Beatings, Brawls, and Lawmaking: Mayhem in Congress

Political divisions between Republicans and Democrats run deep — impossibly deep, some say. But there is still some common ground (the good of the country, presumably). To get an idea of how a truly divided Congress looks, you must go back to the late 1850s, when the phrase “battle on the floor of Congress” really meant something.

Galusha A. Grow was a Pennsylvania congressman in those years when the legislative process was often a contact sport. Pro-slavery southerners were fighting to maintain their control of Congress against the growing power of abolitionist members. The air grew dark with insults, threats, then violence. In 1856,  Preston Brooks of South Carolina attacked Charles Sumner of Massachusetts in the Senate, savagely beating him with a cane until it broke. Senators who tried to come to the aid of Sumner were warned away by another South Carolinian, Laurence Keitt, who waved a pistol and promised to shoot anyone who intervened.

In 1858, President Buchanan was pressuring Congress to admit Kansas as a new slave state. Congressman Grow and other Republicans bitterly opposed the move. The matter was referred to a special committee and the debate ran well into the night. According to Grow’s own account—

Having been chairman of the Committee on Territories in the previous Congress, I was asked to take charge of the [blocking the admission of Kansas a slave state.] Toward three o’clock in the morning I crossed to the Democratic side—“

Note: Seating in the House of Representatives is arranged in a semi-circle before the Speaker’s platform. By tradition, Republicans sit on the right side of the circle and the Democrats on the left. Grow had walked past the Speaker’s platform to the left side of room.

— to consult with John Hickman, a Douglas Democrat from Pennsylvania. Just then John A. Quitman, of Mississippi, arose and asked consent to make a few remarks. We [Republicans] did not want to talk but to keep on voting, and I promptly objected to Quitman’s proposal.

“If you are going to object,” shouted Lawrence M. Keitt [Preston Brooks’ friend] who was sitting near, “return to your own side of the House. You have no business over here, anyway.”

“This is a free hall,” I responded, “and everybody has a right to be where he pleases.”

At that Keitt, whose seat was in the second aisle from me, sprang to his feet, strode down into the area, and advanced up the aisle in which I was standing, closely followed by Reuben Davis, of Mississippi.

“I want to know,” demanded Keitt, “what you meant by such an answer as that.”

“I mean just what I said,” I replied; “this is a free hall, and everybody has the right to be where he pleases.”

“Sir,” said Keitt, attempting to seize me by the throat, “you are a damned, black, Republican puppy!”

“Never mind what I am,” I retorted, knocking up his hand. “No negro-driver shall crack his whip over me.”

Keitt again attempted to grasp me by the throat; I struck out from the shoulder and he fell to the floor. In an instant John F. Potter, of Wisconsin, closely followed by Elihu Washburn, of Illinois, and a number of others who were standing in the area in front of the Speaker’s desk, came rushing up the aisle, Potter striking right and left.

Lovejoy, of Illinois, and Lamar, of Mississippi, were pawing each other in the area, each seeking to persuade the other to be still. Mott, a gray-haired Quaker from Ohio, was seen in the melee, his hand bleeding, but he afterward declared that he intervened in the interest of peace. Covode, of Pennsylvania, grabbed a heavy stone spittoon by his desk and marched down the broad aisle into the area in front of the Speaker. In the end he placed the cuspidor on a desk and returned to his seat, but, his attention being called to it, he took it back with him. Questioned later as to his purpose he said he thought that some one might draw a weapon, and if so he intended to tag him.

U.S. Representative William Barksdale
The honorable William Barksdale—with his wig properly placed.

As [Potter] reached me he hit Davis with one hand, and [Tennesseean William] Barksdale, who had hold of me — in no angry mood but in way of friendly restraint — with the other.

Barksdale, not knowing where the blow came from, turned to Elihu Washburn and asked if the latter had struck him. Washburn replied that he had not.

“You are a liar,” said Barksdale, and letting go of me caught hold of Washburn. Cadwalader Washburn, coming up just then and seeing Barksdale and his brother, Elihu, in a clinch, struck out for Barksdale and hit him a glancing blow on the forehead which knocked off his wig.

Barksdale, picking it up, put it on backside first, which gave him such a grotesque appearance that everybody nearby broke out in a loud guffaw.

Meantime, the Speaker had called upon the Sergeant-at-Arms to restore order. The rush of members into the aisle had prevented Keitt from immediately regaining his feet, but as soon as he did the Sergeant-at-Arms led him out to the door opening into the corridor in the rear of the Speaker’s desk. Then the combatants, still laughing at the ludicrous spectacle presented by Barksdale, drew off one by one, and quiet was restored.

The hard feelings were only put away for a short time. Within three days, Grow was accused to trying to force the House into an extra session that would favor the Republicans. More harsh words followed. A Congressman from North Carolina took offense and challenged Grow to a duel, which he publicly declined.

Not long afterward, a Virginia legislator challenged Potter of Wisconsin to a duel. Even though Potter wasn’t a duelist, he felt obliged to accept the challenge. A friend suggested that Potter chose Bowie knives as a weapon. The challenger declined Potter’s choice, stating that a Bowie knife was not a civilized weapon. And so another Congressional fight dissolved into bathos.

Recounting the fight for the Post 42 years later, Grow doesn’t seem surprised at the ferocity of those distant days. Congress, he believed, particularly the House of Representatives, is an inherently rough place.

The popular branch of Congress has always been a more or less turbulent body, and it would be a matter of surprise if such were not the case. Indeed, occasional outbreaks in Congress, however much they are to be deprecated, are perfectly natural. Crowd some hundreds of men together on a hot afternoon or night; fill them with the fire of partisan ardor; perplex them with doubt as to the personal gain or loss that may follow their vote on the question at issue, and instill them with envy of, and ill-will toward, their fellows, and you have abundant material for a row. All that is needed is an excuse, and that is too often found.

Perhaps, then, we shouldn’t be surprised at the name-calling and finger-pointing. The men and women serving in Congress are only representing us, after all.