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HomeLife In the BerkshiresCONNECTIONS: Violence stalks...

CONNECTIONS: Violence stalks the halls of Congress

It was, in its way, a precursor of the Civil War. The intensity of the fight for one side to preserve its wealth, power and way of life cannot be overstated.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

It may be small comfort, but storming the SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility) in Congress was not the first act of lawlessness perpetrated by our lawmakers.

In 1837 an Arkansas representative insulted the Speaker of the House during a debate. The Speaker responded by murdering the representative with a bowie knife right there on the House floor.

“Expelled and tried for murder, he [the Speaker] was acquitted for excusable homicide and re-elected, only to pull his knife on another legislator during debate,” writes Yale history professor Joanne B. Freeman in her book “The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to the Civil War.”

The second time, the Speaker did not succeed in murdering the representative; he was stopped by armed colleagues.

Oh, well, that was the Arkansas state legislature. Surely in the United States Congress . . .

In 1838 the United States Congress was fiercely divided between Democrats and Whigs Insulting a party member was construed as insulting the whole party. Challenging someone to a duel was accepted practice.

Representatives Jonathan Cilley (D – Maine) and William Graves (W – Kentucky) did not have a serious argument between them and neither was a dab hand with a rifle. So what were the two doing just outside Washington, D.C., in that field in Prince George County?

Cilley, a member of the famous Bowdoin College class of 1824 that included Hawthorne and Longfellow, made a speech on the House floor insulting to James Webb, a Whig newspaperman. The insult extended to the entire Whig party. The party deputized Graves to write Cilley demanding a retraction. Graves carried the letter to Cilley, but Cilley refused to accept the letter. That compounded the insult. Graves was advised by his party to challenge Cilley to a duel. For the honor of his party, Cilley was urged to accept.

[And you thought storming a congressional safe room was childish.]

Well, there the two men were on Feb. 24, 1838, with rifles. Really? No pistols at dawn? The rifles misfired, the representatives couldn’t aim, and it was farce until, on the third round, Graves hit and killed Cilley. Then the farce became tragedy. The following year Congress passed an anti-dueling law.

In May 1856, pro-slavery Representative Preston Brooks (D – South Carolina) entered the Senate chamber with cane in hand. He approached anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner.

Brooks hit Sumner in the head, knocked him down, and as Sumner lay on the Senate floor, Brooks beat him within an inch of his life. Brooks turned and walked out unmolested.

Truth is, according to Freeman, in the run-up to the Civil War, there were no fewer than 70 violent incidents between congressmen. The unresolved, the seemingly unresolvable conflict over slavery led to violence. To make matters worse, men routinely carried weapons — knives and guns — even on the floor of Congress.

Perhaps we know the story of Brooks and Sumner so well because Sumner was the senator from Massachusetts. Brooks’ brutal attack on Sumner in 1856 was prompted by Sumner’s “Crime Against Kansas” speech that decried the South’s “Slave oligarchy” and demanded the U.S. admit Kansas as a free state. Brooks chose to beat Sumner rather than risk breaking the anti-dueling law because, he argued, dueling “would subject me to legal penalties more severe than would be imposed for a simple assault and battery.”

Two years later, tensions over slavery erupted into war on the floor. The U.S. Supreme Court enraged abolitionists by ruling the federal government could not ban slavery in western territories. At 2 a.m. during an overnight session, a Southern representative grabbed a Northern representative by the throat and said he would teach the “black republican puppy” a lesson. As the two white men struggled, their colleagues ran over and a fistfight broke out.

Freeman describes the scene, “The end result was a free fight in the open space in front of the Speaker’s platform featuring roughly thirty sweaty, disheveled, mostly middle-aged congressmen in a no-holds-barred brawl, North against South.”

It was, in its way, a precursor of the Civil War. The intensity of the fight for one side to preserve its wealth, power and way of life cannot be overstated.

Is that what our 21st-century “roughly thirty sweaty, disheveled, mostly middle-aged congressmen” are doing? Fighting for their way of life, their wealth and power? Perhaps. Or perhaps they were automatons moving according to a predetermined set of coded instructions. In any case . . .

How much dignity was there in storming the SCIF? How much purpose when over 40 Republicans could enter legally as duly appointed members of the requisite committees? Where was the honor in leaving greasy pizza boxes behind when they finally vacated? If we have the right to expect law abiding behavior from our lawmakers, then which is worse: the violence or the rank silliness?


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