The Bureaucracy Held, But is Our Past a Prelude to Violence?
by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
When an agency pisses off politicians, they complain or blame the “bureaucracy”. When an agency lives up to its righteous, legislated mission (especially when it is under pressure) it is called an “institution”. We are told that “our democratic institutions held.”
Keep that in mind as you read the news or listen to media broadcasts. I have a lifetime of experience working in a massive state bureaucracy at nearly every management level. I can tell you this for sure. When an agency of government has a clearly articulated and righteous mission, it is the front line and lower-level employees who best uphold the mission. The further up the chain of command you go, the more political pressure there is to avoid scandals or succumb to the chief executive’s ideology and political calculus.
The whole reason for a bureaucracy is to faithfully execute a legislative mission under the operations of the executive branch of government. Bureaucracies were created to resist mission drift or the whimsy of powerful people at the top. We often disparage bureaucracies, but if they didn’t exist (or hadn’t worked properly) Donald Trump would have gotten those 11,000 unearned votes in Georgia. Without the bureaucracy, Arizona might have sent a partisan slate of electors to Washington instead of those chosen by the people of that state.
From the Whitehouse to the most remote election polling places in America, democracy held last November because the front-line and lower-level agents of government faithfully did their jobs. They carried out their mission on the people’s behalf. If this past election had been a military operation abroad, these same people would have been lauded as heroes. Indeed they are. I thank them all. If this includes you, know that I appreciate your dedication and sacrifice.
And now, because they did their jobs, they and the institutions behind them are literally under attack. America’s workforce of “civilian soldiers” are living under threats of bodily harm to them and their children from misguided neighbors duped into believing the election was stolen. They are being driven out of their jobs and their homes by angry mobs amped up by power-hungry politicians who can’t win office on the basis of having superior ideas for governing this great and diverse nation. Republican state legislators throughout the country are devising and passing laws to overturn our democratic institutions. Where will it lead? When does it end?
Will our history be a prelude to future events?
In 1856 Senator Charles Sumner gave an impassioned anti-slavery speech on the Senate floor during which he unleashed a blistering verbal attack on Steven Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina. After the Senate adjourned, while Sumner was still in the chamber, Preston Brooks of South Carolina struck Sumner from behind with a cane and beat him nearly to death. Brooks was subsequently lionized for his violent actions in the South while the shock of violence galvinized the North to condemn the violence and speak out against slavery. The event revealed how polarized the country had become and how intractable the perceptions were of those living in the North and South. The schism ruptured on March 14, 1861, and the civil war soon followed.
Please God, let’s find a way to bridge our differences now to avoid such violence in the future.
On May 22, 1856, the “world’s greatest deliberative body” became a combat zone. In one of the most dramatic and deeply ominous moments in the Senate’s entire history, a member of the House of Representatives entered the Senate Chamber and savagely beat a senator into unconsciousness.
The inspiration for this clash came three days earlier when Senator Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts antislavery Republican, addressed the Senate on the explosive issue of whether Kansas should be admitted to the Union as a slave state or a free state. In his “Crime Against Kansas” speech, Sumner identified two Democratic senators as the principal culprits in this crime—Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina. He characterized Douglas to his face as a “noise-some, squat, and nameless animal . . . not a proper model for an American senator.” Andrew Butler, who was not present, received more elaborate treatment. Mocking the South Carolina senator’s stance as a man of chivalry, the Massachusetts senator charged him with taking “a mistress . . . who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean,” added Sumner, “the harlot, Slavery.”
Representative Preston Brooks was Butler’s South Carolina kinsman. If he had believed Sumner to be a gentleman, he might have challenged him to a duel. Instead, he chose a light cane of the type used to discipline unruly dogs. Shortly after the Senate had adjourned for the day, Brooks entered the old chamber, where he found Sumner busily attaching his postal frank to copies of his “Crime Against Kansas” speech.
Moving quickly, Brooks slammed his metal-topped cane onto the unsuspecting Sumner’s head. As Brooks struck again and again, Sumner rose and lurched blindly about the chamber, futilely attempting to protect himself. After a very long minute, it ended.
Bleeding profusely, Sumner was carried away. Brooks walked calmly out of the chamber without being detained by the stunned onlookers. Overnight, both men became heroes in their respective regions.
Surviving a House censure resolution, Brooks resigned, was immediately reelected, and soon thereafter died at age 37. Sumner recovered slowly and returned to the Senate, where he remained for another 18 years. The nation, suffering from the breakdown of reasoned discourse that this event symbolized, tumbled onward toward the catastrophe of civil war.