We just finished reading The Field of Blood, a book focused on violence in Congress in the lead up to the Civil War. Did you know that, according to the author, between 1830 and 1860 “there were more than seventy violent incidents between congressmen in the House and Senate chambers or on nearby streets and dueling grounds?”
Violence and the much more frequent threat of violence between members of Congress — often made in plain view of everyone on the chamber floor — were a primary means by which southern Democrats silenced those who wished to bring up slavery and southern domination of the legislature in debate. If members contested the cloak of silence, they’d be challenged to a duel (which southern constituents approved of and northern ones did not) or risk physical attack in the Capitol or in the streets of Washington.
Increasing numbers of members of Congress were armed, including on the chamber floor, with guns, bowie knives, and other sharp and blunt instruments. One estimate, around 1850, had one-third of members armed with firearms, a number that increased over time, and as tensions rose there were fears of “a pack of armed Southern congressmen” who would “break up the House.” The stories of the melees and efforts by members to stop escalation of fights are wild.
For a recounting of some instances of violence, see this speech by Sen. Charles Sumner — yes, him — entitled The Barbarism of Slavery and delivered in June 1860. See page 42 onward for an accounting of threats, beatings, and duels.
You can’t find most of this covered contemporaneously by journalists or the recording of debates of the time until the development of independent, non-D.C. journalists. (The telegraph made it possible for more politically-independent journalism to thrive as news reports from D.C. were funded by distant newspapers and could be published elsewhere the next day.) Local journalists were political organs and debate records were unreliable that often elided over or entirely eliminated references to violence or threats thereof. The author’s research comes mainly from reading letters and diaries.
For decades, bullying — violence and threats of violence — were the modus operandi in the legislature. It puts in context the law against having firearms on the House and Senate floor, put in place in 1946 and updated in 1967, and in light of statements by Rep. Cawthorn and others, provides strong support for ensuring that firearms are not allowed on the floor to avoid bullying and intimidation.
We are coming to agree more strongly with Rep. Cole’s suggestion that Members of Congress be subject to metal detectors upon entry to the Capitol complex, just like everyone else. This would allow for the symbolic removal of detectors at the entrance of the chamber floor — the presence of which implies that members are not gentlemen and ladies — while strengthening protection to the entire complex.
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