A History of Congressional Violence

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” — Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

We think we are living in turbulent political times.  Well, we are.  But the past has been worse.  Much worse.

Your high school history books probably mentioned how Senator Charles Sumner was beaten to within an inch of his life by Representative Preston Brooks in the Senate chamber on May 22, 1856 ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caning_of_Charles_Sumner ). That event was too significant to ignore.  But according to Joanne Freeman, author of Field of Blood (https://www.amazon.com/Field-Blood-Violence-Congress-Civil-ebook/dp/B079Y83ZJM/ref=sr_1_1?), violence on the floor of Congress has not been all that unusual in the past.  From Amazon.com’s description —

“Legislative sessions were often punctuated by mortal threats, canings, flipped desks, and all-out slugfests. When debate broke down, congressmen drew pistols and waved Bowie knives. One representative even killed another in a duel. Many were beaten and bullied in an attempt to intimidate them into compliance, particularly on the issue of slavery.”

In an interview with Smithsonian magazine, Ms. Freeman says she found about 70 violent incidents in the 30 years before the Civil War.  They were recorded in the Congressional Record, but in the most benign of accounts, like “the conversation became unpleasantly personal.”  Once such “conversation” even became a mass brawl.  Such confrontations fueled the progression toward the Civil War.

What did the country think?  Some were elected to Congress because they were willing to defend their constituents’ interests with more than just words.  And of course the press was only too eager to report every contretemps; remember the newspaper slogan “If it bleeds, it leads.”

So you may think these are difficult times, but I’m not getting worried until fistfights start again in Congress.  It’s all a matter of perspective.

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