The Violence at the Heart of Our Politics

South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks beating abolitionist Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner in the United States Senate chamber, 1856.

Mike Huckabee waxed historic this week while denouncing protesters who interrupted Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. “Clear the room or start caning them when they open their yaps!” he tweeted, making a backhanded reference to the most famous caning in American history: the 1856 attack on Senator Charles Sumner. Outraged by one of Sumner’s antislavery speeches, Preston Brooks of South Carolina brutally beat him to the ground in the Senate chamber a few days later, stopping only when his cane broke.

Clearly, the United States has a long and storied history of polarizing crises. The 1960s was one such time, as were the late 1790s; in both cases, Americans of opposing politics turned on each other with violent outcomes. The 1850s were even more severe. The period’s raging debate over slavery fractured political parties, paralyzed the national government and divided the nation. In time, this struggle tore the nation apart.

In many ways, the crisis of the 1850s played out on the floor of Congress, the focus of national politics for much of the 19th century. A forum for national debate with the power to decide the fate of slavery, it became a bullpen for sectional combat, with armed clusters of Northerners and Southerners defending their interests with fists and weapons as well as legislation.

Some of the furor wasn’t slavery related; antebellum America was inherently violent, as was its politics, and Congress is a representative institution. The mighty oratory of the 1830s and ’40s was accompanied by an undercurrent of brute force. Threats and fistfights were part of the political game, and congressmen sometimes put such violence to legislative purpose.

More often than not, such bullies were Southerners or Southern-born Westerners. So-called fighting men promoted their interests and silenced their foes with insults, fists, canes, knives, pistols and the occasional brick, giving them a literal fighting advantage over “noncombatants,” who were usually Northerners. Sumner’s brutal caning was far from the only violent incident in Congress.

A fight on the floor of Congress between Representative Matthew Lyon of Vermont and Representative Roger Griswold of Connecticut in 1798.

In fact, in the course of researching how the culture of politics changed after the 1790s — the subject of my first book — I uncovered roughly 70 physically violent political confrontations between 1830 and the Civil War, most of them in the House and Senate chambers, a few on nearby streets and dueling grounds. Fistfights, shoving matches, weapon wielding, mass brawls: Largely forgotten now, these clashes show a momentous political struggle unfolding in real time.

Initially, most of the fighting centered on matters of personal honor, party loyalty or regional pride. Take, for example, the 1838 duel between Representatives Jonathan Cilley, a Democrat from Maine, and William Graves, a Whig from Kentucky. Although their duel had dire consequences, it was sparked by little more than political name-calling in the House. When Henry Wise, a Virginia Whig and a notorious bully, suggested that an unnamed Democratic congressman was corrupt, Cilley leaped to the defense of his party. Wise then did what bullies were wont to do: He tried to silence his opponent by taunting him with a duel challenge and then declaring him too cowardly to fight. Like many a Northerner, Cilley faced a difficult choice. Should he ignore Wise’s taunts and risk dishonoring himself and his constituents by proxy? Or should he risk fighting a duel and be ostracized by his constituents for engaging in a barbaric Southern practice?

In the end, Cilley opted to fight, though not with Wise. Because of the niceties of the code duello, and a chain of Whigs who took offense at Cilley’s actions, he ultimately fought a duel with Graves, who had done nothing more than hand Cilley a message from a far more belligerent Whig. Cilley and Graves liked each other fine; there was no ill will between them. But for the sake of their regions, their states, their parties and their reputations, both men felt compelled to fight a duel, and only one man survived it. Cilley was 35 years old when he died.

The growing immediacy of the problem of slavery made matters worse. Congressional brawling increasingly pitted North against South, fracturing national parties across sectional lines and rendering routine congressional violence far less tractable. Westward expansion set…

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