The Real Conflicts in Government: Canes, Guns, and Fisticuffs in the Halls of Congress
Recently the world watched with shock, or perhaps with humor, at the recent debacle in the Ukrainian Parliament when lawmakers literally got into a brawl with each other over an election. Fists were flying and punches landed on many a member that day in December of 2012. Though many viewers within the United States have seen, heard, or read many of the verbal salvos or accusations being hurled between members of the Senate or House of Representatives in the current political climate of Congress, they have not come to physical blows. However, this was not always the case as the following examples will attest.
On January 30, 1798, Federalist Roger Griswold of Connecticut verbally abused Democratic-Republican Matthew Lyon, a native of Dublin, Ireland, who was serving from Vermont at the time. Lyon promptly spit in Griswold’s face, thus earning the epithet of the “Spitting Lyon.” He thus became the first member of Congress to have an ethics violation charge filed against him. Not to be outdone, Griswold retaliated by beating Lyon on the Senate floor some 20 times with a hickory cane. Undeterred, Lyon then took a pair of tongs from a fire pit and began to attack Griswold. The two men had to literally be pulled apart by their fellow Congressmen.
In April of 1832, William Stanbery, a U.S. Representative serving from Ohio, made some questionable accusations on the floor of the House against the soon-to-be-famous Sam Houston. Later the two men met on Pennsylvania Avenue where Houston, like Griswold, proceeded to beat Stanbery with a hickory cane, earning him the nickname of “Old Hickory.” During the incident, Stanbery attempted to shoot Houston with a pistol pressed against his chest but the gun misfired. Houston was only reprimanded for his actions.
Prior to the Civil War on May 22, 1856, one of the most famous altercations in Congress transpired. Two days previously, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts had made a passionate speech against slavery and also verbally denounced Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina. A nephew of Butler, Congressman Preston Brooks, confronted Sumner in the Senate and began to beat him with a cane topped with a golden metal head until Sumner lapsed into unconsciousness. It would take him three years to recover from the blows before he could return to the Senate. Naturally, Sumner became a Northern martyr while Brooks became a hero in the South.
Last, but certainly not least, we come to the “fire-breathing” anti-Lincoln Democratic Senator from Delaware, Willard Saulsbury, who was serving in the 37th Congress in Washington. Sidney George Fisher, a prominent Philadelphian, in his diary entry for January 28, 1863, stated: “A disgraceful scene has occurred in the Senate. Mr. [Willard] Saulsbury of Delaware, an extreme Democrat, became so violent in his denunciations of Mr. Lincoln and the government that he was called to order and at length arrested by the sergeant upon whom he drew a pistol. So we go.”
The speech and actions of Senator Saulsbury made national headlines. Congressional records state: “Whereas, Willard Saulsbury, a Senator from the State of Delaware, did on the 27th instant bring into the Senate of the United States a concealed weapon, and then did then and there, in the Senate, behave in a turbulent and disorderly manner, and when called to order….did then and there make threats to use said weapon upon the said Sergeant-at-Arms, in the presence of the Senate, did draw the said weapon upon the said Sergeant…and threatened to shoot the said Sergeant….and behaved in a manner disgraceful to the Senate and destructive of all order and decorum…”
Senator Willard Saulsbury would be censured for his actions and faced with expulsion. He later apologized however his attitude remained vehemently anti-Republican. He was not in favor of the Emancipation Proclamation and liked to refer to President Lincoln as “an imbecile” and as the “weakest man ever placed in high office.” Regardless, he would serve again in the United States Senate from 1864 to 1871, dying in 1892 at Dover, Delaware. Many of his letters, and of those individuals mentioned above, can be found here at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.