Sunday, June 27, 2004

Everything is history.

I mean that. Everything is history. Every mathematical equation is an historical narrative leading to the =. The numbers are historical figures, the functions are key events. Every physics experiment is an historical essay on the life and times of an atom. Each quantum is a revolt, each orbital a different social domain. Every biological study is actually just a biographical look into a lion's den. The alpha male is the sovereign, his harem is a sovereign's court. Every novel is a history, and the author's work on it, that history's historiography.

Everything is history. Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is history. Now is history. I am history. You are history.

Now, have some history:

On May 22, 1856 representative Preston Brooks (Dem., South Carolina) entered the Senate chamber without a word and began beating abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner (Rep., Massachusetts) numerous times on the head with a metal-tipped cane. Why? Three days prior, Sumner had delivered a speech, entitled “Crime Against Kansas,” in which he openly mocked two pro-slavery Democrats, Stephen Douglas (Illinois) and Andrew Butler (South Carolina). The alleged crime against Kansas had to do with whether the former frontier territory would be admitted to the Union as a non-slave-holding or a slave-holding state. This option was afforded by the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska act (KNA).

Brooks was Butler's relative and was, obviously, outraged by Sumner's insults. So, narrow gutta-percha cane in hand, he strode into the Senate chamber and began beating Sumner over the head until Sumner passed out, bleeding profusely. In his frantic attempt to escape Brooks's attack, Sumner actually ripped his desk off the floor from its securing bolts. Sumner was carried away; meanwhile Brooks simply walked out. Both men became heroes for their respective supporters, Brooks as a crusader, Sumner as a martyr. It took Sumner three years to recover enough to return to political activity, in which he was engaged for another eighteen years. Brooks, on the other hand, was nearly censured by the House, resigned, was immediately re-elected and then died soon afterward at the age of thirty-seven. Butler's savage attack was a watershed event in the USA's slide into the Civil War. The lines of opposition were now clearly drawn, in senatorial as well as slave blood.

Stephen Douglas, whom Sumner had mocked, deserves a few more words of attention. Before his involvement with the momentous KNA, Douglas was fairly well known for his vigorous efforts to get a transnational railroad hub built in his hometown of Chicago. But he sprang to the forefront of the U.S. political landscape in 1854 when he successfully pushed the KNA through Congress. This act effectively nullified the Missouri Compromise of 1820. That compromise, drafted by Henry Clay, allowed for the entrance of Missouri into the Union as a slave state in exchange for the prohibition of slavery anywhere farther north and west of the state's southern border.

But Douglas's KNA eroded that barrier by allowing each territory to decide the slavery question according to “popular sovereignty,” a doctrine Douglas proposed as the most democratic solution to the slavery crisis. Unfortunately, the KNA led to some intense territorial fighting between pro-slavery "squatters" that swarmed in from Missouri and abolitionist settlers from the northeastern USA. Hence, Kansas became known as “Bleeding Kansas,” as well as “the Battleground for Freedom,” nicknames it still holds today. The stakes were so high because everyone knew Kansas would upset the precarious balance of power between abolitionist and pro-slavery states that had held up to 1854. Ultimately, on January 29, 1861, Kansas became a non-slave state, just in time to face the Civil War.

Douglass again returned to public notoriety by engaging in a famous series of debates in 1858 with the then-Senator Abraham Lincoln. Both men were vying to be senators of Illinois. Although Douglas won the senate race in 1858, he lost the presidential election to Lincoln in 1860. Meanwhile, on December 20, 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union. Then, on February 9, 1861, the Confederate States of America were formed in Montgomery, Alabama. Finally, on April 12, 1861, Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter, thus beginning the Civil War. Interestingly, despite his prolonged opposition to Lincoln, Douglas joined forces with the Union at the outset of the Civil War in order to save the nation from a total sundering. Alas, he died soon thereafter in 1861.

The rest, as they say, is history.


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