While the rest of the nation expressed shock at Republican Congressman Joe Wilson and his “You lie!” outburst at President Obama, South Carolinians doubtless recognized it for what it was: the latest in a long, distinguished history of not-quite-ready-for-democracy political behavior.
In fact, Wilson has got nothing on his predecessor Preston Brooks. Brooks was also a congressman from the great state of South Carolina. Like Wilson, Brooks let his emotions get the better of him. So much so that on May 22, 1856, Brooks approached Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, seated at his desk on the floor of the Senate, and beat him savagely with a cane. Sumner collapsed unconscious, but Brooks kept flailing away.
Several other Senators tried to help their colleague but were held at bay by Laurence M. Keitt, another South Carolina politician, who pulled a gun and threatened to shoot. This is why it’s apparently so important that people be allowed to carry firearms: to prevent good Samaritans from intervening when your friend wants to beat someone up. Keitt was censured by Congress, which is probably one reason the NRA was founded.
The reason Sumner deserved his beating, as far as the good folks from the Palmetto State were concerned, was that Sumner was an abolitionist and he went to Harvard.
Brooks was right about Sumner, which puts him one up on Wilson, who got it wrong about health care for illegal immigrants. Sumner wanted slavery ended, and he pulled no rhetorical punches on the floor of the Senate. He really was a threat to slavery, though he never actually punched anyone.
South Carolina was home to some of the biggest, nastiest slave plantations in the Old South, and South Carolinians so loved their slave system that they were the very first to secede from the Union. Edmund Ruffin, a transplant to South Carolina from Virginia, claimed to have fired the first shot on Fort Sumter, thus precipitating the Civil War. He would have bragged about that to his South Carolina neighbors for the rest of his natural days but he shot himself in the head after the South lost the war.
The most beloved South Carolina politician of the more recent past was Strom Thurmond, segregationist, bigot, and all-around standard-bearer for South Carolina. Among his many accomplishments, Thurmond holds the record for conducting the longest filibuster in Senate history. He went on and on for 24 hours and 18 minutes to oppose the Civil Rights Act of 1957. When Thurmond wasn’t busy defending segregation and opposing civil rights for African Americans, segregation’s great champion found time to father a child with a black maid. And South Carolina voters so loved the original “Dixiecrat” that they elected him governor and then Senator eight times over 48 years.
Then, of course, there is Appalachian Trail enthusiast Mark Sanford, the current governor. In a political landscape filled with narcissists and hypocrites, Sanford has risen high above the crowd. Even in South Carolina’s illustrious political history, one is hard pressed to think of another politician who combines self-indulgence with sanctimoniousness in such generous portions. To announce to the world that his Argentine squeeze was his “soul-mate,” but he was going to return to his wife anyway, took a particular kind of moral and political courage.
By comparison, Joe Wilson’s outburst seems pretty timid. Disappointing, really, by South Carolina standards. And Wilson got it wrong. His wimpy little yelp during the President’s health care speech has given analysts an excuse to point out how wrong he was. He should have caned an illegal immigrant instead.
One wonders what it is about South Carolina that seems to produce a disproportionate number of political sociopaths. And why do South Carolina voters keep electing them?
The only answer I can come up with is that Edmund Ruffin was right. South Carolinians don’t really want to be part of the United States, and they don’t have any use for the political rules and processes the rest of us pretty much agree to. Like civil rights, civil debate and keeping your soul-mates to yourself.
I suppose we should be happy that Hapless Joe Wilson didn’t get up to try to cane the president while the rest of the South Carolina delegation fought off the Secret Service. But why don’t we finally give South Carolinians what they really want? Let them secede and form their own nation: The White People’s Republic of Upper Georgia, or some such.
Steven Conn is Professor of History and Director of Public History at the Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.