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Weymouth author asserts act of violence on Senate floor led to Civil War

Stephen Puleo said the near-fatal attack on William Sumner hardened both sides in the slavery debate.

Stephen Puleo said the near-fatal attack on William Sumner hardened both sides in the slavery debate.

As a divided nation faces a close election and recalls the 150th anniversary of polarization’s worst case scenario — the Civil War — a new book focuses on an act of violence in 1856 that turned moderates into hard-liners and made war almost inevitable.

Two days after Massachusetts Senator William Sumner, the country’s most prominent abolitionist, made a five-hour speech attacking slave owners and singling out a Southern senator for personal abuse, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks attacked him in the Senate chamber, beating him almost to death with his cane.

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“The Caning,” the title of Weymouth author Stephen Puleo’s new book, had “enormous impact” on subsequent events that led to the war between the states, according to the author.

“The caning is the no-turning-back point on the road to the Civil War,” Puleo said last week from his home.

The South responded to Brooks’s attack by pleading, as a front page editorial put it, “Hit Him Again.” In the North, the new anti-slavery Republican Party experienced a meteoric growth in membership and importance. Later that year its first presidential candidate nearly won election without a single electoral vote from the South.

In 1858, Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney, a slave owner who felt his home and way of life were under attack by abolitionists like Sumner, delivered a stunning opinion (in the Dred Scott case) essentially banning all federal attempts to regulate the spread of slavery. In 1860, when Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected, secession quickly followed.

Puleo is the author of five books, including the bestselling “Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919.” His books have garnered favorable reviews from The New Yorker, The Boston Globe, and The Providence Journal, among other publications, and been chosen by more than 50 book clubs.

His previous book, a history of Boston released two years ago titled “A City So Grand,” was praised by novelist Dennis Lehane as “a book so grand.” “It’s been quite awhile,” Lehane wrote, “since I’ve read anything so enthralling.”

Between the statesmen of the Revolutionary period and 20th-century “Irish politicians” such as James Michael Curley and John F. Kennedy, Sumner is the state’s most important political figure, Puleo said. Although his name is less well known today, his statue on Boston Common is identified by a single word, “Sumner,” because its makers believed that was all Boston would need to know.

Sumner was an abolitionist rather than a compromiser on slavery at a time when that stance was highly controversial even in the North, as well as a powerful speaker, and public enemy number one to pro-slavery Southerners. But though “a true giant” in the anti-slavery cause, Sumner “was not a likable guy,” Puleo said. “He was arrogant, condescending, estranged from his family.”

Even as he was being assaulted, others didn’t rush to his aid. The language of his personal attack on Senator Andrew Butler — whom he described as possessing “a mistress who, ugly to others, is always lovely to him. I mean, the harlot, Slavery” — shocked even supporters.

Brooks, on the other hand, was a “nice guy,” loved by his family and regarded as a moderate, a compromiser capable of working with Northern politicians. The intent of his assault, Brooks said, was “to teach [Sumner] a lesson” for attacking his second cousin, Butler.

“Part of the Southern code of honor was whoever insults my state and my kin insults me,” Puleo said.

Sumner suffered serious and lasting injuries from the attack and was out of the Senate for three years, and Northerners were shocked even more by the South’s embrace of this act of violence. Northern moderates began to think “maybe we cannot reason with these people on the subject of slavery,” Puleo said.

Southerners in turn were outraged by what they saw as the North’s hypocrisy, since Northern manufacturers were making fortunes from slave-picked cotton, Puleo said. They also believed Northerners’ condemnation of slavery was hypocritical because in the “free” North, poor immigrants were permitted to live in conditions worse than those of slaves — in Boston, for example, Irish immigrants were discriminated against and abandoned to lives of poverty. “[Southerners] said, ‘Who are you to pass judgment on us?’ Puleo said.

Brooks was charged with assault and fined $500, and Southern supporters raised money to pay it for him. After a vote to expel him from the House failed to get the needed two-thirds majority, Brooks resigned his seat, only to run in the special election to replace him — and “wins unanimously,” Puleo said.

But Brooks’s caning of Sumner sowed the wind of violence in a divided land, and the no-longer “united” states would reap the whirlwind in four years of the deadliest war in the country’s history.

Scheduled for release this week, “The Caning” is the subject of a round of upcoming appearances by its author in local venues. In addition this week’s stops in Hingham and Scituate, the author will speak at Tufts Library in Weymouth on Nov. 8 at 7 p.m.; at the Marshfield Lifelong Learning Program’s “Pub Chat” in Bailey’s Pub on Nov.15 at 7 p.m.; and at Thomas Crane Public Library in Quincy on Dec. 13 at 7 p.m.

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.

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