When Calling Out Bullies Was Prelude to the Civil War

President Joe Biden has called out what he characterizes as radical Republicans who threaten “our very democracy…our personal rights and economic security” and, in a fiery speech, said Republicans have turned toward “semi-fascism,” The Washington Post reported. (Video clips.) Republicans responded that his remarks were “despicable.” Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) called Democrats “radical left-wing lunatics, laptop liberals, and Marxist misfits.” Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson writes that this exchange “mirrors the moment on June 21, 1856, when Representative Anson Burlingame of Massachusetts, a member of the newly formed Republican Party, stood up in Congress to announce that northerners were willing to take to the battlefield to defend their way of life against the southerners who were trying to destroy it.”

Burlingame’s Defense of Massachusetts speech on the House floor “marked the first time a prominent northerner had offered to fight to defend the northern way of life,” Richardson writes. He was inspired to speak by the physical beating of his Massachusetts colleague, Senator Charles Sumner, by Preston Brooks of South Carolina, for disparaging slavery. Historian John Bigelow called Brooks’ caning of Sumner “the first blood of the civil war.” Journalist W.A. Croffut described Burlingame’s threat to use a firearm on Brooks “the first rifle of the civil war.”

“Bully Brooks,” as he was known, challenged Burlingame to a duel, thinking that all Yankees were cowards and Burlingame would decline in embarrassment. But Burlingame initially accepted the challenge to his honor, and suggested they duel over the US border in Niagara Falls, Canada, in order to avoid US laws banning such duels.

Negotiations went on for months, but “Bully Brooks” lost face, HCR writes. “Forgotten now, Burlingame’s speech was once widely considered one of the most important speeches in American history. It marked the moment when northerners shocked southerners by calling them out for what they were, and northerners rallied to Burlingame’s call.”

Meanwhile, the Center for Mark Twain Studies has published a piece by a Twain scholar, Matt Seybold, “The Calculated Incivility of Anson Burlingame, the Only Congressman Mark Twain Could Tolerate.” It discusses Twain’s strategic defense of Burlingame in the early 20th century to those who believed in the myth of the valiant lost cause of the South, and among other things examines Twain’s coverage of Congress in the 1860s as a newspaperman.


The Civil War Lives on in Contemporary American Life (my mini-course on Substack). In particular, historian Joanne Freedman’s perspective, “Why 1850 Doesn’t Feel So Very Far Away” is worth perusing.

For more than a year, I updated an article on how the US might be moving toward civil war. I came up with 40 reasons as of September 2022.

I no longer need to make the case that it is a real possibility. But it is not inevitable. I now want to track positive steps the country is taking to step away from civil war. I do believe saner voices who believe in finding common ground and who accept the results of the 2020 election are a solid majority of the people and will prevail.


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