From time to time we see on TV some pretty good fights in foreign legislatures. I started to wonder about our own distinguished lawmakers. They never seem to punch one another. How do they stack up in the violence department? How many fights have there been on the floor of Congress? Are they a bunch of wimps just soaking it up at the public trough, or can they hold their own?
-- Ted, downtown
Legislative fisticuffs seem to be a thing of the past, Ted. In Congress these days, when violence is done, the victim is usually the truth or ethics. Since the turn of the century, meetings of the Senate and House have been models of decorum. But in the pre-Civil War era, there were some pretty spectacular brawls.
Until 1913, Senators were elected by their state legislators and seemed to feel duty-bound to behave in a more refined manner than their popularly elected counterparts in the House. They mostly took verbal shots at one another for hanging about with unsuitable company and frequenting low-class drinking establishments. Sound familiar? They also drank a lot during meetings, which led to some shoving matches and lots of canes, whips, and guns being brandished during heated debate, but there was little in the way of actual bloodshed.
The House, on the other hand, was a pretty wild group. Some politicians routinely carried guns and knives to House sessions. One was well known for bringing his dogs with him for protection. Representatives occasionally punched and slapped one another to make a point. One brained a colleague with fireplace tongs over some disagreement. California Representative Philemon Herbert carried a gun for protection but never used it on his colleagues. But one afternoon in a Washington restaurant, Herbert became so incensed over the slow service that he shot his waiter. In 1856 during a states-rights debate a general free-for-all broke out. They were rolling around, kicking, biting, cursing, spittoons and fists were flying. It ended when one legislator grabbed another by the hair, came up with only a handful of toupèe, and everybody laughed so hard they stopped fighting. Two crafty Reps once ambushed a third and beat him to a pulp with his walking stick. They were censured and resigned but were voted back in at the next election by their proud constituents.