Carroll County Times Opinion

Sprinkle: Pistols, canes, and Bowie knives: Congressional violence in antebellum America | COMMENTARY

At some point, all of us have felt exasperation with our congressional representatives and their propensity for pettiness, arrogance, accusations, rudeness, and lying. But thus far, at least, this current bunch, although seemingly engaged in endless verbal claims and counterclaims, has managed to refrain from maiming and killing one another.

Such, however, has not always been the case. History tells us that many 19th century congressmen reported for work with pistols, canes, and Bowie knives in hand, and they were not afraid to use them on their fellow congressmen if they felt a political point needed added emphasis.


Much of what we know about congressional violence in antebellum America comes from letters written by congressmen or other observers in attendance, journal notes of Benjamin Brown French, a New Hampshire lawyer who spent 40 years documenting the frequent acts of congressional violence, and leading newspapers of that time — The New York Times, reporting from the North’s perspective, and The Charleston (South Carolina) Mercury, reporting the South’s position. Both papers, we’re told, apparently added, deleted, or embellished details of reported incidents, depending on the favorability to their political slant.

Joanne B. Freeman, a Yale historian and professor, has documented more than 70 violent exchanges among congressmen that she identified while researching her book, “The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to the Civil War.”


“It was not,” she wrote, “a kind era.”

Indeed, it was not, as demonstrated in the following three incidents.

In 1838, Jonathan Cilley (D-Maine), made a comment on the House floor angering a Whig newspaper editor. The editor, in turn, insisted William Graves (D-Kentucky), defend the honor of the Democrats. While neither man had any personal malice toward the other, nevertheless, they chose their weapons and met in Prince George’s County, Maryland, on Feb. 24 for a duel. Apparently both men had little experience with firearms. We’re told that both fired twice, and either the guns misfired or both men missed their intended mark. Finally, on the third attempt, Cilley was shot dead.

The next year, Congress passed a law against dueling

Freeman writes of the incident: “He [Graves] was acquitted for excusable homicide and reelected, only to pull his knife on another legislator during debate, though this time the sound of colleagues cocking pistols stopped him cold.”

In another incident, following the Senate’s adjournment on May 22, 1856, Rep. Preston Brooks (D-South Carolina), stormed into the Senate and nearly beat to death abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner (R-Massachusetts). Following the caning incident, Sumner spent three years recuperating before returning to the Senate. In her article, Violence in Congress Before the Civil War…, Becky Little, a D.C. journalist, describes Brooks’ rationale for the attack: “Brooks chose to beat Sumner rather than risk breaking the anti-dueling law because, he argued, dueling ‘would subject me to legal penalties more severe than would be imposed for a simple assault and battery.’”

Yet a third story of congressional violence began on Feb. 6, 1858, shortly before 2 a.m., when Laurence Keitt (D-South Carolina) and abolitionist Galusha Grow (R-Pennsylvania) began fighting on the House floor. Other members of their respective parties joined the bedlam in what would be described by U.S. House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives as “the most infamous brawl in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives…. More than 30 members joined the melee.”

Various sources tell us the scrimmage came to an end when Representatives John “Bowie Knife” Potter and Cadwallader Washburn (both, R-Wisconsin) snatched the wig from the head of Representative William Barksdale (D-Mississippi). As Barksdale attempted to recapture and replace the wig, in his haste, he put it on backwards, making him such a comical sight, the combatants began laughing, and the affair came to an abrupt end.


Whether the Civil War could have been averted had these congressional representatives been a little less argumentative and a little more cooperative is a topic for debate by historians, but in Freeman’s words: “This wasn’t just about goofy guys in Washington — what goes on in Congress reflects the state of the nation.”

As it did then, so it does now.

M.K. Sprinkle writes from Hampstead. Her column appears every other Saturday. Email her at