Is There Something in the Water in South Carolina?

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Mr. Conn is a professor of American history at Ohio State University and a writer for the History News Service. Attribution to the History News Service and the author is required for reprinting and redistribution of this article.

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.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Robert Lee Gaston - 9/24/2009

They are teaching third graders to sing to the tune of "Jesus Loves Me"

Mm, mmm, mm!
Barack Hussein Obama

He said that all must lend a hand
To make this country strong again
Mmm, mmm, mm!
Barack Hussein Obama

He said we must be fair today
Equal work means equal pay
Mmm, mmm, mm!
Barack Hussein Obama

He said that we must take a stand
To make sure everyone gets a chance
Mmm, mmm, mm!
Barack Hussein Obama

He said red, yellow, black or white
All are equal in his sight
Mmm, mmm, mm!
Barack Hussein Obama

Mmm, mmm, mm
Barack Hussein Obama

Perhaps a little something by Anne Marie Koeppen would be in order.

This is just in case you really believe that South Carolina has all the nuts.

Maarja Krusten - 9/20/2009

Andrew, today's Washington Post and New York Times have several published commentaries in their Sunday opinion sections about why citizens see issues as they do. They cover economic anxiety, populism, racial issues, etc. There certainly will be a lot for historians to sift through for this time period.

Maarja Krusten - 9/20/2009

Very interesting, Andrew, thank you so much for posting a link. Aside from the substance, what strikes me about both the MilPub thread and the one at Ta-Nehisi Caotes's blog is followup. Ease of conversation, confidence without bluster, etc. People are posting short and long comments addressed to each other. Actual dialogue going on, between posters and even the author of the blog essay. Something we very rarely see on HNN's boards! The link to the Coates piece and comments is

Andrew D. Todd - 9/19/2009

Here's a related thread, over at Mil Pub, where all the retired colonels from Intel Dump eventually wound up. It's nuanced enough that I can't conveniently summarize it.

Maarja Krusten - 9/19/2009

Mobile should be Montgomery, of course.

Maarja Krusten - 9/19/2009


for Yale history professor Joanne Freeman's essay on the history of insults and apologies in the Congress. This provides scholarly background on such matters.

As to the issue of Barack Obama’s race, the extent to which that affects how individuals view him is going to be hard for historians to assess. (How often do you see anyone admit that he or she is a racist?) The number of deeply racist voters in the U.S. seems to be shrinking but it is impossible to say how many there are. Playing to them is risky, since overt race baiting can result in political blowback, for a number of reasons. Polls show show that there is a large percentage of voters who describe themselves as Independents and who dislike hyper-partisanship and name calling. Michael Medved observed this past week that people in the middle ideologically and politically are the ones that decide elections and that they don’t like seeing extreme rhetoric used about Presidents.

The Presidency is my specialty as a historian. Historians will need to assess the degree of courage it took for Obama to run for President. It’s an extra in assessing him as a man that doesn’t come up for any past Presidents.

I’ve been studying the civil rights era during the last four years. I’m currently reading Raymond Arsenault’s _Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice._
The account of John Lewis and his fellow Freedom Riders, including white divinity student Jim Zwerg, being attacked by a mob at the Greyhound station in Mobile, Alabama on May 20, 1961 truly is harrowing. On a personal note, reading about the opposition the Freedom Riders faced illustrates to me how Americans have diminished almost to the point of having no meaning the term Communist by flinging it at each other over the decades. I say that as someone with family members who suffered under forced occupation of their country by Soviet Communists. Sadly, in 1961, black and white students were called Communists and beaten to the point of unconsciousness simply for trying to ride a Greyhound bus seated together. They showed great courage in perserving and advanced the cause of social justice.

Forty-eight years later, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s described at his blog at the Atlantic last week what he sees as Obama’s bourgeois ordinariness. A poster responded, “I would submit that it's not only his ordinariness that's driving them crazy (because there is definitely that) -- it's also his extraordinariness. . . . If you've come up thinking that this man is, by nature, certifiably less than you -- and he turns out to be, seemingly effortlessly, light-years better than you? The seething is very much intensified, I would imagine.”

Another poster, someone who apparently worked at the White House during the past administration, observed, “The worst thing Pres. Obama can do right now is to go all "Virgil Tibbs" and slap that old White man back. There are millions of White people who voted for Obama, many of them political independents who really do want to see an end to the culture wars, who really do want to out grow their history, who really did vote for "change." But real change is usually scarier than the status quo--under the best of conditions. That's why Obama's zen-like calm, his almost unfailing grace in the face of the hate and his strategic rather than tactical thinking, will, in the end, serve all of us well.

It really doesn't matter if this hate is based in racism or political calculation or a hunger for ratings or a combination of all of the above. What matters is his and our response to it.”

As in all things political, there's a lot in the mix when it comes to voters.

Bill Heuisler - 9/16/2009

Mr. Conn,
Your blatantly political point about S. Carolina conveniently ignores far more egregious examples of ongoing racism... and blatant racism among the supposed party of civil rights.

Setting aside disgusting Senate hearings on Justice Clarence Thomas and Democrats' constant racialist comments, what about Robert Byrd?

Senator Robert Byrd (oft-elected Democrat President of the Senate) was also elected recruiter for the Ku Klux Klan in W. Virginia in the '40s. Senator Byrd tried to stop the 1964 Civil Rights Bill with a Filibuster, and always votes no on Civil Rights.

Byrd used the N-word just recently,
and in 1947 he wrote a letter to a Democrat Senator from Mississippi vowing he would, "...never submit to fight beneath the banner with a Negro by my side. Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds."

This isn't indirect or circumstantial like Wilson's associations. Maybe it's not in your history textbooks. Maybe your historical examples could be expanded to W. Virginia. Or have your racial/political musings only become more pertinent and convenient since the very political opposition to President Obama's Health Care proposal?
Bill Heuisler

Mike Schoenberg - 9/14/2009

Back in'03 when Bush was passing his health care for the elderly, there was a provision for funding them foreigners and Joe Wilson followed the party line.