In Congress, violence was often deployed strategically. Representatives and senators who were willing to back up their words with their weapons had an advantage, particularly in the debate over slavery. Generally speaking, Northerners were least likely to be armed, and thus most likely to back down. Congressional bullies pressed their advantage, using threats and violence to steer debate, silence opposition and influence votes.Very interesting. I learned a lot from this one.
As alarming as these outbursts were, until the 1840s, reporters played them down, in part to avoid becoming embroiled in fights themselves. (A good many reporters received beatings from outraged congressmen; one nearly had his finger bitten off.) So Americans knew relatively little of congressional violence.The author, Joanne B. Freeman, a professor of history at Yale, is at work on a book about violence in Congress.
That changed with the arrival of the telegraph. Congressmen suddenly had to confront the threat — or temptation — of “instant” nationwide publicity. As Senator John Parker Hale of New Hampshire reminded his colleagues within minutes of the Foote-Benton clash, reports were “already traveling with lightning speed over the telegraph wires to the remotest borders of the Republic.” He added, “It is not impossible that even now it may have been rumored in the city of St. Louis that several senators are dead and weltering in their blood on the floor of the Senate.”
Violence was news, and news could spawn violence. Something had to be done, but what? To many, the answer was obvious: watch your words. As one onlooker wrote to the speaker of the House shortly after Sumner’s caning, “gentlemen” who took part in the debate over slavery should “scrupulously avoid the utterance of unnecessarily harsh language.” There was no other way to prevent the “almost murderous feeling” that could lead to “demonstrations upon the floor, which in the present state of excitement, would almost certainly lead to a general melee and perhaps a dozen deaths in the twinkling of an eye.”
Unfortunately, such admonitions had little effect. The violence in Congress continued to build until the outbreak of the Civil War.