Yale professor Joanne Freeman’s new book, The Field of Blood, looks at violence inside the Capitol before the Civil War. Things got intense.
During a late-night House session in 1858, Pennsylvania Republican Galusha Grow objected to an out-of-order motion. South Carolina Democrat Lawrence Keitt decided to challenge that by getting in Grow’s face. Grow slugged him, and soon about 30 men were “punching each other, tossing spittoons, [and] caning each other,” says Freeman.
In 1849, William Duer, a Whig from New York, accused Virginia Democrat Richard Kidder Meade of being a “disunionist” and a liar. Meade jumped at Duer, and a set-to ensued. The sergeant at arms tried to calm things down by grabbing the ceremonial House mace. It didn’t work, “but I love the fact that they tried,” the author says. One reporter at the time wrote that “the House was like a heaving billow.” Sounds bad.
After Kentucky Whig John White and New York Democrat George Rathbun got into a fistfight in 1844, a visitor—overtaken by the spirit of things—fired a gun. “Congressmen were very afraid that people from the gallery would rush onto the floor and begin fighting if a debate got too fierce,” Freeman says. The bullet went through the House door and hit an unlucky guard in the leg. The government compensated him $150.
This article appears in the September 2018 issue of Washingtonian.