A Brief History of Congressional Decorum


1856: Sumner and Brooks

The House of Representatives has rebuked South Carolinian Joe Wilson for his “You lie!” outburst during President Obama’s speech last week. Wilson’s behavior is an outgrowth of something ugly that’s stirring among us. I don’t know how to summarize what that something is, but its hallmark is an intolerance that skips over debate and argument and rushes straight into hate-mongering and an insistence that those who dare disagree be denounced and silenced. I’m mindful I’m writing in a town, Berkeley, that has its own history of trying to shout down voices it doesn’t want to hear. There’s always a good reason to muzzle your foes and to caricature them as the spawn of the devil or worse.

I look across this bleak landscape and I find some ironic solace in the fact we’ve been here before. When I was a kid, I liked to read about the Civil War. A pictorial history we had included a chapter or two on the prelude to the war. One of the episodes that made an impression was the brutal beating of Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner by Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina. The attack took place May 22, 1856, on the Senate floor after Sumner, an abolitonist, denounced pro-slavery forces in Kansas and their allies in Congress. Here’s a description of the incident by James M. McPherson in “Battle Cry of Freedom“:

“All spring, Charles Sumner had been storing up wrath toward what he considered ‘The Crime Against Kansas’–the title of a two-day address he delivered to the crowded Senate galleries May 19-20. ‘I shall make the most thorough and complete speech of my life,’ Sumner informed Salmon P. Chase a few days before the address. ‘My soul is wrung by the outrage and I shall pour it forth.’ So he did, with more passion than good taste. ‘Murderous robbers from Missouri,’ Sumner declared ‘hirelings picked from the drunken spew and vomit of an uneasy civilization’ had committed a ‘rape of a virgin territory, compelling it to the hateful embrace of slavery.’ Sumner singled out members of the F Street Mess [a group of southern senators instrumental in writing the Kansas-Nebraska Act] for specific attack, including South Carolina’s Andrew P. Butler, who had ‘discharged the loose expectoration of his speech’ in demanding the disarming of free-state men in Kansas. Butler’s home state with ‘its shameful imbecility from Slavery’ had sent to the Senate in his person a ‘Don Quixote who had chosen a mistress to who me has made his vows, and who … though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight–I mean the harlot, Slavery.’

“Sumner’s speech produced an uproar–in the Senate, where several Democrats rebuked him, and in the press, where even Republican praise was tempered by reservations about the rhetoric. The only thing that prevented some southerner from challenging Sumner to a duel was the knowledge that he would refuse. Besides, dueling was for social equals; someone as low as this Yankee blackguard deserved a horsewhipping–or a caning. So felt Congressman Preston Brooks, a cousin of Andrew Butler. Two days after the speech Brooks walked into the nearly empty Senate chamber after adjournment and approached the desk where Sumner was writing letters. Your speech, he told the senator, ‘is a libel on South Carolina and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.’ As Sumner started to rise, the frenzied Brooks beat him over the head thirty times or more with a gold-headed cane as Sumner, his legs trapped under the bolted-down desk, finally wrenched it loose from the floor and collapsed with his head covered with blood.”

The House voted 112-95 to throw Brooks out–but the motion failed because southern members voted against it and deprived it of the two-thirds majority it needed to pass. The reaction at home? As McPherson notes, “From all over the South, Brooks received dozens of new canes, some inscribed with such mottoes as ‘Hit Him Again’ and ‘Use Knock-Down Arguments.’ “

I note that in looking up “Joe Wilson” on The New York Times site today, at the top of the page was an automatically generated ad: Support Joe Wilson Today: Stand for Joe. Stand for truth. Make a contribution today.” By some accounts, he’s raised millions since he screamed at the president.

2 Replies to “A Brief History of Congressional Decorum”

  1. Wilson’s announced opponent has also gotten a spike in campaign contributions according to a few stories I’ve read. I bet Wilson will win easily.

  2. With the president as popular as he is in South Carolina and the fact the field is almost always tilted in favor of incumbents, yeah, that’s a bet you’d win. Will he get 60 percent, though? (I have no idea how he’s done in past elections).
    Historical note: In 1856, Brooks resigned after escaping expulsion just so he could go back home and get re-elected. He did, too. Handily.

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