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American Politics at Ten Paces
Strict codes of conduct marked the relationships of early American Politicians, often leading to duels, brawls, and other—sometimes fatal—violence
Spring 2011 | Volume 61, Issue 1
On January 9, 1809, as they gathered on a field near Arlington, Virginia, Randolph saw ominous devilment in the infuriated secretary’s eyes and shot to kill. He put a bullet through his adversary’s coat. Clay’s bullet missed, and he demanded another round. Clay missed again. This time Randolph fired in the air. One eyewitness said that both men, after shaking hands, acknowledged their pleasure that no blood had been shed. Another version, probably more likely, was that Randolph told Clay that he owed him a new coat. Clay curtly replied: “I am glad the debt is no greater.”
When slavery became the issue of the day, deadly violence grew even more pronounced. In 1838 tempers flared when a New York newspaper accused Jonathan Cilley, an outspoken antislavery congressman from Maine, of corruption. Cilley retorted that it was the newspaper editor who was corrupt. Kentucky Congressman William Graves delivered a letter to Cilley on the newspaperman’s behalf, asking for an “explanation”—the usual prelude to a duel.
Cilley dismissed the letter, claiming that the editor was not a gentleman. Congressman Graves took offense, believing that Cilley’s actions implied that he too was not a gentleman. Graves demanded satisfaction. Cilley chose rifles, and the men exchanged two rounds at Bladensburg, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. None of the bullets found their mark. It appeared that the duel had ended in a draw.
But Henry A. Wise, Graves’s second and a fervent proslavery congressman from Virginia, persuaded them to go another round, and Cilley died instantly. National shock and outrage pushed Congress into banning duels in the District of Columbia.
Such legislation by no means kept Congress violence-free. As the years passed, rhetoric grew even more intemperate, reaching a climax of sorts during the ugly violence between proslavery and free-soil Kansas settlers in the 1850s. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts rose in the Senate in May 1856 to denounce the struggle, which he blamed on “hirelings picked from the spew and vomit of an uneasy civilization.”
Sumner proceeded to insult several Democratic senators. He was especially savage toward 59-year-old Senator Andrew Pickens Butler of South Carolina, who suffered from a speech impediment (and whom he had once regarded highly). Sumner implied that Butler personified South Carolina’s inferior society, where a man “cannot open his mouth but out there flies a blunder.” The mild-mannered Butler, who was not present, made no attempt to reply when he later heard about the invective. His nephew, Congressman Preston A. Brooks, however, decided that it was his duty to “relieve” his uncle and “avenge the insult to my state.”
Three days later, Brooks strolled into the nearly empty Senate chamber and found Sumner writing letters at his desk. “Mr. Sumner,” Brooks said. “I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina and on Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.” Whereupon he smashed Sumner over the head with a heavy gutta-percha cane. Trapped behind his desk, Sumner could not escape the murderous blows. In desperation, he tore the desk out of its floor bolts, but another blow knocked him headlong. As he lay there, blood streaming from his head and face, Brooks continued to beat him until the cane snapped. It would take three years for Sumner to recuperate. Before a motion could be drafted for Brook’s expulsion, he coolly resigned and went home to South Carolina, where he was almost unanimously reelected a month later.
Tensions in Congress came to a boil in 1858, when President Buchanan asked it to admit Kansas as a slave state, an initiative backed by the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision, which denied Congress the power to prohibit slavery in the territories. Intemperate shouting matches sometimes wracked the Capitol until dawn. Finally a South Carolina congressman told a Pennsylvanian that he was a “black Republican puppy.” He responded: “No Negro driver will crack his whip over me!”
At least 50 members began punching, kicking, shoving, and hurling obscenities. The sergeant at arms waved his mace, with its spread-winged eagle, and bellowed in vain for order. Representative John “Bowie-Knife” Potter of Wisconsin tried to seize William Barksdale of Mississippi by his hair, whereupon his entire scalp peeled away—the gentleman was wearing a wig. “I’ve scalped him!” howled the delighted Potter. Everyone stopped fighting to stare at the bald Barksdale, then erupted into laughter.
Beyond the walls of Congress, newspapers, other politicians, and the public had begun to ridicule the culture of violent politics. An early critic was Illinois politician Abraham Lincoln. As a state legislator, he had found fault with the work of the state auditor, James Shields, satirizing him in letters to newspapers. Shields challenged him to a duel, which he accepted. Lincoln, at least eight inches taller than Shields, chose cavalry broadswords as the weapons, in the belief that his challenger would retreat. Instead, Shields spiritedly consented. But when Shields showed up at the appointed place, he found Lincoln casually chopping branches off a nearby tree at a height that Shields could not reach without a stepladder, a practical demonstration that brought a breath of reason into the affair. Suddenly Shields was ready to talk rather than fight. Lincoln offered an apology for the “misunderstanding,” which Shields accepted with evident relief. Shields lived to become the only U.S. senator to serve three different states.