The Top 5 brawls in American political history
When Mitt Romney’s son, Tagg, was interviewed about his father’s second debate with President Barack Obama he said that in reaction to the Democrat president calling his father a “liar” he wanted “to rush down to the stage and take a swing at him.”
There were a smattering of denouncements and calls for “civility” from liberal pundits, who talked about the coarseness of modern politics. There was even a challenge to a fistfight from MSNBC host, Lawrence O’donnell.
For those shocked and appalled by Tagg Romney’s statement, here is a look back at how American politicians dealt with quarrels back in the “golden age of civility.”
William Stanberry v Sam Houston “The Raven claws at Stanberry”
Born in Virginia, raised on the Tennessee frontier, tutored by Cherokee Indians that he lived with in his teens, and a veteran of the War of 1812, Sam Houston was an imposing 6’4” figure that knew how to break a man if he needed to. Houston, the former governor of Tennessee, was accused by Congressman William Stanberry of Ohio for giving out fraudulent contracts for rations while on a diplomatic mission to Washington D.C. on behalf of the Cherokee.
Upon hearing of Stanberry’s accusatory speech on the House floor Houston sent a letter to the Ohio Congressman challenging him to a duel. When his messenger, Congressman Cave Johnson, said that Stanberry refused to accept the message, Houston said, “I’ll introduce myself to the damned rascal.”
Houston approached Stanberry on a Washington D.C. street, called him a “damned rascal,” and proceeded to beat the man with a heavy cane. Stanberry was able to wriggle free just enough to grab his pistol and he attempted to fire a shot into Houston’s chest. The gun failed to fire and Houston wrested the weapon out of the battered Congressman’s hand.
A Sam Houston biographer, Marquis James, vividly described the end of the fight in his 1929 Pulitzer prize winning book, The Raven, “Houston then stood up, landed a few more licks with the cane and, as a finishing touch, lifted the Congressman’s feet in the air and ‘struck him elsewhere,’ as Senator Buckner rendered it in his evidence at Houston’s trial, ladies being present.”
Houston was cleared of fraud charges and received only a $500 fine for the beat-down of Rep. Stanberry that was later remitted. If anything, the assault would revive Houston’s moribund political career and he went on to become the hero of the Battle of San Jacinto, the “Father of Texas,” and the governor of Texas once it became a state.
One can only wonder what would have happened if Harry Reid had accused Houston of not paying his taxes.
Joseph Nicholson vs. Nicholas Leib “An admirable picture of American legislators”
America in the early 1800’s was a bumptious place for politicians who were becoming acquainted to politicking in the world’s first constitutional republic.
In 1805, just seven years after Connecticut Federalist Senator Rodger Griswold and Vermont Congressman Republican Matthew Lyon duked it out on the Senate floor with a cane and fireplace tongs, two Jeffersonian Republicans, Nicholas Leib from New York and Joseph Nicholson from Pennsylvania, set the record—that undoubtedly still stands—for the longest fist-fight in the House lobby. The brawl started when Leib called Nicholson a liar and it lasted for an hour and seventeen minutes. The brutal and exhausting match left both men bloody, broken and bruised.
The New York Evening Post described the scene as, “An admirable picture of American legislators,” and “one of the best fought battles in the history of Congressional pugilism.” According the Evening Post, the fight was called off after the “64th round” in which “Leib had received such blows as deterred him from again facing his man.”
According to the historian David Hackett Fischer in his book, The Revolution of American Conservatism: The Federalist Party in the age of Jeffersonian Democracy, the spectators of the House lobby showdown didn’t seem to be shocked or damning of the incident. One man said that his only disappointment from the fight was that Leib, his favorite in the match, failed to use his left hook.
Andrew Jackson vs. Thomas Hart Benton “Old Hickory runs up against Old Bullion”
There were few statesmen in American history quite as fearsome as frontiersmen Andrew Jackson and Thomas Hart Benton. Jackson, who was born in South Carolina but rose to prominence in Tennessee, was called “Old Hickory” because of his resilience on military campaigns and because he had sustained so many injuries and bullet wounds.
Thomas Hart Benton was originally from North Carolina, but became a Senator in Missouri after being kicked out of the University of North Carolina and serving in the state militia under Jackson. Benton earned the name Old Bullion for his hard money views and ferociousness in debate.
Both Jackson and Benton were legendary duelists. Jackson famously killed a man in a duel after allowing his competitor to fire the first shot. Benton was involved in countless duels and wrote In Defense of Dueling to defend the fading and increasingly unpopular practice.
The fight between Jackson and Benton started while Jackson was general of the Tennessee militia and Benton was his aide-de-camp. There was a quarrel between Jackson’s friend and Benton’s brother, which resulted in a duel in which both men took bullets but survived. Jackson was present at the duel and a mediator. Benton accused Jackson of conducting the affair of honor unfairly and Jackson decided that Benton and his brother, according to Jackson biographer H.W. Brands, “both deserved a thrashing.”
Jackson ran into Benton and his brother outside a hotel and a brawl ensued. Jackson was hit by two bullets, one in the left arm and one in the left shoulder, which ruptured an artery. Several Jackson friends and relatives entered the brouhaha and pulled Jackson out of a pool of blood. Benton escaped significant injury because he fell down a flight of stairs early in the fight.
The fight was a political embarrassment for Jackson, who was a much older man than Benton, and he nearly died because of the wounds. However, despite the deadly struggle between them and the bad feelings, Jackson and Benton would become the strongest allies when Jackson became president of the United States. Benton was “Jackson’s voice” in the Senate and was critical to Jackson’s victory in his war against the Second Bank of the United States.
Years after the fight Benton was asked if he knew Andrew Jackson and he replied, “Yes, sir, I knew him, sir; General Jackson was a very great man, sir. I shot him, sir. Afterward he was of great use to me, sir, in my battle with the United States Bank.”
Preston Brooks vs. Charles Sumner “Southern Chivalry—Argument versus clubs”
Charles Sumner was not a man to shy away from controversy. In an 1845 Independence Day oration, in front of veterans of the War of 1812 and numerous other military men, he exclaimed that “In our age there can be no peace that is not honorable: There can be no war that is not dishonorable.” During caustic anti-war speech he said that the army had “no function—its officers “useless” and “educated at that seminary of idleness and vice,” West Point.
Sumner was a radical through and through, and terminally self-righteous. On slavery, Sumner was the closest thing to a true abolitionist in Congress, continually lambasting the “Slave Power” of the South. In one of his offensive but fairly typical speeches in the Senate, called “The Crime Against Kansas,” Sumner made his attacks against Southern statesmen more personal rather than general. Sumner characterized the aged Senator Andrew Butler as the “Don Quixote of slavery” who has “chosen a mistress to whom he made his vows… the harlot, slavery.” Sumner then made fun of Senator Butler’s slight lisp caused by a physical handicap.
To cap off his polemic, Sumner attacked the whole state of South Carolina:
Were the whole history of South Carolina blotted out of existence, from its very beginning down to the day of the last election of the Senator to his present seat on the floor, civilization might lose—I dare not say how little, but surely less than it has already gained by the example of Kansas, in its valiant struggle against oppression.
Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina, who was considered a moderate on the slavery issue and a second-rate politician at best, seethed with anger when he heard of Sumner’s speech. Brooks was also a cousin of Senator Butler.
Brooks entered the Senate chamber seething with anger and spotted Sumner at his desk in the nearly empty Senate chamber, preparing copies of his “Crimes Against Kansas” speech to be sent to his constituents. Brooks waited for all of the women to leave the Senate gallery and then made his move.
Brooks began to wail on Sumner with successively harder blows; his cane, selected because he thought it wouldn’t break, snapped in half. Brooks continued the beating with his broken cane as Sumner struggled to get up from his seat and stumbled down the aisle. Brooks said of the last minutes of his brutal barrage, “Towards the last he bellowed like a calf. I wore my cane out completely but saved the Head which is gold.”
It took several years for Sumner to recover from his injuries.
Perhaps President Obama can be thankful that current South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson only shouted “you lie!” during his State of the Union Address.
Frank Hook vs. John E. Rankin “Congress ‘grasps’ for unity in WWII”
In the more civil days of the mid-20th century, Congressmen no longer resorted to canes when battling their political opponents, they simply used their hands.
On Feb. 22, 1945, two House Democrats, one from the North and the other from the South, showed that a civil war can be most vicious and brutal. Frank “Fightin’ Frank” Hook was an ardent liberal from Michigan who was called a “communist” by Mississippi Congressman John E. Rankin, to which he responded, “liar!” Rankin then ran up behind Hook and grabbed him by the throat.
According to an account in the Milwaukee Sentinal, “Rankin managed to get in several short jabs at Hook’s flushed face before other startled members separated them.”
It is perhaps surprising that Rankin had any success at all against the burly Hook, as Hook had been a welterweight champion of Michigan, Indiana and Illinois.
Hook apologized to Rankin for the episode, but Rankin didn’t reciprocate. Hook offered to resign if Rankin would “for the good of the country,” but neither did.