Tempers Flare in Congress;
Millennials probably look at the current discourse of our presidential campaign and wonder if the United States has come to the end of civility. The Republican nominating process appears to have brought out the worst in this nation.
However, a look at our history may help you judge us differently. Today is the anniversary of Charles Sumner’s caning. In 1856, Preston Brooks, a congressman of South Carolina, attacked Sumner on the floor of the U. S. Senate. Brooks approached Sumner from behind accompanied by two assistants. He caned Sumner in the head repeatedly nearly killing Sumner. Brook’s motive was Sumner’s speech of three days earlier that very clearly suggested that plantation owners and Brook’s uncle sexually had their way with female slaves.
Sumner directed specific comments at Senator Butler of South Carolina.
"Not in any common lust for power did this uncommon tragedy have its origin. It is the rape of a virgin Territory, compelling it to the hateful embrace of slavery; and it may be clearly traced to a depraved desire for a new Slave State, hideous offspring of such a crime, in the hope of adding to the power of slavery in the National Government."
"The senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight with sentiments of honor and courage. Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight -- I mean the harlot, slavery. For her his tongue is always profuse in words. Let her be impeached in character, or any proposition made to shut her out from the extension of her wantonness, and no extravagance of manner or hardihood of assertion is then too great for this senator."1
Sumner’s speech was far too specific even under our current mores. Sumner returned to the Senate after a three and a half year recovery. He immediately picked up as he had left off, attacking slavery with a mild improvement in his insinuations.
The Sumner event may have been the most dramatic and publicized hostility on the Senate floor but there are several others that suggest that our current Congress has not yet reached rock bottom in decorum.
At the turn of the eighteenth century calling someone a scoundrel was considered profane. Roger Griswold, a Connecticut Congressman, used just this adjective to describe Mathew Lyon, a Vermont Democratic-Republican. Lyon then expectorated on Griswold. A fight began on the Senate floor. Weeks later Griswold attacked Lyon on the Senate floor with a cane and Lyons responded with a pair of fire tongs. Lyons was censured by the Ethics committee for spitting. Griswold subsequently was elected governor of Connecticut. Lyons moved to Kentucky and was elected to Congress from his new state.
Thomas Arnold of Tennessee, in 1832, subdued an armed assassin on the Capitol steps. Arnold was extremely critical of Sam Houston’s physical attack of Congressman William Stanberry. Both Arnold and Houston were strong supporters of the union though they represented slave and secession states. Arnold called for separation of Tennessee into East Tennessee at the time of secession. His entire political resume is one of opposition to the party in power. In May a friend of Houston’s, Morgan A. Heard, attacked Arnold on the Capitol steps, with a large stick then a pistol hidden under his coat. Heard fired once nipping Arnold at the shoulder. Arnold beat Morgan with a sword cane and was about to stab Heard just as another Congressman Joseph Duncan separated the combatants.
Slightly before the conclusion of the Compromise of 1850 debate, Henry Foote, Senator from Mississippi, pulled a pistol and ran towards Senator Hart Benton of Missouri. Benton, was against slavery. Foote, of Benton’s Democratic Party from Mississippi, was pro slavery. Foote attacked Benton verbally and then pulled a pistol from his Senate desk and pointed it at Benton but colleagues stopped Foote and ended the argument before he could pull the trigger. John Kennedy included Benton in his Pulitzer Prize winner novel, “Profiles in Courage.” Only eight senators were included in John Kennedy’s book highlighting Senators that voted their conscience against their constituents and their party’s platform.
In 1858, Henry Wilson, Senator of Massachusetts, President of the Senate and future Vice President of the United States, was challenged to a duel by William M. Gwin, Senator of California. Henry accused William of widespread corruption. This was the second time Henry was challenged and refused to duel. Preston Brooks, the Senator that caned Senator Sumner in 1856, took offense to Wilson's very vivid portrayal in the Congressional record of the caning.
On February 6, 1858, thirty members of the U. S. House of Representatives were engaged in a brawl. Upon further debate of the Kansas/Nebraska Act, Congressman Galush Grow of Pennsylvania and Laurence Keitt of South Carolina exchanged punches. This is written into the “Congressional Globe”. Instantly, other Congressman joined in. The Speaker of the House, James Orr, had to instruct the Sergeant-at-Arms to arrest those continuing to brawl. The combatants mimicked the sectional divide splitting the country and inevitably leading to the Civil War. Two days later Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state.
1. Michael William Pfau, "Time, Tropes, and Textuality: Reading Republicanism in Charles Sumner's 'Crime Against Kansas'", Rhetoric & Public Affairs vol 6 #3 (2003) 385-413, quote on p. 393 online in Project MUSE