By now most people have heard the story of Andrew Hamilton and Aaron Burr’s political differences leading to a tragic end, but that’s just the beginning of the drama. In the early days, our House of Representatives was full of scenes straight out of old western movies. Shoot-outs, fist fights and…wigs? Let’s take a look at some of the best recorded brawls in the House:
On February 15th 1798, Rep. Roger Griswold of Connecticut attacked Rep. Matthew Lyon of Vermont with a wooden cane on the House floor in Philadelphia’s Congress Hall. Refusing to be outdone, Lyon jumped to defended himself with a pair of fire tongs.
The tension started in January during a congressional debate when Lyon declared himself a champion of the common man. Griswold mocked Lyon’s cowardly service in the Revolutionary War by asking if Lyon would be fighting for his constituents with his wooden sword. Read all about it here.
On May 22, 1856 a member of the House of Representatives entered the Senate chamber and savagely beat a senator into unconsciousness.
Three days earlier Senator Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts antislavery Republican, addressed the Senate on whether Kansas should be admitted to the Union as a slave state or a free state. In his speech titled “Crime Against Kansas,” Sumner identified two Democratic senators—Stephen Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina—as the principal culprits in this crime.
Representative Preston Brooks was Butler’s South Carolina kinsman. Instead of challenging Sumner to a gentlemen’s duel, Brooks waited until the Senate had adjourned for the day, entered the old chamber, and repeatedly slammed his metal-topped cane onto the unsuspecting Sumner’s head.
Brooks survived a House censure resolution, chose to resign and was immediately reelected, only to die soon thereafter. Sumner recovered slowly and returned to the Senate, where he remained for another 18 years. Get more details here.
What has been called the “most infamous floor brawl in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives” was ended by a man in a wig.
The fight erupted between February 5th and 6th of 1858, as members debated the Kansas Territory’s pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution. Shortly before 2 a.m., Galusha Grow, a Pennsylvania Republican, and Laurence Keitt, a South Carolina Democrat, exchanged insults, followed by blows.
More than 30 representatives joined the melee. Northern Republicans and Free Soilers joined ranks against Southern Democrats. Speaker James Orr, a South Carolina Democrat, instructed Sergeant-at-Arms Adam J. Glossbrenner to arrest noncompliant members. Wading into the crowd of combatants, Glossbrenner held the House Mace high to attempt to restore order.
Wisconsin Republicans John “Bowie Knife” Potter and Cadwallader Washburn ripped the hairpiece from Mississippi Democrat William Barksdale’s head. Barksdale replaced his wig backwards and the fight was dissolved into laughter. Peep the full story here.