THE BLOG
11/11/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

South Carolinians Gone Wild : Wilson's Only the Latest ...

South Carolina Shame: Past, Present, Future

Joe Wilson's "You lie!" outburst wasn't just a breach of protocol.

It was South Carolina's latest and greatest contribution to its famous - and infamous - contribution of some of the most offensive and divisive moments in American history.

Remember Fort Sumter? Yes, Joe Wilson's ancestors literally started the Civil War. Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats? Bull Connor's Alabama attack dogs may have made for more jarring video. But South Carolina's Thurmond was the true father of the segregationist southern politics that linger today. (In a related story, we all now know Thurmond was also father to an illegitimate biracial daughter). Lee Atwater? General Sherman's scorched earth march ended across the river in Savannah, but it was the Palmetto State's own Atwater who perfected today's Republican "scorched earth" politics. And I'm not even going to touch GOP political traditions involving Bob Jones University ...

But for the perhaps most outrageous South Carolina political moment of all time, we have to travel way back in time.

The Year: 1856
The Place: The U.S. Senate floor
The Players:
Preston Brooks, pro-slavery South Carolina Congressman
Charles Sumner, Massachusetts Senator and abolitionist Radical Republican (back when Radical Republicans meant "radical liberal")

The Facts:

Sumner makes a speech against pro-slavery violence then occurring in Kansas. During the speech, Sumner likened a South Carolina Senator -- and a relative of Brooks -- to the literary figure Don Quixote. Sumner also made fun of his colleague's physical handicap.

And then followed South Carolina's finest hour, as detailed on Wikipedia:

Two days after Sumner's speech, Brooks confronted Sumner as he sat writing at his desk in the almost empty Senate chamber. Brooks was accompanied by [fellow South Carolina Congressman Laurence] Keitt...

Brooks said, "Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine."

As Sumner began to stand up, Brooks began beating Sumner on the head with his thick gutta-percha cane with a gold head. Sumner was trapped under the heavy desk (which was bolted to the floor), but Brooks continued to bash Sumner until he ripped the desk from the floor.

By this time, Sumner was blinded by his own blood, and he staggered up the aisle and collapsed, lapsing into unconsciousness.

Brooks continued to beat Sumner until he broke his cane, then quietly left the chamber. Several other senators attempted to help Sumner, but were blocked by Keitt who was holding a pistol and shouting "Let them be!" (Keitt would be censured for his actions and later died of wounds in 1864 during the US Civil War.)

Sumner was unable to return to his Senate duties for more than three years while he recovered. He later became one of the most influential Radical Republicans throughout the conduct of the American Civil War, and on through the early years of Reconstruction.

I'm not entirely sure what the lesson or parallel is here - is Joe Wilson Brooks, or Sumner? Should he be censured or caned (or perhaps waterboarded?)

To be sure, South Carolina has also contributed Fritz Hollings, John Spratt and other great Americans to Congress. But some Carolinian politicians past and present (don't think we've forgotten about you, Gov. Sanford) are as embarrassing as the cheesiest South of the Border billboard or Myrtle Beach strip joint.

In fact, given their violent, racist, and/or intolerant undertones, they're a million times worse.