Discover more from Letters from an American
August 27, 2022
In a speech Thursday night, President Joe Biden called out today’s MAGA Republicans for threatening “our personal rights and economic security…. They’re a threat to our very democracy.” When he referred to them as “semi-fascists,” he drew headlines, some of them disapproving.
A spokesperson for the Republican National Committee called the comment “despicable,” although Republicans have called Democrats “socialists” now for so long it passes as normal discourse. Just this week, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) called Democrats “radical left-wing lunatics, laptop liberals, and Marxist misfits.”
Biden’s calling out of today’s radical Republicans mirrors the moment on June 21, 1856, when Representative Anson Burlingame of Massachusetts, a member of the newly formed Republican Party, stood up in Congress to announce that northerners were willing to take to the battlefield to defend their way of life against the southerners who were trying to destroy it. Less than a month before, Burlingame's Massachusetts colleague Senator Charles Sumner had been brutally beaten by a southern representative for disparaging slavery, and Burlingame was sick and tired of buying sectional peace by letting southerners abuse the North. Enough, he said, was enough. The North was superior to the South in its morality, loyalty to the government, fidelity to the Constitution, and economy, and northerners were willing to defend their system, if necessary, with guns.
Burlingame’s “Defense of Massachusetts” speech marked the first time a prominent northerner had offered to fight to defend the northern way of life. Previously, southerners had been the ones threatening war and demanding concessions from the North to preserve the peace. He was willing to accept a battle, Burlingame explained, because what was at stake was the future of the nation. His speech invited a challenge to a duel.
Southerners championed their region as the one that had correctly developed the society envisioned by the Founders. In the South, a few very wealthy men controlled government and society, enslaving their neighbors. This system, its apologists asserted, was the highest form of human civilization. They opposed any attempt to restrict its spread. The South was superior to the North, enslavers insisted; it alone was patriotic, honored the Constitution, and understood economic growth. In the interests of union, northerners repeatedly ceded ground to enslavers and left their claim to superiority unchallenged.
At long last, the attack on Sumner inspired Burlingame to speak up for the North. The southern system was not superior, he thundered; it had dragged the nation backward. Slavery kept workers ignorant and godless while the northern system of freedom lifted workers up with schools and churches. Slavery feared innovation; freedom encouraged workers to try new ideas. Slavery kept the South mired in the past; freedom welcomed the modern world and pushed Americans into a new, thriving economy. And finally, when Sumner had spoken up against the tyranny of slavery, a southerner had clubbed him almost to death on the floor of the Senate.
Was ignorance, economic stagnation, and violence the true American system?
For his part, Burlingame preferred to throw his lot with education, morality, economic growth, and respect for government.
Burlingame had deliberately provoked the lawmaker who had beaten Sumner, Preston Brooks of South Carolina, and unable to resist any provocation, Brooks had challenged Burlingame to a duel. Brooks assumed all Yankees were cowards and figured that Burlingame would decline in embarrassment. But instead, Burlingame accepted with enthusiasm, choosing rifles as the dueling weapons. Burlingame, it turned out, was an expert marksman.
Burlingame also chose to duel in Canada, giving Brooks the opportunity to back out on the grounds that he felt unsafe traveling through the North after his beating of Sumner made him a hated man. The negotiations for the duel went on for months, but the duel never took place. Instead, Brooks, known as “Bully” Brooks, lost face as a man who was unwilling to risk his safety to avenge his honor, while Burlingame showed that northerners were eager to fight.
Forgotten now, Burlingame’s speech was once widely considered one of the most important speeches in American history. It marked the moment when northerners shocked southerners by calling them out for what they were, and northerners rallied to Burlingame’s call.
President Biden’s Twitter account has recently been taken over by new White House's Deputy Director of Platforms Megan Coyne, who garnered attention when she ran the official New Jersey Twitter account with attitude, and it seems as if the administration is taking the new saltiness out for a spin. “All the talk about the deficit from the same folks that gave an unpaid-for $2 trillion tax cut to the wealthy and big corporations. It makes you laugh,” the account said tonight. “Under my Administration, the deficit is on track to come down by more than $1 trillion this year.”