Violence in the United States Congress

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There is probably a rule, in the chambers of the United States Congress, that you can’t punch a guy. Living rules are clues to the past. Where I live now, there is probably one Middle or High School age kid across 130 homes, but we have a rule: You can’t leave your hockey goals or giant plastic basketball nets out overnight. So all the old people who live on my street have to drag those things into the garage at the end of every day, after their long sessions of pickup ball. Or, more likely, years ago, there were kids everywhere and the “Get off my lawn” contingent took over the local board and made all these rules. So, today, in Congress, you can’t hit a guy.

But in the old days, that wasn’t so uncommon. You have heard about the caning of Charles Sumner. Southern slavery supporter Preston Brooks beat the piss out of Senator Charles Sumner, an anti-slave guy from Massachusetts. They weren’t even in the same chamber. Brooks was in the House, Sumner was in the Senate. Sumner almost didn’t survive the ruthless and violent beating, which came after a long period of bullying and ridicule by a bunch of southern bullies. Witnesses describe a scene in which Brooks was clearly trying to murder Sumner, and seems to have failed only because the cane he was using broke into too many pieces, depriving the assailant of the necessary leverage. Parts of that cane, by the way, were used to make pendants worn by Brook’s allies to celebrate this attempted murder of a Yankee anti-slavery member of Congress.

Here’s the thing. You’ve probably heard that story, or some version of it, because it was a major example of violence in the US Congress. But in truth, there were many other acts of verbal and physical violence carried out among our elected representatives, often in the chambers, during the decades leading up to the civil war. Even a cursory examination of this series of events reveals how fisticuffs, sometimes quite serious, can be a prelude to a bloody fight in which perhaps as many as a million people all told were killed. Indeed, the number of violent events, almost always southerner against northerner, may have been large enough to never allow the two sides, conservative, southern, right wing on one hand vs. progressive, liberal not as southern, on the other, to equalize in their total level of violence against each other. Perhaps there are good people on both sides, but the preponderance of thugs reside on one side only.

Which brings us to this. You hears of the caning of Sumner, but you probably have not read The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War by Yale historian Joanne B. Freeman.

Professor Freeman is one of the hosts of a podcast I consider to be in my top free favorite, Backstory, produced by Virginia Humanities. Joanne is one of the “American History Guys,” along with Ed Ayers (19th century), Brian Balogh (20th Century), Nathan Connolly (Immigration history, Urban history) and emeritus host Peter Onuf (18th century). Freeman writes in her newest book of the first half of the 19th century, but her primary area of interest heretofore is the 18th century, and her prior works have focused, among other things, on Alexander Hamilton: Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic about the nastiness among the founding fathers, and two major collections focused on A.H., The Essential Hamilton: Letters & Other Writings: A Library of America Special Publication and Alexander Hamilton: Writings .

I strongly urge you to have a look at Freeman’s book, in which she brings to light a vast amount of information about utter asshatitude among our elected representatives, based on previously unexplored documents. I also strongly urge you to listen to the podcast. The most recent edition as of this writing is on video games and American History. The previous issue is covers the hosts’ book picks for the year.


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