If you follow American politics, you almost certainly know that voters greatly disapprove of the current Congress. But things could be worse. Fights — physical ones — could break out on the legislative floor. Impossible?
It’s happened before. A few times, in fact.
The first brawl occured just over a decade after the ratification of the Constitution. On January 30, 1798, Representative Roger Griswold from Connecticut called Representative Matthew Lyon (Vermont) a “scoundrel” — a rank insult in the day — for ignoring him during Congressional debates. Lyon took exception to the insult and spat in Griswold’s face. The House brought Lyon up on ethics charges — the first time the legislature did such a thing — but Lyon avoided censure. The squabble, however, continued. On February 15th of the same year, Griswold attacked Lyon with a walking stick, repeatedly striking him in the head and upper body. Lyon ran to the fireplace and grabbed a pair of metal tongs (as depicted above), but Griswold tripped Lyon up. Others separated the two, and neither were brought up on any charges.
Just under sixty years later, the issue of slavery caused great animosity between the states, and passions were similarly inflamed in Congress. In 1856, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts took to the Senate floor to denouce the practice of slavery, likening slaveowners to “pimps” and singling out South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler in the process. Butler did not take undue umbrage at the remark, but his nephew, Representative Preston Brooks did. On May 22nd, Brooks entered the Senate chamber when Sumner was at his desk but few others were around and, mercilessly, bashed in Sumner’s head with a cane. When other Senators came to Sumner’s aid, Congressman Lawrence Keitt (like Brooks, also from South Carolina) drew his pistol and insisted that the others stay away. Sumner, bloodied, fell unconscious, and required years of recuperation before he could return to the Senate. Both Brooks and Keitt resigned from the House but were re-elected.
And in 1858, Keitt would again be a focal point of a Congressional melee, the last one to date — and, probably, the most absurd. Pennsylvania Congressman Galusha A. Grow gave an anti-slavery speech on February 5th of that year. In doing so, he physically crossed over to the opposition side of the chamber and Keitt demanded that he go back to his own side, with a racially charged insult. Grow replied with a retort of his own, asserting that he would not take be treated like a slave and take orders from a slave owner. Keitt lost his temper and went to choke Grow, and a 50-person rumble broke out. How did it end? American Heritage shares the improbable conclusion:
In about two minutes it was all over, brought to a risible conclusion when Cadwallader Washburne of Illinois grabbed William Barksdale of Mississippi by a forelock in order to punch him in the face, let go a roundhouse right, and missed—because Barksdale ducked, leaving Washburne with Barksdale’s wig in his left hand. Since nobody in the chamber had known the Mississippian was bald and because the humiliated Barksdale [put his wig back on backward], nearly everyone stopped fighting to gape and then roar with laughter. As the official record has it, “the good nature of the House” was instantly restored.
Perhaps we should bring back wigs.
From the Archives: In Utero Fight Club: Another place you’d not expect to see a fight break out.
Related: A cane sword. Just in case you’re sent back in time and elected to Congress.