155 years since Congressional Fight Night

Since I arrived for my first day of work on Capitol Hill as a House Page in the summer of 1980, I have heard many people make the argument that Congress – and the political system in the United States – is becoming more and more polarized, and that the partisanship now is the worst it has ever been in U.S. history.  

But after spending many years in the halls of Congress, and a lot of time reading through old debates, biographies of Presidents and various historical accounts of the Congress, I’m not so sure that is true.  

If you look at the history of this nation, we have always had strong political divides – especially at the time of the Revolutionary War and the Declaration of Independence, then on into and through the 19th and 20th centuries.

Sometimes it does get ugly in Washington, D.C; most of the time though, we simply forgot about how ugly it was in the past.

For example, on February 5, 1858 – 155 years ago today – the political scene in the House of Representatives suddenly turned from a parliamentary battle into a real brawl involving multiple members of the Congress.

The signs of trouble had been brewing all through that day, as members first squabbled over an election challenge from Illinois, bickering over repeated motions to adjourn and various parliamentary efforts to prevent the day’s business from moving ahead.

If you think the Congress wastes time today on filibuster threats in the Senate, you haven’t waded into the debates of the 1850s, when the House was routinely twisted into parliamentary knots.

Bubbling beneath the surface were North-South tensions over slavery that would soon lead to the Civil War; at this time in 1858, Congress was battling over the pro-slavery Constitution in the state of Kansas.

You might remember the term, “Bleeding Kansas.”

On this day, debate on the House floor stretched well into the night, and things had become so nettlesome on the floor that a vote was forced to simply excuse a lawmaker – who “left the House at midnight quite ill” – from having to return to the House chamber.

After that vote was finished, Rep. John Quitman, a Mississippi Democrat, took the floor, trying to find a way forward, urging various lawmakers to withdraw a series of parliamentary motions so work could go on in the House.

Suddenly, the House floor took on the flavor of WWE, as one lawmaker grabbed another by the throat, and then a larger fight erupted. This was the description in the Congressional Globe.

“At this moment, a violent personal altercation commenced in the aisle at the right of the Speaker’s chair, between Mr. Keitt and Mr. Grow. In an instant the House was in the greatest possible confusion. Members in every part of the Hall rushed over to the scene of the conflict, and several members seemed to participate in it.

“The Sergeant-at-Arms, bearing the mace of the House, was at once in the midst of the combatants; and after some minutes, with the most energetic efforts on the part of the Speaker, succeeded in partially restoring order.”

It wasn’t hard to understand the origins of this brawl – what would soon become the War Between the States.

The actual fight was between Rep. Galusha Grow of Pennsylvania and Rep. Laurence Keitt of South Carolina; two years earlier, Keitt had drawn his pistol on the Senate floor to stop anyone from coming to the aid of Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts as Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina viciously beat Sumner with a cane.

Keitt was censured by the House; he resigned his seat, and then was returned by the voters back home soon after. He would die at the Battle of Cold Harbor in 1864 in Virginia.

On this occasion, Keitt had yelled at Grow for walking over to the Democratic side of the House chamber, calling him a “black Republican puppy.” Grow returned a verbal barb and the brawl ensued.

As recounted by the U.S. House historian, at one point, two northern members grabbed Rep. William Barksdale of Mississippi during the brawl and ripped his hairpiece off.

“I’ve scalped him,” yelled one, as the “melee dissolved into a chorus of laughs and jeers” when Barksdale hastily put his wig on backwards.

After order was restored, the parliamentary wrangling continued for several more hours amid efforts to force the House to adjourn, which was resisted by the Speaker, but backed by others.

“When this House adjourns, let it be to meet no more,” thundered Rep. Martin Crawford of Georgia, who would later serve in the Confederate Congress and in the Third Georgia Calvalry Regiment in the Civil War.

Speaker James Orr of South Carolina – who would also go on to serve in the Confederate Army and legislature – repeatedly appealed for calm, threatening to arrest those “who are acting in contempt of the authority of the House.”

That admonition was followed by shouts of “Order! Order!” and what the Globe characterized as the “disorder which followed.”

It took until 6:25 a.m. to finally adjourn the House on that legislative day, just part of the unsettled political scene in the United States Congress over slavery and states’ rights.

In recent years, we’ve had a few spats on the floor of the House, a couple of lawmakers who may have tried to “adjust the tie” of another member, but not a full-fledged brawl in the Congress.

My rule of thumb is simple – when someone tells me that something is the “worst ever” about the Congress – I’m usually a bit skeptical about such claims, reasoning that we can find an example of something like it in the past.

February 5, 1858 was indeed a different time.