Last House Adjournment Seems To Be For Injured Member Over Duel In 1838

As the nation mourns the victims of the tragedy in Tucson, Arizona and prays for the recovery of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D.-Ariz.), the House of Representatives has decided to extend its adjournment for another week.  The decision to extend adjournment came from Speaker John Boehner (R.-Oh) and will delay the vote on repeal of “Obamacare” that was scheduled for Wednesday.

The last time the House adjourned and suspended legislative business to pay tribute to someone who was a non-Member who was hurt or killed was in 1998.  That was to mourn Capitol Police Officers Jacob J. Chestnut and Joshua Gibson, who had died heroically on July 24th of that year in halting a gunman who had attempted to shoot up the Capitol.

As to when the House adjourned and suspended business for one of its Members who was killed or injured, it is difficult to say.  Old hands I spoke to on Capitol Hill recalled that in the case of Rep. Larry MacDonald (D-GA), killed when a Russian MIG shot down Flight KAL-007 on which he was a passenger in 1983, the House did not suspend business.  When Rep. Leo Ryan (D-Cal.) was killed by gunfire in the Jonestown massacre of 1978, the House was not in session.  In the 1954 shootup of the House chamber by Puerto Rican nationalists in which five lawmakers were wounded (all five survived), congressional business proceeded as usual. 

The last example any Congress-watchers could come up with of the House suspending legislative business after a Member met with harm was in 1838, when Rep. Jonathan Cilley of Maine was killed in a duel by fellow Rep. William Graves of Kentucky.  According to an “Historical Highlight” on the website of the Clerk of the House, “Graves approached Gilley with a letter at the behest of a newspaper editor, James Webb, who was incensed about a bribery accusation Cilley had made on the House Floor.  Cilley refused to accept the letter; Graves interpreted the refusal as a direct insult to his character and challenged Cilley to a duel.”  Fought in Prince George’s County, Maryland on February 24, 1838, the duel, according to the Clerk’s website, “went beyond the customary two rounds, resulting in Cilley’s death in the third round.”

The House adjourned and suspended business and, three days after the duel,  Cilley’s funeral was held in the House chamber and attended by President Martin Van Buren.  (Graves was never censured for his role in the duel).

Because there are so few examples in House history of a tragedy involving a Member, there is very little precedent for adjournment and suspending a vote. But all signs seem to point to a tragedy of 1838 as the last example.