THE announcement that Representatives Heath Shuler of North Carolina and Jason Chaffetz of Utah are planning to wear guns in their home districts has surprised many, but in fact the United States has had armed congressmen before. In the rough-and-tumble Congress of the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s, politicians regularly wore weapons on the House and Senate floors, and sometimes used them.
During one 1836 melee in the House, a witness observed representatives with “pistols in hand.” In a committee hearing that same year, one House member became so enraged at the testimony of a witness that he reached for his gun; when the terrified witness refused to return, he was brought before the House on a charge of contempt.
Perhaps most dramatic of all, during a debate in 1850, Senator Henry Foote of Mississippi pulled a pistol on Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. (Someone eventually took it from his hand.) Foote had decided in advance that if he felt threatened, he would grab his gun and run for the aisle in the hope that stray shots wouldn’t hit bystanders.
Most famously, in 1856, Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina caned Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the Senate floor so brutally that Sumner had to be virtually carried from the chamber — and did not retake his seat for three years. Clearly, wielded with brute force, a cane could be a potent weapon.
By the 1850s, violence was common in Washington. Not long after Sumner’s caning, a magazine told the story of a Michigan judge who traveled by train to the nation’s capital: “As he entered the main hall of the depot, he saw a man engaged in caning another ferociously, all over the room. ‘When I saw this,’ says the judge, ‘I knew I was in Washington.’”
In Congress, violence was often deployed strategically. Representatives and senators who were willing to back up their words with their weapons had an advantage, particularly in the debate over slavery. Generally speaking, Northerners were least likely to be armed, and thus most likely to back down. Congressional bullies pressed their advantage, using threats and violence to steer debate, silence opposition and influence votes.
In 1842, Representative Thomas Arnold of Tennessee, a member of the Whig Party, learned the hard way that these bullies meant business. After he reprimanded a pro-slavery member of his own party, two Southern Democrats stalked toward him, at least one of whom was armed with a bowie knife — a 6- to 12-inch blade often worn strapped to the back. Calling Arnold a “damned coward,” his angry colleagues threatened to cut his throat “from ear to ear.” But Arnold wasn’t a man to back down. Ten years earlier, he had subdued an armed assassin on the Capitol steps.
As alarming as these outbursts were, until the 1840s, reporters played them down, in part to avoid becoming embroiled in fights themselves. (A good many reporters received beatings from outraged congressmen; one nearly had his finger bitten off.) So Americans knew relatively little of congressional violence.
That changed with the arrival of the telegraph. Congressmen suddenly had to confront the threat — or temptation — of “instant” nationwide publicity. As Senator John Parker Hale of New Hampshire reminded his colleagues within minutes of the Foote-Benton clash, reports were “already traveling with lightning speed over the telegraph wires to the remotest borders of the Republic.” He added, “It is not impossible that even now it may have been rumored in the city of St. Louis that several senators are dead and weltering in their blood on the floor of the Senate.”
Violence was news, and news could spawn violence. Something had to be done, but what? To many, the answer was obvious: watch your words. As one onlooker wrote to the speaker of the House shortly after Sumner’s caning, “gentlemen” who took part in the debate over slavery should “scrupulously avoid the utterance of unnecessarily harsh language.” There was no other way to prevent the “almost murderous feeling” that could lead to “demonstrations upon the floor, which in the present state of excitement, would almost certainly lead to a general melee and perhaps a dozen deaths in the twinkling of an eye.” Unfortunately, such admonitions had little effect. The violence in Congress continued to build until the outbreak of the Civil War.
Today, in the wake of an episode of violence against a member of Congress, we’re again lamenting the state of political rhetoric, now spread faster than ever via Twitter, Web sites, text messaging and e-mail. Once again, politicians are considering bearing arms — not to use against one another, but potentially against an angry public.
And once again we’re reminded that words matter. Communication is the heart and soul of American democratic governance, but there hasn’t been much fruitful discourse of late — among members of Congress, between the people and their representatives or in the public sphere. We need to get better at communicating not only quickly, but civilly.