On February 06, 1858, in an odd precursor to the Civil War, The House of Representatives dissolved into a bench clearing brawl.
At this moment a violent personal altercation commenced in the aisle at the right of the Speaker’s chari, between Mr. Keitt and Mr. Grow. In an instant the House was in the greatest possible confusion. Members in every part of the Hall rushed over to the scene of conflict, and several members seemed to participate in it. [Page 603 of the Congressional Globe - I’ll add the link when their servers are back up.]
In about two minutes it was all over, brought to a risible conclusion when Cadwallader Washburne of Illinois grabbed William Barksdale of Mississippi by a forelock in order to punch him in the face, let go a roundhouse right, and missed—because Barksdale ducked, leaving Washburne with Barksdale’s wig in his left hand. Since nobody in the chamber had known the Mississippian was bald and because the humiliated Barksdale restored the hair piece wrong end to, nearly everyone stopped fighting to gape and then roar with laughter. As the official record has it, “the good nature of the House” was instantly restored. [link]
Wisconsin Republicans John “Bowie Knife” Potter and Cadwallader Washburn ripped the hairpiece from the head of William Barksdale, a States Rights Democrat from Mississippi. “I’ve scalped him,” Potter yelled. The melee dissolved into a chorus of laughs and jeers, but the sectional nature of the fight powerfully symbolized the nation’s divisions. [Link]After the jump, our nation’s biggest bad-ass? The House mace is pretty bad-ass. But even badder-ass (bad-assier?) was Congressman Laurence Keitt. He’s the reason I was reading about the brawl in the first place. He basically started the brawl, calling another congressman a “black Republican puppy” and then flying into a rage when the congressman retorted, “No negro-driver shall crack his whip over me.” I ran into Keitt while searching for examples of Congressional censures to write something in connection with the punishment Rep. Rangel is facing and Keitt is on Wikipedia’s list. Wikipedia, it turns out, is not very reliable on this subject, but Keitt’s name jumped out as the accomplice to one of America’s most famous acts of incivility on the cusp of its most uncivil time. So it’s somewhat appropriate that I was reading about this on the evening of the re-airing of the Stewart/Maddow interview. Wikipedia says Keitt was censured for pulling a pistol on members of Congress who tried to stop the beating of Senator Sumner. As cinematic as that is, I don’t find any support for that particular telling. Instead it seems more likely that he raised his own cane to warn away anyone who would interfere. You can see him doing so in renderings of the event at the time. See the description here and the illustrations here and here. The Congressional Globe isn’t specific about Keitt’s actions and the censure only declares “disapprobation” of what Keitt did:
Resolved, that this House hereby declare its disapprobation of the said act of Henry A. Edmundson and Lawrence M. Keitt, in regard to the said assault. [Link]The Sumner caning was May 22, 1856. On December 10, 1856 the New York Times delivers another tale of Keitt aggression:
The speaker failed, however, to recognize him, and assigned the floor to other parties, much to the discomfort of the chivalric South Carolinian, who evinced his displeasure by a series of cavortings within the bar of the house, better suited to a circus clown, convulsing form and features in a mock display of heroics. His wrath seeme to gather intensity by practice, and, after the House adjourned, he stationed himself at one of the doors, cane in hand, vowing his purpose to use it upon the Speaker on his exit from the hall. Fortunately for Mr. Keitt, Mr. Banks had already passed out, and entered his own room, where he was quietly engaged writing, quite unconscious that he was an object of so much interest elsewhere. Keitt undoubtedly was aware of this fact, adn, tehrefor, that htere was little chance of his coming into collision with Mr. Banks. I venture the suggestiont hat, if he had provoked it by any aggressive demonstration, friend Keitt would have sorely learnt the specific gravity of the Lowell mechanic’s arm. This occurrence is the talk and laughter of the town.(The Speaker in the stoy, Congressman Banks, is described by the House web site as “the longest and most contentious Speaker election in its history” so maybe it’s not surprising that he managed to piss off Keitt.) Keitt shows up in Congressional lore one more time before he becomes a colonel for the Confederacy and dies in battle. On December 29, 1860 a war of insults breaks out on the floor of the House and the opponents, Congressman Branch on North Carolina and Congressman Grow of Pennsylvania, arrange to meet for an illegal duel. Should we really be surprised at whose name turns up in the story?
The combatants, with their associates (Branch’s were Laurence Keitt of South Carolina and Roger Pryor of Virginia; Grow’s were De Witt Giddings of Texas and Reuben Fenton of New York), agreed to meet near the Silver Spring, Maryland, home of Francis P. Blair, Sr., the editor of the Congressional Globe, on Saturday December 31, at 11:00 am. But police received a tip about the pending violence.If you think it’s bad now…
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It could be worse. They could be pulling each other's wigs off.