Nothing New Under the Sun: History as Caution and Comfort

  • Post category:News / US News

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Alexandra Hudson adapted the following excerpt from her new book, “The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves,” which was released today.

The ousting of the House speaker last week has the commentariat in Washington using a word we hear a lot of these days: “unprecedented.”

We hear this all the time, especially from people who try to persuade us that our current moment us uniquely divided and bad

But as a student of history, I’ve learned there is actually very little that is unprecedented. 

The problem of incivility is nothing new in American history. One long-forgotten story of incivility in Congress was told to illuminate that, while incivility is bad in their current moment, it could always be worse.

The day was Feb. 28, 1890, and it was a crisp Friday afternoon. Rep. William Taulbee, a Democrat from Kentucky, had recently resigned from office, but was still furious that Charles Kincaid of The Louisville Times had published a story about his extramarital affair with a congressional staffer in 1887.

The scandal meant the end of Taulbee’s ambitious political career, for which he held Kincaid personally responsible. While no longer a congressman, Taulbee was often still around Capitol Hill, where Kincaid reported.

Taulbee tormented Kincaid every chance he could, sometimes even lying in wait while Kincaid tried to avoid him. Taulbee stepped on Kincaid’s foot in an elevator and held it there while Kincaid groaned in pain. He threatened Kincaid’s life, rammed him against the door of a streetcar, and shoved him into a metal railing. The relentless harassment soon became too much for Kincaid.

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As the clock struck 12 on that fateful Friday afternoon, Kincaid was in the halls of Congress waiting for an interview when Taulbee appeared for his now-ritualized abuse of the exhausted reporter. Taulbee shouted at his target, pushed him, violently pulled his ear, and threatened Kincaid’s life yet again. Kincaid decided that enough was enough.

Two hours later, on the steps of Congress, a shot rang out.

Kincaid had shot Taulbee in the head, and made no attempt to hide. Some say that Taulbee’s blood can still be seen on the steps of Congress. Kincaid was later acquitted.

This low watermark of civility in public life gives us both caution and comfort. Comfort because, contrary to what many might think, we are not, in fact, living in the most uncivil era. But violence has indeed revisited the halls of Congress in our own day, which is why caution is merited.

The fact that abuse and murderous violence has happened before in our nation’s history—and this is but one of many such examples—shows its constant threat in our present. Society, and our free and flourishing way of life, is fragile. Civility, and the basic respect for personhood that it requires, is what makes it possible. When we forget civility, we put our society at risk.

Despite the fact that incivility has always been with us—both in America and beyond—every few decades, a flurry of “civility declinists” argue that we are living through an era of exceptional incivility and that we need to get our act together to see our democracy survive.

The post Nothing New Under the Sun: History as Caution and Comfort appeared first on The Daily Signal.

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