cane splintered into pieces and Sumner was unconscious and covered with blood, Puleo said.
“I always position the event itself as the no-turning-back point on the way to civil war,” he said. “Slavery is the cause, and there are other causes, but I do view it as the incident that made the war inevitable.”
Before the caning, the majority of Northerners were not abolitionists and thought Sumner went too far, Puleo said.
“Once the beating happens, they have no place to go except to support Sumner,” he said.
Northerners were also stunned when Brooks was acclaimed in the South for his brutal actions. The Republican Party, which had been a marginal, anti-slavery party, grew exponentially within a year.
Their first presidential candidate, John Fremont, lost the 1856 election, but the South saw that a unified North could elect a president without a single Southern vote, Puleo said.
“The South sees that, and it’s a direct result of this caning,” he said.