Preston Brooks and Charles Sumner didn't get along.
Dr. Robert Brooks, who is Preston Brooks' cousin, and Eric Draper, who is Charles Sumner's great great great nephew, do.
So as tomorrow's 150th anniversary of South Carolina's secession looming, try to follow the civilized example of Robert and Eric instead of the warmongering example of their blood kin.
Preston Brooks, a U.S. House member from South Carolina, and Charles Sumner, a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, made 19th century history as hotheaded politicians.
James Island residents Robert and Eric make 21st century livings, respectively, as an optometrist and a real estate agent.
They also made sense during a recent visit in White Point Garden as they advised letting Civil War bygones be bygones a century and a half after our state tried -- and ultimately failed -- to leave the United States.
Certainly restraint was lacking from Charles Sumner and Preston Brooks on the Senate floor in May 1856. Sumner vented vile wrath against South Carolina Sen. A.P. Butler, Brooks' cousin, charging that he had "chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight -- I mean the harlot slavery."
Sumner even ridiculed Butler's stroke-induced physical and speech difficulties. He also compared Butler to Don Quixote and Illinois Sen. Stephen Douglas to Sancho Panza for their Kansas-Nebraska Act, one of many failed compromises on territorial slavery.
Douglas, during Sumner's heated harangue, quipped to a colleague: "This damn fool is going to get himself shot by some other damn fool."
Brooks, though, deemed Sumner riffraff -- and thus unworthy of shooting. Instead, on May 22, 1856, he severely beat Sumner with a cane, inflicting lasting injuries as the ardent abolitionist futilely tried to rise from his Senate-chamber desk.
Assaulter Brooks became a Southern hero (and recipient of many canes) for striking his mighty blows against intolerable Northern insults to not just family but regional honor. Victim Sumner became a Northern hero whose injuries symbolized the barbarity of the Southern slave oligarchy -- and after the war became a vengeful, effective advocate for mercilessly punishing the devastated South.
Douglas became the 1860 Democratic presidential nominee -- but only after his party split over slavery expansion during its convention here in Charleston. That breakup assured the election of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln. That assured disunion.
Flash forward to 1996: Dr. Robert Brooks, a boyhood South Windermere neighbor of mine, was examining patient Eric Draper, who grew up in Concord, N.C. Upon learning Eric had been a history major at the College of Charleston, Robert mentioned he had a relative who was "either famous or infamous, depending on which side you were on."
And: "Eric piped up and said, 'Well, before you tell the story, I want you to know that I'm related to Charles Sumner.' My heart popped up into my throat, and I thought, well, here's a fellow who likes history, but I don't want him to think I've got a cane hidden in the closet."
Robert said he and Eric quickly reached a peaceful accord: "He promised not to insult my Southern heritage and I promised not to carry a cane."
Eric's family ties to America's past also run deeply. He is a great great grandson of Ebenezer Sumner Draper, governor of Massachusetts from 1909-11, and a cousin of Union Gen. William Draper. One of Eric's sisters' middle name is Sumner.
Eric: "Even as a little kid, in history class in eighth grade, when we talked about the Brooks-Sumner affair, for me, it was a bit of pride."
Now current Fort Johnson Middle School eighth grader Ely Brooks, Robert's 13-year-old son, is hearing about his notorious cousin in history class -- and from his dad, who said: "I've always cautioned him, 'You know, you have to be careful how you choose to recognize this person in your family. If you make fun of it or make light of it or show too much pride in it, it's gonna have negative connotations.' "
Robert said Brooks family reunions featured "factions" on the cane-wielding congressman from Edgefield County -- "the type that would kind of rally around it and be a little bit proud of it and the type that would kind of make a little bit of a cringe when it came up."
Still, Robert said: "I enjoyed having some historical figure in my family"
Like Eric, Robert is into history. And he knows that in 1961, the year he war born, the commemoration of the Confederate firing on Fort Sumter was marred by the Francis Marion Hotel's refusal to lodge a black woman who was a member of the national centennial commission.
However, Robert -- and Eric -- see more positive possibilities for the coming sesquicentennial.
Robert predicted that while the early anniversaries will be "predominantly about the South's push to separate, in about two or three years, when the date of the Emancipation Proclamation comes, I think the African-American community is going to get tremendously involved."
Robert also rightly stressed commemoration over celebration: "If you romanticize it, you view it with too much nostalgia, with too much fondness, you can never get the proper focus of what really happened."
Eric struck a balanced -- and unifying note -- of his own, expressing the hope that the April 9, 2015 sesquicentennial of Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox will be "the biggest celebration because that really is sort of the re-bonding of the country."
As Eric put it: "I mean, let's face it, we couldn't be America the way we know it if ..."
Robert then ended that sentence: "... the Civil War hadn't happened."
So learn from the terrible-yet-fascinating events that tore America apart and plunged us into our deadliest war 150 years ago.
But also learn from Preston Brooks' cousin and Charles Sumner's great great great nephew.
If they're not carrying grudges about the bloody legacy linking their blood kin, why should you?
Dr. Robert Brooks (left), Preston Brooks’ cousin, and Eric Draper, Charles Sumner’s great great great nephew, flank the Confederate memorial at White Point Garden by the Battery.×
Notice about comments:
The Post and Courier is pleased to offer readers the enhanced ability to comment on stories. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point.