Wednesday, July 7, 2010
In The Caning of Charles Sumner: Honor, Idealism, and the Origins of the Civil War, Williamjames Hoffer takes a fresh look at a familiar subject -- and tries to solve a perennial pedagogical problem
The following review was published last week the Books page of the History News Network site.
It's the classic dilemma of the History teacher: On the hand, the most interesting classes come from discussions of specific subjects (usually, but not always, grounded in primary sources). On the other, it's hard for students to really understand those subjects without context, and context takes time. You can deliver it by lecturing, which can be efficient in limited doses, though rarely comprehensive. You can also provide it by assigning textbook reading, though this tends to be regarded as dull when it's done at all (and textbooks, as any cost-conscious student knows, have become very expensive).
The new "Witness to History" series launched by Johns Hopkins University Press under the editorial supervision of the father-son team of Peter Charles and Williamjames Hoffer offers a solution to this problem. These short volumes on prismatic moments in U.S. history also provide brief overviews of the period immediately preceding and following the event in question. As such, the books represent a variation on Oxford University Press's "Pivotal Moments in U.S. History" (which are more interpretively ambitious) and Bedford's "Series in History and Culture," series which packs an editorial apparatus around a set of primary sources. "Witness to History" books, by contrast, are brief secondary sources pitched to an undergraduate audience. As such, they may hit a commercial sweet spot.
The inaugural volume in the series is The Caning of Charles Sumner, by Hoffer the younger (Williamjames). This notorious episode of antebellum history will be familiar to any student of the Civil War, though usually as a passing one; indeed, I'm not aware of any recent scholarly study, which makes it a shrewd choice for a 133-page treatment. After a brief introduction, the book opens with a detailed rendition of the single minute on May 22, 1856 that South Carolina Congressman Preston beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner within an inch of his life with a cane inside the hallowed halls of Congress. As Hoffer shows, this eruption of violence was by no means an isolated incident, but reflected a lingering frontier ethos -- one with a Southern, Code Duello tinge -- that characterized national political life until the Civil War. Hoffer also shows that notwithstanding some intriguing parallels between the two men, Brooks and Sumner were virtual synechdoches for the two sections they represented in a political system that was veering toward a breakdown.
The second chapter of the book then steps back from this moment and retraces the origins of the antebellum crisis in the half-century preceding the Brooks-Sumner affair. This is a very familiar story that stretches from the framing of the Constitution to the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. But what it lacks in novelty -- not the point, in any case -- it makes up for in compression, distilling the era into a compact 30 pages: a night's homework. The chapter that follows then looks at the aftermath of the caning, tracing the legal process (Brooks got off absurdly easy) and media treatment of the case, the latter in particular intriguing because its modern infrastructure was just emerging at the time. Hoffer's point here-- the thesis of the book, really -- is that the incident shows that by 1856 the two sides in the slavery debate were essentially incapable of really communicating with each other, as partisans simply interpreted events to suit their purposes and mobilize their constituencies in ways that would finally culminate in Civil War. I can imagine a nice conversation coming out of this about the possibilities and limits of forging consensus generally in American politics, and the three chapters as essentially a week's worth of curriculum in a survey or Civil War course.
The final two chapters trace what happened after the Brooks-Sumner affair, tracing landmark moments such as the Dred Scott Case, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and secession. But these chapters may also suggest the limits of the caning as a historical peg, because while it did help frame the issues in the presidential election of 1856, in which the Republican Party emerged as a national force, the event quickly became yesterday's news. Brooks was dead within about a year, and Sumner's influence declined relative to other members of the Republican Radical wing. In this regard, the caning was perhaps less consequential than, say, John Brown's Raid. This is not so much an argument against a book about the caning of Sumner than a shorter one with a smaller historical radius, though this in turn raises the question of the viability of effectively selling 100 pages of text for $20, the book's list price (about $15 on Amazon.com). Interestingly, Preston Brooks's defense of his actions -- an obvious primary source foil for The Caning of Charles Sumner -- recently became available as a $1 Kindle book at Amazon. Hoffer's book is not available in this format, something that would surely improve its utility, not to mention its durability.
The second book in the "Witness to History" series, Tim Lehman's Bloodshed at Little Bighorn: Sitting Bull, Custer, and the Destinies of Nations, is also now available. Unlike the caning of Sumner, Little Bighorn is a topic that has not lacked chroniclers, most recently Nathaniel Philbrick. This may reflect that somewhat larger bulk (about 200 pages) of Lehman's volume. But again, this is an undergraduate-friendly text that would seem to slot easily into a course on the West as well as the survey. But the key word here may well be "seem": given the acute sense of technological transition in publishing, and the acute sense of economic transition in academe, any solutions to classic dilemmas appear to be provisional. For the moment, at least, these books are helpful.