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.