Any apologist trying to spin the story of Montana congressional hopeful Greg Gianforte body-slamming a reporter on Wednesday might helpfully suggest that the candidate had nothing else at hand.
No pistols. No canes. Just the element of surprise and some personal strength.
While verbal assaults take place with regularity in the course of modern politics, physical attacks remain generally outside the mainstream. In the past, though, decorum has slipped and fists have flown, sometimes with Missouri and Kansas at the center of the arguments.
Referred to by U.S. House historians as the “most infamous floor brawl” in that chamber, a wee-hours fracas broke out in February 1858 during a debate about the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution in the Kansas Territory. (The document was drafted in a town about 70 miles southwest of St. Joseph.)
Two lawmakers from Eastern states had been insulting one another when one decided a haymaker might best punctuate his point. News reports of the time say from 30 to 50 U.S. representatives joined in the fray. One account had a metal spittoon being used as a rather gross weapon.
A Wisconsin lawmaker named John “Bowie Knife” Potter had been explaining his free-state leanings while holding a Mississippian named William Barksdale in a headlock. Barksdale broke free, but his hairpiece fell to the floor.
In trying to reseat the wig, Barksdale inadvertently put it on his head backwards, and the ensuing laughter ended the melee.
The coming Civil War brought other feuding moments to Congress.
In 1850, a debate in the U.S. Senate found Missouri’s Thomas Hart Benton arguing against slavery and Mississippi’s Henry Foote, a fellow Democrat, doing a slow boil as he listened. Foote eventually drew a pistol from his desk and pointed it at the Missourian.
According to an official history of the U.S. Senate, Benton approached Foote in the center aisle of the chamber, shouting out, “I have no pistols! Let him fire! Stand out of the way and let the assassin fire!”
The presiding officer that day, Vice President Millard Fillmore, quickly entertained a motion to adjourn for the day, and that’s apparently all it took to defuse the crisis.
It probably proved fortunate that Foote got the drop on Benton. Known for his hotheaded ways, the Missourian had been quick with a firearm and had even written a treatise titled “In Defense of Dueling,” allowing him to wax eloquent on “affairs of honor.”
Benton had once shot Andrew Jackson in a brawl and also killed a political rival named Charles Lucas on a Mississippi River sandbar that came to be known as Bloody Island, the site of many duels.
The dying words of Lucas, according to witnesses, were: “Colonel, you have murdered me, and I never can forgive you.” Four years later, Benton began a 30-year tenure in the Senate.
In 1856, U.S. Sen. Charles Sumner, an abolitionist from Massachusetts, delivered a fiery speech called “The Crime Against Kansas” in the days after the ransacking of Lawrence. He lambasted the “murderous robbers from Missouri,” calling them “the drunken spew and vomit of an uneasy civilization.”
A U.S. representative for South Carolina, Preston Brooks, took offense, bullying his way onto the Senate floor, screaming of libel and then beating Sumner with a cane.
Sumner’s head trauma prevented him from returning to the Senate for three years. Brooks, tried for the beating, got a $300 fine and, from like-minded Southerners, more than 100 canes to replace the one he had broken on the senator’s noggin.