Sunday, January 24, 2010

Honor a different Brooks, please

I'm politically invested in various things, but strangely enough one of the things I still get worked up about involves people who have been dead for many, many years. So while I do care about what's going on in foreign policy and such, I still have something of a bone to pick in terms of the showdown between Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina. In 1856.

The Civil War was crazy. It may have truly been about slavery at the very end of things, just barely, in terms of why people were fighting. Back in the day, the abolitionists were despised by both Southerners who thought slaves were all well and good and Northerners who saw them as crazy upstarts. History has pretty much vindicated the abolitionists, but the Civil War remains something of a controversial topic in that the Confederacy has somehow been represented in some circles as a rather cuddly bunch of freedom fighters.

Which brings me to the town of Brooksville, Florida.

This was the first image result. I guess Brooksville is known for chesty biker girls.

The only reason Preston Brooks is known to history, and will continue to be known to history, is because he practically beat Sumner to death with a walking stick. Which, really, isn't even all that original since that had already happened to congressmen from Vermont and Ohio. Brooks certainly did the most damage, however, sending Sumner out of Congress for a time while he recovered (and while Southern factions declared that he was playing up his injuries to pander to the abolitionists). Sumner can be interpreted as either a stalwart intellectual ahead of his time or an arrogant blowhard, but considering how his "slavery is bad" argument was proved right in the long run I'd be inclined to side with the former.

I'm sure Brooksville isn't that crazy about slavery, but they do seem to like Mr. Brooks an awful lot.

Fine, Brooksville has nice roads as well.

I've never been to Brooksville, and I'm sure the people are about what you'd find anywhere else. Its population consists of maybe 7,500 people, and a handful of famous or semi-famous folks have a connection there. My greatest annoyance with the community comes from the official website of the town and their cheerful explanation of how it got its name. Here it is verbatim.

Brooksville was named in honor of Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina because of the role he played in a drama which took place in the legislative chamber of the U.S. Congress in Washington, D.C.

State Right's statesman Representative Preston Brooks was a man with a strong sense of fair play. During the 1856 debate of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner violently denounced Senator A. P. Butler of South Carolina who was an uncle of Representative Preston Brooks, while Senator Butler was absent from the Senate Chamber.

After adjournment, Brooks spotted Sumner in the Senate Chamber, whipped out his newly polished gutta percha cane, and rapped it smartly over Sumner's head, leaving the Senator quite senseless on the spotless Senate floor.

This simple act won Brooks widespread adoration in South Carolina and other southern states including the State of Florida, and Hernando County in particular. The citizens of Hernando County admired his pluck and voted to give the county's largest settlement his name.

According to some of the older citizens in Hernando County... there were some relatives of Representative Brooks living in Hernando County at the time. The name became official when the name of the post office was changed to Brooksville on January 10, 1871.

The most disturbing aspect of this is that the profile probably could have been written by any number of Southern writers during the antebellum time when the Brooks-Sumner incident happened. The great majority of commentators defending Brooks thought that Sumner had insulted another congressman, related to Brooks, and as a result Brooks had given him what he deserved.

That might be all well and good for the time, and could be understood for the significant period of overt racism that followed. But in this day and age, what it ultimately comes down to is that Brooksville is named after a government representative who was considered a great hero of the South for beating up a guy on the floor of Congress. This should be recognized as a rather lowly action of a congressman defending a failed and inhuman institution. I could understand Brooksville keeping their name as a matter of habit, but the conciliatory language of the town profile and the fact that the official name of the town was not set down until 1871, a full six years after the end of the Civil War, is pretty awful.

My proposal isn't too extreme, I think. Brooksville doesn't need to change its name. If it wanted to choose to honor a different Brooks, that would be terrific. There are some great ones out there. Perhaps Mel Brooks, the man behind such great films as Spaceballs and Blazing Saddles. Or Max Brooks, his son, author of such terrific books as The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z. And you know what? I'll recognize these two humorists if I ever make it to Brooksville instead of the long-dead cane man.

That goes for you too, Brooks County in Georgia.