‘Something wicked’ coming our way?

November 20, 2023 5:30 am

Sen. Markwayne Mullin, an Oklahoma Republican, is shown holding a printout of the social media post that led him to challenge the head of the Teamsters union to a physical fight at a U.S. Senate hearing Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023. (U.S. House webcast screenshot)

Bully Mullin, meet Bully Brooks.

Sen. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., recently threatened to fight Teamsters General President Sean O’Brien during a Senate hearing on unions. On the Senate floor in 1856, Rep. Preston Brooks, D-S.C., nearly killed Sen. Charles Sumner, R-Mass, with a heavy cane. 

Elected last year, Mullin is all MAGA all the time. He dotes on Donald Trump. Brooks was a pro-slavery hotblood who hated Yankee abolitionists like Sumner.

Historian Brian Clardy. (Murray State University photo)

“The assault on Sumner happened in the mid-19th century, but we are in the first quarter of the 21st century,” said Murray State University historian Brian Clardy. “I’d like to think that we’ve grown up since then, but given what we saw in the Senate a few days ago, we haven’t evolved that much and that’s very scary.”   

Mullin, a former mixed martial arts fighter, must have cracked a history book after he challenged O’Brien to put up his dukes. Mullin suggested caning be resurrected to “keep people from thinking they’re so tough,” according to The Boston Herald’s Rick Sobey. (O’Brien grew up in Medford, near Boston, and joined the union in Charlestown, a Boston neighborhood, when he was 18.) 

When it was his turn to question O’Brien, Mullin started by claiming he’s not anti-union. The senator proceeded to grill O’Brien, ripping him, the Teamsters and union Pipefitters. (During his 10 years in the U.S. House, Mullin voted the union position on legislation just 15 percent of the time, according to the AFL-CIO’s Legislative Scorecard. His score was zero for 2022.)  

After O’Brien defended himself, the senator angrily stood up and challenged the union president to a fight. Panel chairman Bernie Sanders banged his gavel, ordered Bully Mullin to sit down, and no blows were struck.

But Bully Brooks gleefully spilled Sumner’s blood.

In 1856, the long-simmering North-South dispute over slavery and its expansion was coming to a boil. The flashpoint was Kansas territory. In 1856, Democrats, then the pro-slavery party, wanted Kansas admitted to the Union as a slave state. The anti-slavery Republicans favored a free state Kansas.

While lawmakers hotly debated the issue in Congress, “Bleeding Kansas” was torn by civil strife between pro- and anti-slavery settlers. (Kansas was admitted as a free state on Jan. 29, 1861, less than three months before the Civil War started.)

A period depiction of pro-slavery Brooks attacking anti-slavery Sumner in the U.S. Senate chamber. Towns were named for Brooks in Florida and Georgia. (

Brooks became enraged over Sumner’s May 19-20, 1856, “Crime Against Kansas” speech, in which the senator name-checked Sen. Andrew Butler, D-S.C., for favoring a slave state Kansas. Brooks was Butler’s cousin.

Sumner said Butler, a pro-slavery fanatic like his kinsman, had taken as a “mistress … the harlot slavery.”

On May 22, Brooks strode into the Senate chamber, surprised the unsuspecting Sumner, who was seated at his desk, and attacked him. Brooks beat him over the head with a metal-topped gutta-percha cane until it splintered. The dazed, blood-spattered Sumner, almost died. 

After a motion to expel him failed, Bully Brooks resigned and went home a hero. Southern newspaper editorials lauded him; a Florida town and a Georgia County were named for him. Admirers sent Brooks canes, one inscribed “Hit Him Again.”

Bully Mullin thinks Sooner State home folks have his back. “The Guardian’s” Martin Pengelly reported that the senator told a sympathetic Sean Hannity of Fox News that if he hadn’t tried to provoke O’Brien to fisticuffs, “people in Oklahoma would be pretty upset at me. I represent Oklahoma values.”  

Mullin doesn’t have to face the voters until 2028. Brooks was soon reelected, but died unexpectedly in 1857. Sumner, who suffered lingering head injuries and what today is called post traumatic stress disorder, was unable to return to the Senate full time until 1859.

“The nation, suffering from the breakdown of reasoned discourse that this event symbolized, tumbled onward toward the catastrophe of civil war,” an official U.S. Senate webpage says

Though Mullin didn’t assault O’Brien, Clardy fears physical violence in Congress and elsewhere will follow as Trump becomes more extreme in demonizing his political opponents, whom he recently smeared as “vermin.” President Joe Biden condemned “vermin” as “language you heard in Nazi Germany in the ’30s.”

Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie said he agreed with the president. Christie, who is challenging Trump for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, told CNN’s Jake Tapper:” “Look, I think that what he’s done with his use of language is to give permission to a lot of people who then believe they can take it even further, and they can actionize the things that that he is saying, weaponize the things that he’s saying, and most people won’t use that type of language, because they know there’s a risk of that.”

“He doesn’t care. He just doesn’t care, Jake. I mean, his view is if it’s good for him at that moment, he’ll do it and then if something bad happens, he’ll disown any responsibility for it.”

After likening Mullin to Brooks, Clardy quoted the second of the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “something wicked this way comes.”


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Berry Craig
Berry Craig

Berry Craig, a Carlisle countian, is a professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and the author of seven books, all on Kentucky history. His latest is "Kentuckians and Pearl Harbor: Stories from the Day of Infamy" which the University Press of Kentucky published. He is a freelance journalist and a member of the American Federation of Teachers and the Kentucky State AFL-CIO Executive Board.