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May 24, 2024 7 mins

Think politics today are the most angry and violent they’ve ever been? What about the days when senators and congressmen came to work armed with guns and knives? Or the murder of one congressman by another just because they had an ideological disagreement? That’s when politics were bloody.

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Speaker 1 (00:01):
Yeah, we're getting pretty close to the next presidential election.
Is it going to be the current president Joe Biden
or the former president Donald Trump. Now you may think
the politics, the emotions, and the hostility around this election
seem kind of unprecedented, but that's where you're wrong. Imagine
senators and congressmen regularly carrying weapons into the Capitol simply

to do their job. A congressman being beaten almost to
death on the House floor, or another being murdered by
a colleague, all because a guy on the other side
of the aisle doesn't agree with his politics. It all
happened in the eighteen hundreds. I'm Patty Steele, Bloody Politics.
Next on the backstory, We're back with the backstory. Pretty

much every day we hear folks ranting about how nasty
our political scene is. There's talk of violence, even civil war.
But in our almost two hundred and fifty year history,
there have been some pretty savage moments. In the election
of eighteen hundred, when President John Adams was running against
challenger Thomas Jefferson, all kinds of claims were made. One

journalist supporting Jefferson wrote that John Adams was a hermaphrodite. Meantime,
newspaper supporting Adams accused Jefferson of maintaining a harem for
himself at Monticello, his estate. The ensuing election became so
convoluted that Adams was knocked out of the running and
Aaron Burr slipped into the race. Alexander Hamilton got involved

and lobbied hard and loud for Jefferson, who finally won.
Four years later, Hamilton again spoke out against Burr in
his failed attempt to become governor of New York. Burr
challenged Hamilton to a duel, feeling his honor and career
had been dragged through the mud, and he eventually shot
and killed Hamilton in that duel. But no time in

US history saw more violence and anger in the House
and Senate than and in the decades that led up
to the Civil War. The intense abolitionists of the North
and those in the South intent on protecting their right
to own slaves led to some ferocious battles. In the
thirty years leading up to the war, there were more
than seventy violent incidents between congressmen. One that really shocked

folks happened in May of eighteen fifty six, Congressman Preston
Brooks walked into the chamber carrying a cane. He always
used one since he'd been injured several years earlier in
another political confrontation. The pro slavery Southerner walked over to
Senator Charles Sumner, whacked him on the head with his cane,

and then proceeded to beat Sumner, a powerful abolitionist, until
he was unconscious. Brooks then walked out without anybody stopping him.
It took Sumner three years to recover. Brooks, meantime, was
considered a hero in the South. Can you imagine going
into the supposedly respectable congressional chambers and being scared out

of your wits for your well being and maybe even
your life, not from outsiders but guys working side by
side with you. But that attack on Charles Sumner wasn't
the start of it. Starting in the early eighteen hundreds,
senators and congressmen pretty regularly carried pistols or booie knives
when in session. In fact, as a civil war approached,

some constituents actually sent their congressmen guns to protect themselves.
In eighteen thirty eight, Congress was wildly divided between the
Whigs and the Democrats. An insult against congressman was considered
an insult against his whole party, and they believed that
challenging someone to a duel was the proper way to

defend the honor of the party. So while Congressmen Jonathan
Silly and William Graves didn't have any personal disagreement, they
got strong armed into a duel that neither wanted. Silly,
a Democrat, said something on the house floor that ticked
off a Whig newspaper editor. The editor then asked Graves,

a Whig, to deliver a letter to Silly demanding an apology,
but Silly refused to accept it, and before you know it,
the two had a duel date. They met for a
rifle duel, but problem is, neither one was very good
with a rifle, and they missed each other on the
first two shots. So they tried again a third time,
and Graves wound up shooting and killing Silly. Congress responded

to Silly's murderer with an anti dueling law in eighteen
thirty nine, but as the tensions between the North and
the South ramped up, the violence in Congress continued. In
another case, in the Arkansas State legislature, a House member
insulted the speaker during debate, and the speaker responded by
pulling out a bowie knife and murdering him right there

on the House floor. The killer congressman was expelled and
tried for murder, but was acquitted for what they called
excusable homicide. He was even re elected. Now, the problem
is that guy later pulled his knife on another legislator,
who was saved by all the other politicians who simply
started cocking their pistols, which they conveniently had on hand.

By eighteen fifty eight, tensions over slavery erupted into a
full fledged ideological and physical combat on the floor. This
happened just a year after abolitionists were enraged by the
Supreme Court ruling in the dread Scott case, which said
that black people couldn't be citizens and the federal government
couldn't ban slavery in western territories. A huge fight broke

out around two o'clock in the morning during an overnight session.
A Southern congressman grabbed a Northern representative by the throat
and said he would teach quote this black Republican puppy
a lesson. As the two white men fought, their colleagues
ran over and a full on group fistfight broke out.

As one historian put it, the end result was a
free for all fight in the open space in front
of the speaker's platform, featuring about thirty sweaty, disheveled, mostly
middle aged congressman in a no holds barred brawl North
against South. Two years later came the Civil War. So
when you ask yourself how bad could this election cycle get?

Remember the anger is not without precedence, and just maybe
the passion has something to teach us about listening to
another point of view. Hope you're enjoying the Backstory with
Patty Steele and that you will subscribe. And if you'd
like me to dig into a story, just DM me
on Facebook at Patty Steele or on Instagram at real

Patty Steele. I'm Patty Steele. The Backstory is a production
of iHeartMedia, Premier Networks, the Elvis Durand Group, and Steel
Trap Productions. Our producer is Doug Fraser. Our writer Jake Kushner.
We have new episodes free Tuesday and Friday. Feel free
to reach out to me with comments and even story

suggestions on Instagram at real Patty Steele and on Facebook
at Patty Steele. Thanks for listening to the backstory with
Patty Steele, the pieces of history you didn't know you
needed to know
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