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Violence in the U.S. Congress: Fistfights on the Senate Floor

Thelma Raker Coffone is an award winning non-fiction writer. She enjoys sharing information about America's presidents and their families.

Cartoon depiction of Lyon-Griswold violence in the U.S. Congress.  Lyon on the left yielding fire tongs and Griswold on the right brandishing a cane.

Cartoon depiction of Lyon-Griswold violence in the U.S. Congress. Lyon on the left yielding fire tongs and Griswold on the right brandishing a cane.

Fights on the Senate Floor

In the early days of the United States government, name-calling in the Congressional chambers was commonplace (much as it is today). However, in those days, when tempers flared, it often led to fisticuffs and violence.

Such was the case in 1798 when Roger Griswold, a Federalist Congressman from Connecticut got into a heated debate with Matthew Lyon, a Vermont Democratic-Republican. Griswold made the mistake of calling Lyon a scoundrel (a word that was considered profanity at the time). Lyon then spat in Griswold's face and there was no stopping the ensuing melee. Neither Griswold nor Lyon believed in the proverb, "forgive and forget". A few weeks later, Griswold attacked Lyon on the Senate floor with a cane, and then Lyon went after him with a pair of fire tongs. The scuffle was the subject of the cartoon shown above.

Lyon was the first Congressman to be charged with an ethics violation due to the spitting episode. The Ethics Committee recommended he be censured but the matter was ultimately dropped.

Behavior that would cripple a political career today was certainly viewed differently then. Griswold went on to be elected governor of Connecticut and Lyon moved to Kentucky and was elected again as a Congressman from his new state.

The Civil War Caused Tempers to Flare

Tensions were high and tempers flared during every Congressional session in the years leading up to and including the Civil War period in history. In an 1850 debate about slavery, Thomas Benton, a Democrat from Missouri who opposed slavery, became so angry at his fellow Democrat, Henry Foote of Mississippi that he verbally attacked him on the Senate floor. Foote drew a pistol from his Senate desk and pointed it at Benton. Their colleagues stopped the argument before Foote could pull the trigger. The Senate was adjourned so the members could leave for a "cooling off period" prior to returning the next day.

Ironically, Benton would hold a place in history due to two future United States presidents. Theodore Roosevelt would publish a biography of him and John F. Kennedy would include him in his book Profiles in Courage.

Foote later became governor of Mississippi.

Senator Foote threatens to shoot Senator Benton.

Senator Foote threatens to shoot Senator Benton.

Democrat vs. Republican in Worse Case of Violence in Congress

In 1856, Congressman Preston Brooks (Democrat from South Carolina) severely beat Charles Sumner (Republican from Massachusetts) after Sumner, in a speech from the Senate floor, ridiculed a relative of Brooks who had a physical handicap and also said that Southern slaveholders were "pimps".

During Sumner's speech, it is said that Senator Stephen Douglas from Illinois whispered to another senator, "this damn fool (Sumner) is going to get himself shot by some other damn fool".

As Brooks beat Sumner with a cane into a state of unconsciousness, Sen. Laurence Keitt, also from South Carolina, prevented fellow congressmen from coming to Sumner's defense. Keitt waved a pistol at Sumner's defenders and shouted, "Let them be!". As a result, Sumner suffered from head trauma and was not able to return to the Senate for 3 years while recuperating. Brooks went to trial for the attack with the end result being a fine of a mere $300.

As you might expect, the reaction to the incident was divided on either side of the Mason-Dixon line. Northerners were shocked and Southerners defended Brooks as it was his duty to defend the honor of his family and the great state of South Carolina. Both Brooks and Keitt were re-elected to their Senate seats by a huge majority of votes from their South Carolina constituents.

Senator Brooks Was Involved in More Confrontations

After Brooks's violent attack on Sumner, from which Brooks escaped unscathed and was somewhat of a hero in the South, he continued to be a "bully". This perhaps was spurred on by southern newspapers that applauded these acts of violence against northern public officeholders. After the Brooks-Sumner altercation, the Richmond Enquirer described the incident as follows: "We consider the act good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequences."

Congressman Anson Burlingame (from Massachusetts) called Brooks a coward on the floor of the House of Representatives. Brooks's response was to challenge Burlingame to a duel which he enthusiastically accepted and named rifles as the weapon of choice. Brooks failed to show up for the duel after learning that Burlingame was an expert marksman. This caused Brooks to be called a coward for the rest of his life.

Brawl of 50 Congressmen

The old adage "birds of a feather flock together" was true in the case of Brooks' helper in the Sumner beating, Congressman Laurence Keitt. He was the cause of another incident of violence in the Senate involving Congressman Galusha Grow, Republican of Pennsylvania. When Grow called Keitt a "negro driver", Keitt attempted to choke Grow on the floor of the Senate. Bedlam broke out with approximately 50 other Congressmen joining in the brawl. When Representative Cadwallader Washburn, a Republican from Wisconsin, grabbed Representative William Barksdale, Democrat from Mississippi, by the hair, Barksdale's wig came off. He tried to replace his hairpiece but in his haste, he mistakenly put it on backwards. He looked so absurd trying to fight but unable to see his opponents, all of the men started laughing. This brought the fight to an abrupt end.

War of Words Between Sen. Zell Miller and Newscaster

Fortunately, today's Congressmen rely on verbal arguments and not physical violence. The American people would not tolerate their elected officials trading punches. However, some of the arguments become very animated and could escalate to violence given the right opportunity.

Not an argument between Congressmen but very interesting was the heated discussion that took place between Zell Miller, former Democratic Senator from Georgia, and reporter Chris Matthews. The incident occurred during a televised interview just after Senator Miller delivered a keynote speech at the 2004 Republican National Convention. Yes, Senator Miller is a Democrat, however, he endorsed Republican George W. Bush in the presidential election, and, much to the chagrin of the Democratic party, he was spotlighted at the Republican convention. Initially, this was thought to be a major coup by the Republicans, but it may have backfired during the Matthews interview. Senator Miller became so enraged at the reporter, that he said he wished he could challenge Matthews to a duel. Unfortunately, many thought that the interview remarks detracted from the spirit of the keynote speech and the convention itself. Others, fed up with biased news coverage, cheered Miller's remarks and praised his feistiness. If this conversation would have taken place in the 1800s, it could have had a very different ending!

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2012 Thelma Raker Coffone