The Rough and Tumble of Congress

By Joanne Freeman, New York Times - September 19, 2009

New Haven

ON Tuesday, seven Republicans broke party ranks and voted to reprove Representative Joe Wilson, Republican of South Carolina, for calling President Obama a liar. One of the renegades was Bob Inglis, who upbraided his fellow South Carolinian for a breach of House rules. “That problem could have been fixed by an apology to the House,” Mr. Inglis explained.

And he was right. In fact, his comment reminds us that Congress has a long and storied culture of apology, to go along with its long and storied culture of insult — and that the two traditions are inextricably bound together.

Congressional insults — and apologies — had their heyday in the first half of the 19th century. Much as we envision the pre-Civil War era as the golden age of Congressional oratory delivered by the likes of Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster, alongside this eloquence was a generous helping of rough-and-tumble brawling.

Men pulled knives and guns on one another. There were shoving matches and canings — the most notorious being the 1856 attack by Representative Preston Brooks, Democrat of South Carolina, on Senator Charles Sumner, Republican of Massachusetts. Tables were flipped, inkwells and spittoons went flying. Occasionally there was a grand melee with dozens of congressmen pummeling one another, emerging after a few minutes of mayhem with torn clothing, assorted bumps and bruises, and toupees askew. Not surprisingly, accompanying all of this tumbling and punching was a slew of insults.

Most powerful of them all was “the lie direct.” According to the formal code of honor then in play, a man who didn’t keep his word was no man at all, so there could be only one response to such a charge: a duel (or very careful negotiations to avoid one). For that very reason, “throwing the lie” was a handy strategy in Congressional debate. The gasp-inducing drama of the moment was precisely the point. Nothing called an audience to attention as quickly as the threat of gunplay. Whether one was trying to attract attention from the press, derail a debate or humiliate an opponent, the lie direct was a grand slam in the game of politicking.

But untarnished victory required one final step: an immediate apology to the House or Senate — delivered on the floor. In part, this was the logic of the code of honor. The only way to offset a public insult was with a public apology; the audience that had witnessed the insult needed to witness the making of amends. And when a combatant voluntarily apologized as soon as a fight was reconciled, he prevented the opposition from milking his misbehavior for partisan gain.

In addition, a quick apology prevented an exchange of words from becoming something worse. In 1836, when a panicked speaker of the House began to adjourn the body after a tussle between two congressmen, several members instantly protested that this would prevent a public reconciliation. The result could have been ugly. As a House clerk put it, had “the speaker adjourned the House, as he was about to, there would have been a battle and blood would have been spilt upon the floor.”

These formal apologies nearly always followed the same script. After harsh language or fisticuffs, the combatants would rise to their feet and apologize in open session. The 1856 apology of Senator Andrew Butler, a South Carolina Democrat who was also the uncle of Preston Brooks, the assailant of Charles Sumner, is typical. In the flurry of outraged debate after the Sumner caning, Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts insulted Brooks. Butler immediately jumped to his feet and called Wilson a liar. Within minutes, Butler was on his feet again. “This mode of attacking my relative is very trying,” he said in apology. “I used a word which I hope will not be put down. I have never used an epithet on this floor, and therefore I ask that it may be excused. I make the request at the unanimous instance of my friends.”

As antebellum congressmen well knew, serious insults required serious apologies. So important were these rituals that they sometimes required hours or even days of negotiations for acceptable terms. In 1837, when Representative John Bell, an Anti-Jacksonian from Tennessee, called Leonard Jarvis, a Jacksonian from Maine, a liar during a debate, the outraged Jarvis first insisted that the matter would have to be settled “in another manner,” meaning in a duel. Jarvis also made clear that he wouldn’t retract the words that had prompted Bell to insult him in the first place. After several hours of wrangling by dozens of congressmen, Bell withdrew his words unconditionally.

No one assumed that such apologies were heartfelt. As The New York Times groused in 1859, these “Congressional rowdies” seemed to “have got it somehow into their heads that they can descend to any depth of blackguardism, if they only make an apology immediately afterwards.” Even so, these apologies meant something. By publicly apologizing to his colleagues, a congressman not only paid obeisance to the dignity and order of the House or Senate, but he also upheld the civility of Congressional proceedings as a whole.

This sentiment was perhaps explained best by Senator Louis McLane, a Jacksonian from Delaware, in an 1828 debate over the vice president’s right to call men to order. Written parliamentary rules were useful, he said, but the Senate’s tradition of “liberal comity” was “more efficient than any written rule.” What would preserve the Senate was “the great moral influence of the power of the body for its own preservation.” For this reason, the Congressional culture of insult was necessarily accompanied by one of apology. Whether it exists today remains an open question.

Joanne B. Freeman, a professor of history at Yale, is writing a book on Congressional violence in the first half of the 19th century.

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