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

photo of Cory Bennett
October 12, 2012

This famous lithograph of Brooks beating Sumner quickly made its way across the U.S. But note its Northern sympathies: the sarcastic use of the term "Southern Chivalry," the facelessness of the attacker, and the quill and scroll (symbols of education) held by Sumner the martyr.(Wikipedia Commons)

Rep. Henry Edmundson of Virginia held off surrounding senators during Brooks' beating of Sumner. Edmundson was known for his bombastic ways. Two years earlier, during a House session over the Kansas-Nebraska Act — which would eventually lead to the Brooks-Sumner confrontation — Edmundson was arrested by the Sergeant-at-Arms. He had lunged at another member during a speech, but several others restrained him.(

Charles Thomson was the secretary of the Continental Congress for its entirety. The country owes the detailed records of its formation, as well as its seal, to this man. But the politicians of the time were frequently unhappy with Thomson's notes, often arguing that they had been misquoted. In one particular incident, delegate James Searle went at Thomson with his cane. The two sparred with their canes, both walking away with slashes across their faces.(National Archives)


Remember when "scoundrel" was a profane word? No? Well, that's because it hasn't been since the late 1700's. But when Rep. Roger Griswold of Connecticut called Matthew Lyon of Vermont a scoundrel, the latter was so offended he spit in Griswold's face. A melee ensued. Weeks later, tempers flared again and Griswold went after Lyon with his cane. Lyon, in a creative move, retaliated with fire tongs, which earned him the first ethics violation in congressional history.(Wikipedia Commons)

During a speech on slavery by Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri in 1850, Henry Foote of Mississippi kept getting angrier. Fed up, Foote reached into his desk, withdrew a revolver, and pointed it at Benton. The Senate was adjourned for a "cooling off period" until the next day.(

Keitt, the man who yelled "Let them be!" while Brooks beat Sumner senseless, got into his own scuffle in 1858. During a 2 a.m. House session, Republican Galusha Grow walked over to the Democrats' side of the aisle to confer. Keitt yelled, "Go back to your side of the House, you Black Republican puppy!" Grow retorted, "No negro-driver shall crack his whip over me." And a 50-person brawl broke out. But the battle quickly ceased when a congressman lost his hairpiece, and put it back on backwards. Bipartisan laughter erupted and everyone returned to their seats. This Harper's Weekly sketch depicts two amused observers commenting on the fracas from the gallery.(Harpers Weekly)

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