When Congress Was Armed
When Congress Was Armed and Dangerous is a surprising, informative article that sheds light on the way the American congress really was.
In the rough-and-tumble Congress of the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s, politicians regularly wore weapons on the House and Senate floors, and sometimes used them.
During one 1836 melee in the House, a witness observed representatives with “pistols in hand.” In a committee hearing that same year, one House member became so enraged at the testimony of a witness that he reached for his gun; when the terrified witness refused to return, he was brought before the House on a charge of contempt.
Perhaps most dramatic of all, during a debate in 1850, Senator Henry Foote of Mississippi pulled a pistol on Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. (Someone eventually took it from his hand.) Foote had decided in advance that if he felt threatened, he would grab his gun and run for the aisle in the hope that stray shots wouldn’t hit bystanders.
Most famously, in 1856, Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina caned Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the Senate floor so brutally that Sumner had to be virtually carried from the chamber — and did not retake his seat for three years. Clearly, wielded with brute force, a cane could be a potent weapon.
By the 1850s, violence was common in Washington. Not long after Sumner’s caning, a magazine told the story of a Michigan judge who traveled by train to the nation’s capital: “As he entered the main hall of the depot, he saw a man engaged in caning another ferociously, all over the room. ‘When I saw this,’ says the judge, ‘I knew I was in Washington.’”
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.
In 1842, Representative Thomas Arnold of Tennessee, a member of the Whig Party, learned the hard way that these bullies meant business. After he reprimanded a pro-slavery member of his own party, two Southern Democrats stalked toward him, at least one of whom was armed with a bowie knife — a 6- to 12-inch blade often worn strapped to the back. Calling Arnold a “damned coward,” his angry colleagues threatened to cut his throat “from ear to ear.” But Arnold wasn’t a man to back down. Ten years earlier, he had subdued an armed assassin on the Capitol steps.
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.
As a practitioner of the big stick, I was especially interested by the comment, “Clearly, wielded with brute force, a cane could be a potent weapon.”
Of course I am not condoning threats and violence over political (or other) disagreements, but it is enlightening to compare and contrast the bold men of the past with the mealy-mouth representatives of today:
Senate Sergeant at Arms Terrance Gainer confirmed on ABC’s Good Morning America this morning that threats to congressmen increased from 2009 to 2010, but he doesn’t believe more members carrying guns is the answer. “I’ve been a policeman for 42 years, and I don’t think introducing more guns to the situation is helpful,” he said. “I think we should leave the law enforcement and security to those professionals.”
Let us ignore for the moment that many congressmen are wealthy, and can afford to live in gated communities and leave only with their own armed bodyguards. In New York, which has some of the nation’s most repressive gun laws, wealthy residents could hire off-duty cops, who were the few people in town who could legally carry guns. (William F. Buckley Jr. was one of a handful to get a legally issued gun permit, and he was hardly a taco truck driver.) So the wealthy were protected, the cops had guns and extra cash, and who cared about some poor guy in Harlem trying to get home at night?
So here we have the same tired advice: don’t arm yourself; don’t fight back, just get raped; don’t carry a gun or a knife, carry a whistle and yell “Fire!” Leave it to the professionals, who are in no way responsible for preventing you from being victimized. Never mind that every hero at the scene of the Tucson massacre was not a professional (God bless them), but an amateur.
No congressman, nor any citizen, should have to live in fear. Denying gun and speech rights is not the solution to the acts of a madman.