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Cudgel

President Obama criticized for skipping Antonin Scalia's funeral


President Obama was criticized for his decision not to attend Antonin Scalia’s funeral. When questioned on the subject, the president’s spokesman said:

There’s so much rancor in politics and partisanship that we allow ourselves to get drawn into different corners to the extent that some people actually want to use the funeral of a Supreme Court justice as some sort of political cudgel.

antonin-scalia-photo
Photo: Stephen Masker

Though we often hear that things are more partisan in Washington than ever, it’s worth remembering that a literal cudgeling took place on the floor of the Senate in 1856.

Cudgel means “a short heavy club.” It’s a word that’s as old as English itself, which makes sense since it’s the kind of weapon that would have been used 1000 years ago. Cudgel has also been a verb since the late 1500s, meaning “to hit (someone or something) with a club.” As a metaphor in American politics, it goes back to at least 1812:

Dr. Pash, one of those ministers who has taken up the political cudgel against our government, lately compared the President's signing the declaration of war to Nero's burning the city of Rome!"
National Intelligencer [Washington, DC] 17 November 1812

Though we often hear that things are more partisan in Washington than ever, it’s worth remembering that a literal cudgeling took place on the floor of the Senate in 1856, when South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks viciously attacked Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner with a cane after Sumner made a speech denouncing the expansion of slavery. Sumner was nearly killed and did not return to the Senate for three years. Brooks resigned his seat but was returned to office almost immediately by special election, and was fined $300.



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