One of the most important responsibilities for interns in Congressional offices is to provide personal tours of the United States Capitol to constituents visiting Washington. The tour route begins in the Crypt, weaves through the Old Supreme Court Chamber, and then visits the venerated Rotunda, with its impressive paintings of early American history and larger-than-life statues of larger-than-life leaders such as Reagan, Lincoln, King Jr., and Washington.
After the rotunda, the tour moves into the Old Senate Chamber. From 1810-1859, during the “Golden Age of the Senate”, the nation’s upper legislative body debated issues ranging from westward expansion to slavery in this hallowed hall.
While each Hill intern has his or her own signature style and approach to giving a Capitol tour, almost every single intern-turned-tour guide will tell the same story before entering the Old Senate Chamber: in May 1856, a staunchly anti-slavery Senator, Charles Sumner, had just finished giving a two-day long speech on the Senate floor, decrying the evils of slavery and calling into question the morality of anyone who supported the institution. A certain Representative from South Carolina, Preston Brooks, took exception to Sumner’s words, and decided to march across the capitol building, into the Senate Chamber, and brutally beat Sumner over the head with a cane as retaliation for his words.
The United States Senate website describes the state of the nation at the time of Brooks’ bloody attack on Sumner as “suffering from a breakdown of reasoned discourse that this event symbolized.” Rather than relying on debate to resolve our nation’s most pressing public policy issues, men resorted to barbaric acts of violence, and eventually war, to settle their problems.
On June 14, 2017, a man approached a baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia, and opened fire with a semi-automatic weapon, intending to kill as many of the Republican lawmakers assembled there as possible. While we cannot be truly sure of his motives, an examination of his actions leading up to this event indicate that his political disagreements with the lawmakers on the field, along with some level of mental instability, combined to cause his violent outburst.
Almost immediately after Wednesday’s attack, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle displayed refreshing cooperation in condemning the attack and calling for a reduction in the incendiary political rhetoric that has become commonplace in our society.
While I would like to believe that America today is a long way away from the “breakdown of reasoned discourse” that caused a man to assault another on the floor of the Senate, I believe that the events of this week should serve as a valuable reminder of the necessity of respectful dialogue in our current political climate, and that no matter how divisive the issue, there must always be an opportunity for peaceful resolution.
By: Drew Cooper