- Historic Sites
December 1975 | Volume 27, Issue 1
At about 1:30 A.M. , when some of the members were quite visibly drunk, Galusha A. Grow, Republican of Pennsylvania, wandered aimlessly across the floor to the Democrats’ side. Sober but testy as a result of the hour, Grow took exception to a motion offered by a Democratic rival. Immediately Laurence Keitt, a Democrat from South Carolina, who was half asleep at his desk, roused himself enough to order Grow back to his own side of the House, in the bargain calling him “a black Republican puppy.”
Bitterly angry, Grow replied, “No negro-driver shall crack his whip over me.” Struggling to his feet, Keitt shouted, “I’ll choke you for that,” and made for Grow’s throat.
In moments the floor was a sea of writhing bodies, a dozen Southerners pummelling—or being pummelled by—a dozen Northerners. The Speaker shouted and rapped for order, and the sergeant at arms, thinking he could make a difference, rushed among the combatants showing the House mace. One representative picked up a heavy stoneware spittoon and rushed into the fray. Several Quakers urged calm and peace.
In about two minutes it was all over, brought to a risible conclusion when Cadwallader Washburne of Illinois grabbed William Barksdale of Mississippi by a forelock in order to punch him in the face, let go a roundhouse right, and missed—because Barksdale ducked, leaving Washburne with Barksdale’s wig in his left hand. Since nobody in the chamber had known the Mississippian was bald and because the humiliated Barksdale restored the hair piece wrong end to, nearly everyone stopped fighting to gape and then roar with laughter. As the official record has it, “the good nature of the House” was instantly restored.
Five hours later, just before 6:30 A.M. , the filibuster was brought to a close by mutual consent. On Monday, in circumstances of relative calm and harmony, a vote was taken, and the House turned to other business.
In contrast to the House proceedings, Senate filibusters in the half century or more preceding the Civil War were modest, even decorous, affairs. Until the appearance of the voluble John Randolph in 1825 no single senator attempted to dominate the debates, and even Randolph’s abusive harangues were often borne with good humor.
There had been occasional moments of violence: Henry Clay challenged Randolph to a duel in 1825, and in 1863 William Saulsbury of Delaware, who had been ruled out of order for remarks against President Lincoln during an attempted filibuster, had drawn a pistol and threatened to shoot the sergeant at arms, sent by the Chair to remove him from the floor. But on the whole the majority waited patiently for the filibusterers to concede the hopelessness of their position, and after lengthy delays most obstructed legislation was eventually passed.
In the last half of the nineteenth century, however, as filibustering became less common in the House, the Senate was throttled by obstructionist maneuvers so often that in the 1880’s a national concern developed that the chamber was no longer capable of functioning. Hardly a month went by that a filibuster did not take place.
The old rules of personal courtesy and individual restraint seemed to have been forgotten, and new tactics of delay were introduced. By 1879 dissident senators refused to answer roll-call votes requiring a quorum and thus, under existing rules, were counted absent. Spectacular parliamentary wars deadlocked the chamber for days and months on end. In 1881 a Republican minority halted business for forty-one days; a decade later southern Democrats stopped all business for thirty-one days in midwinter. In 1893 the outnumbered foes of a bill repealing the Sherman Silver Purchase Act filibustered for forty-six days.
By the turn of the century almost any measure brought to the floor was likely to trigger extended minority opposition. Still the majority did nothing and persisted in up-holding the Senate tradition of unlimited debate. As a result most filibusters ended with the successful quashing of a disputed bill because the majority, unable to secure a vote, would withdraw the measure in order to get on to other pressing business.
On occasion a filibuster failed when the tenuous alliances of disparate factions dissolved because the personal endurance of its members had been tested to the limit.
In 1908 a brief filibuster became a Senate landmark and added a new wrinkle to the tactics of obstruction. In late May, Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin took the floor to obstruct the passage of the Aldrich-Vreeland currency bill, in this case speaking to the merits of a conference report. Under Senate rules such a report is unamendable; as a consequence La Follette could expect no help from his colleagues who, in other circumstances, might have added endlessly to the debate by attaching amendment upon amendment to the measure under discussion.
Aware that his only refuge was repeated quorum calls (eventually a total of thirty were granted him), La Follette set out to talk the majority in favor of the bill into submission. Sustaining himself with frequent drinks of eggnog (one glass of which he tasted and refused; later analysis showed it to be tainted with enough ptomaine bacteria to kill him), La Follette talked on continuously for eighteen hours and twenty-three minutes.