In the 2012 film Lincoln the House of Representatives is portrayed as being a rather rowdy and disorderly place. There are frequent interruptions of the person holding the floor, lots of booing and vociferous applauding. Third party arguments even irrupted at one point if I remember correctly.

Is there any historical evidence that the House was really such a disorderly place?

Unfortunately there aren't any good clips of the movie online that show these parts, this short clip was as good as I could get: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QTwKOCILJl0


1 Answer 1


You betcha!

In fact, the movie was rather mild. The most famous incident in the Congress (comprising the Senate and the House of Representatives) was the caning of Senator Sumner:

Cane used in beating Sen. Sumner

Walking cane used in beating Sen. Charles Sumner. Old State House Museum in Boston MA. Via Wikimedia Commons

Lithograph of the beating of Sen. Sumner

Lithograph by John L. Magee (1856). Via Wikimedia Commons

On May 22, 1856, the "world's greatest deliberative body" became a combat zone. In one of the most dramatic and deeply ominous moments in the Senate's entire history, a member of the House of Representatives entered the Senate chamber and savagely beat a senator into unconsciousness.

The inspiration for this clash came three days earlier when Senator Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts antislavery Republican, addressed the Senate on the explosive issue of whether Kansas should be admitted to the Union as a slave state or a free state. In his "Crime Against Kansas" speech, Sumner identified two Democratic senators as the principal culprits in this crime—Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina. He characterized Douglas to his face as a "noise-some, squat, and nameless animal . . . not a proper model for an American senator." Andrew Butler, who was not present, received more elaborate treatment. Mocking the South Carolina senator's stance as a man of chivalry, the Massachusetts senator charged him with taking "a mistress . . . 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," added Sumner, "the harlot, Slavery."

Representative Preston Brooks was Butler's South Carolina kinsman. If he had believed Sumner to be a gentleman, he might have challenged him to a duel. Instead, he chose a light cane of the type used to discipline unruly dogs. Shortly after the Senate had adjourned for the day, Brooks entered the old chamber, where he found Sumner busily attaching his postal frank to copies of his "Crime Against Kansas" speech.

Moving quickly, Brooks slammed his metal-topped cane onto the unsuspecting Sumner's head. As Brooks struck again and again, Sumner rose and lurched blindly about the chamber, futilely attempting to protect himself. After a very long minute, it ended.

Bleeding profusely, Sumner was carried away. Brooks walked calmly out of the chamber without being detained by the stunned onlookers. Overnight, both men became heroes in their respective regions.

Surviving a House censure resolution, Brooks resigned, was immediately reelected, and soon thereafter died at age 37. Sumner recovered slowly and returned to the Senate, where he remained for another 18 years. The nation, suffering from the breakdown of reasoned discourse that this event symbolized, tumbled onward toward the catastrophe of civil war.

Source: www.senate.gov

That incident, as noted, took place on the Senate floor. But while less famous (or rather, infamous), heated and even violent encounters did take place in the House as well.

As in the caning of Sen. Sumner, slavery provided the backdrop for one of them. On February 6th, 1858, Galusha Grow (R-PA) and a number of his colleagues came to blows.

The most infamous floor brawl in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives erupted as Members debated Kansas’s pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution late into the night of February 5-6. Shortly after 1 a.m., Pennsylvania Republican Galusha Grow and South Carolina Democrat Laurence Keitt exchanged insults, then blows. “In an instant the House was in the greatest possible confusion,” the Congressional Globe reported. More than 50 Members joined the melee. Northern Republicans and Free Soilers joined ranks against Southern Democrats. Speaker James Orr, a South Carolina Democrat, gaveled furiously for order and then instructed Sergeant-at-Arms Adam J. Glossbrenner to arrest noncompliant Members. Wading into the “combatants,” Glossbrenner held the House Mace high to restore order; no one complied. 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. When the House reconvened two days later, a coalition of Northern Republicans and Free Soilers narrowly blocked referral of the Lecompton Constitution to the House Territories Committee. Kansas entered the Union in 1861 as a free state.

Source: history.house.gov

Contemporary engraving of incident

Engraving of incident in Leslie's Illustrated Magazine (1858). Image credit: history.house.gov

Nor was Sumner's beating the first time a cane was used on an opponent in the Congress. Way back in 1798:

After the House failed to expel Matthew Lyon for the “gross indecency” of spitting tobacco juice at Roger Griswold, the latter sought justice by attacking Lyon on the House Floor (then located in Philadelphia’s Congress Hall) with a cane. Lyon defended himself with a pair of fire tongs. Commemorating the row between Representatives, this 1798 etching includes verse describing the scene, including the detail that Lyon “seized the tongs to ease his wrongs.”

Contemporary etching of incident

Contemporary etching of incident. Image credit: history.house.gov

  • 2
    (The U.S. Senate is not the House of Representatives, but as it is the "senior" of the two legislative bodies, with generally older and more experienced lawmakers, it is not a stretch to assume that the HoR was the rowdier place, even if attempted murder did not take place in it.) Oct 11, 2013 at 19:08
  • 1
    This was the first thing I thought of (so +1). Would have prefered to see a description than a really long excerpt though. I'm particularly annoyed by the text's parroting Brooks' rationalization of his sneak attack without comment. In the wake of this incident Brooks challenged Representative Anson Burlingame to a duel for calling him a coward. Burlingame enthusiastically agreed, and Brooks chickened out. So IMHO history should show Burlingame's point as proven.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 11, 2013 at 19:19
  • While this is a good answer, and I was aware of the caning of Senator Sumner, I was hoping for more evidence besides this. Perferably in the HoR though I suppose it's like father like son. (I. E. If the Senate was bad the House must be too). However, +1
    – Seth
    Oct 12, 2013 at 22:05
  • @Seth Added details of two incidents in the House. Oct 13, 2013 at 1:00
  • When I first read about Preston Brooks some while back, I thought 'Well that fits. He's obviously an equal-opportunist slaver - beating both blacks and white alike.' Oct 13, 2013 at 6:56

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