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Civility: Not a Traditional American Value

Obama's call for greater civility in our political discourse has great surface appeal. But in the early days of the nation, violence among politicians was commonplace.
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President Obama's call for greater civility in our political discourse has great surface appeal. If only we could all reason together quietly and respectfully, the complaint goes, we could make so much more progress on critical challenges like energy policy, climate change, economic recovery, and immigration.

It sounds good, but it's not that easy to conduct political affairs without using conflict-laden language like "fight," "battle," "struggle," or even reference "killing" a bill, initiative, or what have you.

I certainly endorse the idea of civility, and entirely deplore the attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, which has triggered this round of concern with civility. Nevertheless, as H. Rap Brown so pungently put it years ago, violence is as American as apple pie, in politics, too.

Indeed, the attack on Rep. Giffords is hardly the first time that our representatives have been subject to such violence. In 1954, Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire from the gallery in the House of Representatives and wounded five congressmen then on the floor (all survived).

But in the early days of the nation, violence among politicians was commonplace. Violence, bloodshed, and death marked many of our early political disputes.

The violence started right away. In 1777, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence died in a politically-inspired duel. Incensed by a political rival's criticism of his leadership of a military expedition, Burton Gwinnett challenged the man to a duel. Gwinnett paid with his life.

Two of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 - Alexander Hamilton and Richard Spaight of North Carolina - died in duels that grew out of political rivalry. In the new Congress in 1797, debates between a Republican and Federalist congressman devolved into spitting (a classic "spitting match"!) and then a slugfest featuring a heavy wooden cane versus a pair of fireplace tongs.

Dueling was a constant in New York politics in the early years of the nineteenth century. Senator DeWitt Clinton fought a duel against the federal marshal of New York City in 1802; one year later, the marshal's brother dueled with Clinton's second from the earlier duel. Alexander Hamilton's eldest son, Philip, was killed in a duel inspired by his political insults in a tavern, while the editor of the New York Post, which was founded by Hamilton, killed a Republican rival in a duel.

The dueling spirit infected leading politicians well beyond New York Harbor. Henry Clay of Kentucky, who would go down in history as "The Great Compromiser," was not devoted to compromise in all things. In 1809, he fought a duel with Humphrey Marshall, a former U.S. senator and cousin to Chief Justice John Marshall, following a bitter dispute over the wearing of homespun versus imported clothing. Through three rounds of fire during the duel, both men endured wounds which they survived.

Seventeen years later, Clay traveled again to the dueling ground, this time to face Senator John Randolph of Virginia. The deadly contest was prompted by Randolph's sneering references to Clay's support of the 1824 presidential bid of John Quincy Adams as a "corrupt bargain." This time neither man hit the other in two rounds of fire.

Perhaps the most famous congressional violence came in 1856, when South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks caned abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts into a coma. Brooks had been enraged by a Sumner speech that excoriated the South and its tradition of slavery. Although Sumner was a large man ordinarily able to defend himself, his long legs became trapped under his desk as he absorbed Brooks' blows, and another Southerner blocked anyone from coming to Sumner's aid. Sumner did not recover from the beating for two years.

At around the same time, abolitionist Senator Ben Wade of Ohio carried pistols onto the floor of the Senate, stacked them on his desk, and dared Southern senators to come after him.

Congressional violence waned in the twentieth century. There was a 1902 brawl triggered by debate over policy towards the Philippines, which featured Senator Ben Tillman of South Carolina attacking his South Carolina colleague, John McLaurin.

And then in 1964 a scuffle broke out between liberal Senator Ralph Yarborough of Texas and segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. (Are you noticing the South Carolina flavor of this violence?) Thurmond was angry over a pending committee vote on a presidential appointee who would help implement the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which Thurmond had opposed and Yarborough supported.

Thurmond pinned Yarborough to the ground until other senators broke up the fight. Thurmond lost the committee vote, however, 16-1.

See? Things could be worse, and have been.

David O. Stewart's book, American Emperor, Aaron Burr's Challenge to Jefferson's America,, which explores the Hamilton/Burr duel, will be released by Simon & Schuster on October 4, 2011.

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