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Caning, Wig-Pulling, Spitting, and Fisticuffs: Congress's Best Brawls Caning, Wig-Pulling, Spitting, and Fisticuffs: Congress's Best Brawls

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Congress / CONGRESS

Caning, Wig-Pulling, Spitting, and Fisticuffs: Congress's Best Brawls

Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina beats Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts in 1856.(Wikipedia Commons)

photo of Cory Bennett
October 12, 2012

It wasn't the gentlemanly duel one might have hoped for, but last night, two members running against each other — California Democrats Brad Sherman and Howard Berman — added a short line to the long history of politician-on-politician violence. 

The long list of canings, wig-pulling, spitting, and punching make the Sherman-Berman scuffle — an aggressive arm around the shoulders, some verbal grandstanding — barely noteworthy by comparison. But the California clash harkens back to a political era when savagely beating another politician wouldn't derail a career, and bringing a gun to the Senate floor for self-defense was just good sense.

Perhaps the best known incident of congressional violence occurred in the run-up to the Civil War. Tensions were high in the Senate and political rhetoric was at a vitriolic high-water mark. In a scathing speech in 1856, Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts argued that bringing slavery to the newly-established Kansas territory — thus overturning the Missouri Compromise that allowed settlers to make a decision on slavery through popular sovereignty — was a "crime against Kansas."

 

"It is the rape of a virgin Territory, compelling it to the hateful embrace of slavery; and it may be clearly traced to a depraved desire for a new Slave State, hideous offspring of such a crime, in the hope of adding to the power of slavery in the National Government," Sumner said.

Then it got personal. Sumner railed against the main proponent of the act, Sen. Andrew Butler of South Carolina. Over three hours, Sumner mocked Butler's mannerisms and distinct speaking style, both affected by a stroke. Butler was a pimp, Sumner said, who had taken slavery as his mistress.

"Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight — I mean the harlot, slavery."

The attack didn't sit well with Butler's nephew, Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina. He thought too little of Sumner's social status to challenge him to a duel, and instead decided a public beating was more appropriate.

"Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully," Brooks said, hovering over Sumner's desk, where the senator was quietly writing letters. "It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine."

As Sumner rose, Brooks swiftly brought down his gold-headed cane on Sumner's head. Sumner collapsed under his desk and Brooks pounced. Again came the cane to Sumner's head. Over and over. Brooks' South Carolina colleague Laurence Keitt waved a pistol around. "Let them be!" he shouted.

Sumner ripped his desk from its bolting to the floor and rose to escape, but quickly stumbled and fell, blinded by his own blood. Until his cane broke, Brooks continued to beat Sumner's motionless body. 

Brooks was not diminished politically by the event, which became a national sensation. The South rallied behind him, while the North rallied behind Sumner as a martyr. Sumner did not return to the Senate permanently for three years. For the rest of his life, he suffered from headaches, nightmares, and other symptoms consistent with post traumatic stress disorder. It was soon common practice for members to carry concealed knives and guns with them into the Capitol Building.

But the Brooks-Sumner fracas is merely the capstone of a long history of congressional clashes. Click through below for the best skirmishes, pistol standoffs, and wig pulls in congressional history.

Caning, Wig Pulling, Spitting and Fisticuffs: Congress's Best Brawls
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