Canings, Stabbings, and Shootings
Whig party member John Giddings of Ohio wanted to include into the Congressional Record his opposition to certain slavery measures; doing so would put him up against a Gag Rule passed by House Democrats from the South. They had tired of the anti-slavery harangues of the Whig party. Edward Black of Georgia threatened to lynch Giddings if he proceeded, promising it would “elevate” him beyond his wildest dreams. Civility and decorum have not always been a feature of House proceedings.
Between 1830 and 1860 there were about 80 violent acts committed by and on members of Congress, the Senate, Judges, and members of the press. From open brawls in the aisles of the House to canings, stabbings and even shooting at each other, mostly over slavery, the House could be a pretty rough place. Southern Democrats enjoyed a reputation for being prickly and being so was rewarded by their constituents. This was in contrast to the attitude of Northerners who wanted decorum and civility from their elected representatives.
The result was a kind of uneasy peace in Congress where Whig party members under the threat of violence by Democrats from slaveholding states were cowed into being silent about slavery. Out of that status quo rose the more militant Republican party in 1854 which was unwilling to be cowed. They would not be silenced and broke the Gag Order that prevented tirades against the slave trade on the principle that if Free Speech did not exist in Congress, it existed nowhere. They traded insults, taunts and even physical blows with the Democrats from the South. As it became more and more apparent that the issue of slavery could not be resolved in a deliberative fashion in Congress, civil war became all but inevitable.
New Rules For a Renewed Country
After the war, Congress set about developing a set of hard rules about civility and decorous behavior in both houses. Members would have to stick to the subject of debate and were no longer allowed to take to the floor to engage in personal insults and threats. It was not perfect, but it was an improvement over the raucous violence that had preceded it and Americans had a belly full of violence after 600,000 deaths in the Civil War.
That brings us to the recent State of the Union Address by President Trump this week.
The State of the Union given by the President comes from a clause in Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution:
“He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
Washington had given the first one to Congress in person, Jefferson preferred to deliver his as a letter. It was Woodrow Wilson in 1913, who made it a practice to give the speech in person and other Presidents since have done so as well. With the advent of mass media like radio and television, the State of the Union Address has gone from a report to Congress to a speech to the American People themselves.
And it has a whole series of formalized courtesies and customs associated with it. The President is seen as the invited guest of Congress at the event. The Speaker of the House is considered the host and the whole affair is very carefully scripted to create an environment of probity and civility for the public.
Except that didn’t happen last night. Things broke down almost immediately. When Trump ascended the Clerks Rostrum he handed copies of his speech to Vice President Pence and Speaker of the House Pelosi. The Speaker extended her hand and either the President did not notice or declined the gesture and turned to begin his speech. He didn’t shake hands with the Vice President either. The Speaker then broke protocol and instead of using the formal introduction, “Members of Congress, I have the high privilege and distinct honor of presenting to you the President of the United States,” she gaveled the House to order and simply said, “Members of Congress, the President of the United States.”
What then followed was a speech interrupted by numerous periods of applause but also heckling chants by Democrats and the Speaker making faces and gestures of displeasure behind his back. The final insult to this invited guest of Congress was for the Speaker to rip the copy of his speech in half for the cameras to see and record.
Social media by both sides exploded in outrage over the lack of a handshake and at the speech being torn up. Certainly, things are not as bad as things were in 1840, but they aren’t good. I think everyone can agree that Trump’s tweets can go too far, at some point we’ll stop being surprised that he responds to every insult in kind, but the State of the Union really should be different. It should be a night when all Americans can be proud of the American Republic we have built for ourselves here. We sure have come a long way to have it and as the experience of the Civil War should have shown us, if we can’t settle our political disagreements reasonably and with civility, we end up settling them violently.