Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Drums of War: A Book, A Beating, A Trial, A Terrorist

Harriet Beecher Stowe
wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
Beat! beat! drums! — blow! bugles! blow!  Through the windows — through the doors —  burst like a ruthless force. So wrote poet Walt Whitman as the Civil War consumed America.  In the years leading up to war, four people beat the drums of war so loudly the entire nation listened: abolitionist best-selling author Harriet Beecher Stowe;  Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina; Dred Scott, a slave who sued for his freedom; and America’s first home-grown terrorist, John Brown.

This quartet, by word or deed, hit regular folks in the gut, reduced complex issues to understandable terms, and helped galvanize opposing factions beyond reason and debate.   

From my book-in-progress, Dear Father I Am Sorry To Tell You (Copyright B.J. Welborn. All rights reserved.):

S.C. Congressman Preston
Brooks let his cane do the talking.
            In the pre-Civil War era, New England’s religious, literary and social leaders spearheaded America’s passionate anti-slavery movement.  In the Deep South, a planter elite piloted an aggressive defense of slavery, though often disguised as “a way of life,” or “states' rights.”  The South’s social, economic and political leaders asserted that the region’s agrarian, semi-feudal economic and social systems depended on slavery.  Fire-eating extremes pitched region against region.
            In a letter dated August 24, 1855, Lincoln wrote to a Southern acquaintance:  “The slave-breeders and slave-traders, are a small, odious and detested class among you; and yet in politics, they dictate the course of all of you, and are as completely your masters as you are the master of your own negroes."
            Slavery tormented Lincoln’s nation; the North's fiery abolitionist movement and the South’s violent counter tactics swept the country toward war.  Key events inflamed regional rage.
Dred Scott sued to win his
freedom in a non-slave state.
            In 1852, author Harriet Beecher Stowe completed “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a blockbuster novel that recounted the horrors of slavery. When President Lincoln met Stowe in 1862, he supposedly said, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!”
            In 1856, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks viciously beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner to unconsciousness with Sumner’s own walking cane on the floor of the U.S. Senate.  Brooks held that Sumner, leader of anti-slavery forces in Massachusetts, was beneath a gentlemanly challenge to a duel.  Three days earlier, Sumner had made a fiery anti-slavery speech that offended pro-slavery southerners and Brooks’ family personally.
            The badly injured Sumner, a Puritan descendant who favored equal civil rights for black Americans, couldn’t return to the Senate for three years.  A battle between icons of two polar-opposite states ended a history of words-only fighting at the Capitol. The North lionized Sumner; the South worshiped Brooks. 
John Brown raided the federal
arsenal at Harper's Ferry.
            In 1857, the Supreme Court ruled that slave Dred Scott - and thus all slaves - had no right to U.S. citizenship. The ruling said Scott could not sue in Federal Court where he had sought remedy, and he must remain a slave even in a non-slave state.  In 1859, John Brown and a group of men raided the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.  His radical plan to steal weapons and lead a slave uprising solidified northern abolitionists, who praised his terrorist tactics, comparing him to Jesus.  What a slap in the face of Bible-belt Southerners.
            A book, a beating, a trial and a terrorist thumped the drums of war.  Eventually, everyone heard.

Wrote Whitman:  So strong you thump. O terrible drums – so loud you bugles blow.