No Caning This Time

11/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

South Carolina, the most "reb" of the rebel states (remember the Nullification Act?) has the distinction of unruly behavior in legislatures. Addison Graves Wilson, Sr., known as Joe except on his birth certificate, called the president a liar the other evening in the House of Representatives. A hundred and fifty years ago, another South Carolina Congressman beat a Massachusetts Congressman severely with a cane. That Congressman, Charles Sumner, took three years to recover and now stands proudly, but in bronze, looking down towards Harvard Square.

The moment of the caning was 1856, and the tension between abolitionists on the one hand, and advocates of states rights (including the right to hold slaves) on the other, was nearing its paroxysm.

In a historic turnabout, the party of Lincoln is now championed in the South, and the Democratic Party that included Copperheads, some of whom were Southern sympathizers, has been shut out of the South. Secessionist talk again is in the air but should not be taken seriously. That question was settled, once and for all, in the bloody crucible of the Civil War.

What is new, and disturbing, is the polarization that has taken place around the person of Barack Obama. Adoration on the one hand, frustrated vexation on the other ("You lie!") -- due in part to the unwillingness of some, whether they acknowledge it or not, to accept the presence of a black man in the White House. But black man there is, and it is incumbent on all citizens to respect the office of the president and not engage in acts of discourtesy -- or worse.