Comment: Today’s Congress genteel compared to slavery era’s

There were some 70 violent altercations between Congress members during debates over slavery.

  • Tuesday, November 28, 2023 1:30am
  • Opinion

By Stephen Mihm / Bloomberg Opinion

Congressional dysfunction took a dangerous turn this month. In the House, former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., allegedly elbowed Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn., in the kidney (McCarthy denied the claim). Not to be outdone, Sen. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., challenged the president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union, Sean O’Brien, to a fight, with the two men exchanging insults.

For those inclined to believe that these childish provocations auger the end of the republic, please consider life in Congress in the decades before the Civil War. If the politicians of that era could be magically transported to our own Congress, they would likely roll their eyes — thinking that today’s antics are child’s play — and say: “hold my beer.”

When Congress first met in 1789, political parties didn’t yet exist. That changed quickly, and by the decade’s end, the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans were at each other’s throats — literally. In 1798, Rep. Matthew Lyon of Vermont, a Democratic-Republican, said something nasty about Rep. Roger Griswold of Connecticut, a Federalist.

Griswold called Lyon a coward in front of the other legislators. Lyon promptly spat in Griswold’s face. At this point, Griswold got hold of a hickory walking stick and beat Lyon 20-plus times. As Lyon ran from his attacker, he managed to pick up a pair of fire tongs and hit back. The melee would continue for some time before the audience pulled the men apart.

Such was toxic masculinity in the new nation. The historian Joanne Freeman, who has written two books examining how political partisanship in this era often turned violent, describes these clashes as “ritualistic affairs of honor” where men would ratchet up provocations in a predictable, if dangerous, fashion.

Typically, disputes would begin with insults and counter-insults that make our own era’s taunts look pretty tame by comparison. Instead of calling someone a “Smurf,” as one legislator did recently, politicians of the early republic favored old-school insults: “coward,” “liar,” “rascal,” “scoundrel,” and most delicious of all, “puppy.”

As Freeman notes, these insults “demanded an immediate challenge, for they struck at the core elements of manliness and gentility.” Once someone resorted to these fighting words, it was pretty easy for the conflict to turn physical. A surefire way to escalate: grab your opponent’s nose and twist it. “Nose-tweaking” was tantamount to challenging someone to a duel, but even nasty insults published in newspapers could lead to deadly encounters, as Alexander Hamilton could posthumously attest.

These disputes, whether fatal or not, could arise from all manner of misunderstandings and rivalries, many of them quite trivial. The same cannot be said of the violent battles over slavery that consumed Congress from the 1830s through the start of the Civil War. During these decades, particularly the 1850s, the desire to defend one’s political honor converged with what was — and remains — the most divisive, powerful political issue in the nation’s history.

In her research, Freeman has uncovered upward of 70 different violent altercations between members of Congress during this time, either in the Capitol building or in and around it. These incidents almost invariably pitted Northerners and Southerners against one another, with slavery the principal source of disagreement.

Southern politicians increasingly turned to violent threats to advance their agenda of protecting and expanding slavery. For example, when Congress debated the vexed legislation that would become known as the Compromise of 1850, Rep. Thomas Clingman and Sen. Henry Foote, both of Mississippi, announced that they and their allies would bring guns into Congress and open fire if they didn’t get their way.

For the remainder of the decade, many in Congress took to carrying guns and knives, even ostentatiously displaying the weapons to deter would-be attackers. Disputes often erupted into outright violence, most famously when Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner made a speech calling South Carolina Sen. Andrew Butler a “noise-some, squat, nameless animal” who consorted with a metaphorical mistress: “the harlot, Slavery.”

The insult provoked Rep. Preston Brooks, a relative of Butler’s, to ambush Sumner as he answered mail at his desk. Armed with a metal-tipped cane used to discipline dogs, Brooks beat Sumner senseless, leaving him semi-conscious in a pool of his own blood. Henry Wilson, the other senator from Massachusetts, called the attack “brutal, murderous, and cowardly,” provoking Brooks to challenge Wilson to a duel. (Wilson, no shrinking violet, disdainfully declined.)

Other melees erupted over far less but almost always traced their origins to disputes over slavery. In 1858, for example, another South Carolinian, Rep. Laurence Keitt, made the mistake of getting a little too close to Pennsylvania Rep. Galusha Grow in a heated argument over an out-of-order motion. Grow punched Keitt, inaugurating an epic brawl that culminated in 50-plus lawmakers throwing tobacco spittoons at one another. Just another day at the office.

In hindsight, these incidents read like harbingers of the violence of the Civil War. The same, though, cannot be said of the bad behavior on display recently. There’s no single lightning-rod issue driving the division, and it’s not even clear that this reflects actual conflict between political parties.

Still, if the coming weeks bring news that Chuck Schumer grabbed Mitch McConnell’s nose and called him a puppy, be afraid. Be very afraid.

Stephen Mihm, a professor of history at the University of Georgia, is coauthor of “Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance.”

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