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:
Walking cane used in beating Sen. Charles Sumner. Old State House Museum in Boston MA. Via Wikimedia Commons
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
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"
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
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.
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. Image credit: history.house.gov